"Mama, jhal ta ektu beshi diyen!" — A sentence we all must have heard while munching on the already spicy fuchka on our plates. Or maybe you can't handle spice too well, like yours truly. No matter which team you are on, you will admit that smouldering our mouths in heat is a feat on its own.
The painful yet delightful sensation of chillies make us crave more. But why do we partake in this self-inflicted culinary torture even after being aware of the agonising bathroom breaks at the end of the day? The answer to that is capsaicin.
Capsaicin is the chemical compound found in peppers which impart the sensation of burning in your mouth by attaching itself to the pain-receptors on your tongue. These heat-receptors, or TrpV1 for the smart ones, activate when your body is exposed to high temperatures. Compounds like capsaicin and piperine send false alarms to the brain, tricking it into thinking that your body is literally ON FIRE. The brain combats this presumed danger by releasing neurotransmitters called endorphins which ward off the pain and perpetuate pleasure. Sweating is the body's natural way of cooling down, which is why we leak from our eyes and nose after we finish off a fiery feast.
The itch for devouring spicy food is not natural but acquired. Research says that spice tolerance does not depend on genetics rather your affinity towards hot foods. Your body learns to associate with this culinary masochism or in other words, hedonic reversal.
People have been using spices since forever and when we talk "spices" we dive into the eclectic world of culinary magic. Traditionally, spices were used in the warmer climates of the world. Bacteria breed in warm, humid temperatures and interestingly spices have antimicrobial properties. Chillies such as Naga peppers, ghost peppers and jalapeño not only possess the ability to quench the thirst of human heat-seekers but also make food safer to eat.
As much as these thrill-seekers love innocuously putting their lives in danger, the daunting task of chomping on chillies relies heavily on the circumstances and desire. The buzz that spicy food gives us is similar to a drug high. Our heart rates go up, sweat mists around our mouth while our tongue douses in molten lava. Adrenaline starts pumping and we experience an endorphin rush. We get similar effects from riding a rollercoaster or running a marathon but you don't see someone diving into a sweltering hot curry straight from the stove. Snacking on a smouldering treat simulates putting ourselves in danger without causing any actual potential jeopardy.
Most viral things on the internet grab attention because we find sincere and unguarded emotions fascinating. We are wired to enjoy risqué, over-the-top behaviours because the more the shock value, the more we're glued to the screens. Shows like Hot Ones and Heat Seekers have originated based solely on piquant platters.
And who doesn't like seeing celebrities crying out in pain from scalding their mouths with spicy food? We empathise over the social bonding from shared pain. These food challenges transfix our gaze and makes us eager to know the limit of how far they can go. Schadenfreude—as sinister the word sounds—is the pleasure we derive from seeing someone's misfortunes. Extreme food challenges have been circulating forever and considering our obsession with spicy food, these don't seem to stop any time soon.
Farnaz Fawad Hasan considers herself to be the fifth member of the Try Guys. Send her stuff to try at email@example.com