Spicy Food

Spicy food not only brings exciting tastes to the menu, recent studies have shown that it may actually be good for your health. Find out what is behind the heat in spicy food and how to incorporate spicy ingredients into your cooking.

People all around the world share a love for hot foods and spices. Whether it's a chicken curry dish, jalapeno cornbread, or wasabi with sushi, spicy foods bring an exciting taste sensation to life. While you might often visit Mexican or Indian restaurants to get this spice in your diet, you may not know the facts behind that spicy food or how to bring those spicy ingredients into your own cooking. And, the benefits of cooking with hot, spicy ingredients extend beyond just taste! While Recipe4Living offers an extensive collection of spicy food recipes, we would also like offer a guide to understanding where the spice comes from in spicy foods and how you can safely use this spice.

Bring on the Heat- While you probably know that chili peppers are the chief culprit of spice in spicy foods, these ingredients also contribute to a food's heat or bite:

  • Garlic- Garlic is a bulb in the same family as onions and leeks. Eaten raw, garlic is sharp and acrid, but small amounts of garlic are added to many different dishes for a heightened flavor. Elephant garlic is more closely related to the leek and since it is much less intense, is often considered the garlic for people who don't like garlic.

    Garlic Tomato Dip

    Spiral Herb Bread

    Orange-Rosemary Salmon

    Garlic Chicken Pizza

  • Ginger- Ginger is a pungent root, prepared in a number of different ways. It can be powdered for a spice, crystallized in sugar syrup, or pickled in paper-thin slices as in the accompaniment to sushi. You probably would not want to eat a piece of raw ginger root.

    King's Hawaiian Bread

    Gingerbread Waffles

    Japanese Broiled Mackerel

    Chateau Chang Mojave Wings

    Glazed Pork Medallions with Soy-Laced Peach and Ginger Sauce

  • Horseradish- Despite its reputation for clearing out your sinuses, the root of this perennial plant still takes people by surprise. The bite and aroma of horseradish root emerges only when it is ground, causing volatile oils known as isothiocyanate to be released. Vinegar stops this reaction and can be added at different points based on how much bite is desired in the final product. Japanese horseradish, or wasabi, is actually from a different but related plant and causes a similar hot sensation which burns the sinuses more than the tongue. Since wasabi is expensive even in Japan, most Japanese restaurants in America use a regular horseradish paste that is dyed green.

    Corned Beef & Cabbage with Horseradish Sauce

    Snappy Cheese Spread

    Wasabi Salmon

    Roast Beef and Red Pepper Sanwiches

    Turkey Medallions with Orange Teriyaki Sauce

  • Turmeric- Much like ginger, turmeric spice comes from an underground stem and is a main ingredient in most curries and curry powders. While you probably wouldn't call turmeric hot on its own, the root is certainly warm and aromatic. The chemical curcumin in turmeric gives curry powder its bright saffron yellow color, and is responsible for the spice's kick.

    • According to a study done in England, people can experience something akin to addiction to curries because they provide a natural high from the stimulation of the senses. Check the article out here.

    Cholay (Curried Chick Peas)

    Thai-style Tilapia

    Tandoori Chicken

    Aromatic Middle Eastern Soup

  • Chili Peppers- The source of the most heat in spicy cooking, all chili peppers contain a colorless, tasteless compound called capsaicin. These natural substances produce the burning sensation in the mouth, perspiration, tearing, etc. Capcasin is primarily found in the peppers "placenta," or the white ribs that run along the pepper, and the seeds which are in contact with the ribs. The pure, primary compound is so intense that a single drop diluted in 100,000 drops of water would still cause your tongue to blister. The amount of capsaicin in chili peppers varies greatly between the different varieties and is measured in Scoville Heat Units. Check out the Pepper Guide below for an idea of what peppers are the hottest, and make sure to check below for tips on handling and eating chili peppers.

Green Chili Casserole

Chicken in Mole Sauce

Smoked Habanero Lemon Barley Mushroom Chicken Soup

Scampi Fiero

Grilled Pork Chops with Poblano Cream Sauce

Eat Spicy Food for Your Health- Capsaicin in chili peppers, turmeric, and other spicy ingredients have been extensively studied for their health effects. While a commonly held belief is that spicy foods cause stomach ulcers, recent studies have shown that this might not be the case. For example, a study done in Thailand and Brazil, where hot peppers are used extensively in cooking, found no higher incidence of stomach ulcers in the populations. Although scientific research is still going on, spicy food may have many health benefits.

  • Digestive Aid- Garlic, ginger, and turmeric are all known as being digestive aids. Even hot peppers work to simulate stomach secretions for digestion. Garlic actually increases bile production, detoxifies the body, and reduces the production of stomach gases. Ginger is often used to treat nausea and has been found to be more effective than drugs like Dramamine in reducing motion sickness (without drowsiness). Turmeric, a stimulant, also helps to raise your energy level.
  • Anti-Cancer- Based on studies done on the unusually low rates of cancer among Asian people, many researchers believe turmeric may help to inhibit the growth of certain cancer cells. Believe it or not, hot peppers contain over 300 percent more vitamin C than oranges, which also helps to prevent cancer cell growth.
  • Anti-Heart Disease- While turmeric has been found to lower cholesterol, the winner is this category is chili peppers. Capsaicin in chili peppers has been found to work as a natural anticoagulant, helping to prevent heart attacks and stroke. Capsaicin has also been found to reduce high blood pressure.
  • Cure-all- Garlic is considered a cure-all in many different cultures because of its many different uses. In addition to those already cited, garlic works as a natural antibiotic, an antioxidant in combination with Vitamin E, and boosts the immune system by being a source of selenium.

Chili Pepper Guide- The hottest peppers are at the top of the list in descending order, measured in terms of Scoville Units. For your reference, chipotle peppers are simply smoked jalapeno peppers.






small, lantern shaped

Scotch Bonnet


small, irregular shaped

Jamaican Hot


compact with thin skin



long, thin



bright red, pungent



small, pointed



yellow, larger



smooth, dark green



small, bulb-shaped



dark green with rich flavor

New Mexico


bigger, varied in color



short, red, wrinkled

Bell Pepper


round and mild

Sweet Italian


green, long and sweet

Cooking with Heat- You should always be careful when cooking with chili peppers, especially the hottest varieties.

  • Wear gloves when working with the hottest peppers. The capsaicin in the hottest peppers can cause a severe burning sensation on the skin. If you do get burned (Hunan Hands), coat your hands with vegetable oil rather than water because capsaicin is oil soluble. Wash your gloves and hands immediately after working with the chili peppers.
  • Never EVER touch your eyes, nose, or mouth until you have washed your hands. Keep your face away from the blender or pot when preparing or cooking with chilies.
  • Some chili varieties, like Poblano and New Mexico varieties, have a tough outer skin that must be removed. This is done by heating the chili to blister the skin which can then be removed.
  • To remove the skin, cut a small slit in the side of each chili and roast with direct flame. The best way is on a grill, turning occasionally to prevent burning. Once the chilies are mostly browned, put them in a large bowl covered with a paper towel to steam them. Let them cool for 30 minutes to an hour. After that, it should be easy to peel the pepper.

  • To neutralize some of the burn while eating chilies, keep some bread or crackers nearby. Both absorb the capsaicin in the pepper. Lime or lemon juice mixed in water also helps to extinguish the burn.

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