I Am Joe’s Blog:

September 9, 2004 • 12:10 AM

Measuring Spiciness

As explained in this article on Tabasco sauce, there is an objective, scientific way to measure the spiciness of foods; peppers or hot sauces subjected to this test get a rating in Scoville heat units. Unfortunately, these measurements are never used where it counts: on menus in Mexican, Szechwan, and Thai restaurants. The menus sometimes have little chile symbols, or sometimes just asterisks, that are supposed to indicate how spicy a dish is. But these symbols are arbitrary, they vary from one restaurant to the next, and they are nearly always (in my experience) meaningless.

Even worse: the suggestion “Specify desired level of spiciness.” I do, but they never take me seriously. Maybe I just look like some lightweight gringo who can’t handle his capsaicin, but no matter how spicy I order my food, it’s almost never even hot enough to make my eyes water, which is beginning to approach “hot enough” in my book.

A case in point: One day I went to a Thai restaurant and ordered the dish on the menu with the most chiles next to it. The waitress asked how hot I wanted it. I said, “Extremely hot.” She looked at me with a concerned expression. “Extremely hot?” she asked. “Incredibly hot,” I replied. The concerned expression turned to a puzzled, worried look. “Wait a minute, do you want it extremely hot or incredibly hot?” Clearly, we were experiencing a communication failure.

I tried a different tactic. “I want you to make it as hot as it possibly can be,” I said. The waitress paused for a moment to let this sink in, then gave me a horrified expression, as though I had just asked her to set me on fire. Finally, she said, slowly, “You mean…like death?” “YES!” I exclaimed, delighted that my message had finally gotten through. “Hot like death. Exactly. Please.” She regarded me severely for another moment, wrote something down on her pad, and disappeared into the kitchen.

When the dish arrived, it was noticeably spicy—I’m going to go out on a limb and say maybe two out of four peppers. But not death. Not even “pass-the-hanky” hot. What a disappointment.

Comments

  1. John Cooper
    September 9th, 2004 | 3:32 pm

    Joe, where do you live? Although it’s possible you have a higher Scoville tolerance than I do, my tolerance is pretty high, and in Seattle, it’s not hard to find places that are willing to challenge it. (In particular, Seattle has about as many Thai restaurants per capita as Chicago has bars, maybe because Sea-Tac is a hub for the Thai airline. So if if a Thai restaurant doesn’t make it spicy enough for me, it’s easy to find another that does. There’s also a very non-Americanized Mexican restaurant about three blocks from my house, and when I order a torta ahogada extra spicy, by God, it comes that way!) It seems that the more restaurants of a particular ethnicity a region supports, the more likely it is that individual restaurants are willing to risk cooking in an individual style, whether the style is expressed in spiciness or some other distinguishing trait.

  2. John Cooper
    September 9th, 2004 | 8:32 am

    Joe, where do you live? Although it’s possible you have a higher Scoville tolerance than I do, my tolerance is pretty high, and in Seattle, it’s not hard to find places that are willing to challenge it. (In particular, Seattle has about as many Thai restaurants per capita as Chicago has bars, maybe because Sea-Tac is a hub for the Thai airline. So if if a Thai restaurant doesn’t make it spicy enough for me, it’s easy to find another that does. There’s also a very non-Americanized Mexican restaurant about three blocks from my house, and when I order a torta ahogada extra spicy, by God, it comes that way!) It seems that the more restaurants of a particular ethnicity a region supports, the more likely it is that individual restaurants are willing to risk cooking in an individual style, whether the style is expressed in spiciness or some other distinguishing trait.

  3. John Cooper
    September 9th, 2004 | 3:37 pm

    I see from your other entries that you live in San Francisco, where there is a huge number of ethnic restaurants, so perhaps your tolerance is several standard deviations beyond the norm.

  4. John Cooper
    September 9th, 2004 | 8:37 am

    I see from your other entries that you live in San Francisco, where there is a huge number of ethnic restaurants, so perhaps your tolerance is several standard deviations beyond the norm.

  5. Carole Walker
    September 9th, 2004 | 3:49 pm

    You should bring along your own supply of chili pepper seeds. I once had spagetti in a restaurant and unknowingly sprinkled on the whole container of innocent looking seeds that accompanied it. Joe, even you would have been satisfied!

    Does anyone understand exactly how capsaicin(?) ‘burns’ your tongue. Can it do physical damage – or is it all just our brain’s perception of ‘heat’?

    I really want to know! I’ve thought about this off and on for years.

    (BTW, there’s a Canadian science show that’s been on our public radio (CBC) station for years. They have a special show that’s devoted to answering listeners’ questions. David Suzuki was on of the original hosts before he went to television with ‘The Nature of Things’.)

  6. Carole Walker
    September 9th, 2004 | 8:49 am

    You should bring along your own supply of chili pepper seeds. I once had spagetti in a restaurant and unknowingly sprinkled on the whole container of innocent looking seeds that accompanied it. Joe, even you would have been satisfied!

    Does anyone understand exactly how capsaicin(?) ‘burns’ your tongue. Can it do physical damage – or is it all just our brain’s perception of ‘heat’?

    I really want to know! I’ve thought about this off and on for years.

    (BTW, there’s a Canadian science show that’s been on our public radio (CBC) station for years. They have a special show that’s devoted to answering listeners’ questions. David Suzuki was on of the original hosts before he went to television with ‘The Nature of Things’.)

  7. Joe Kissell
    September 9th, 2004 | 4:52 pm

    John: It may be that I have an exceptionally high tolerance for hot foods, but it’s equally likely that I’ve simply had an extended run of bad luck choosing restaurants over the years. (I recall, incidentally, that one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in San Diego did an admirable job of clearing my sinuses.) It’s just that it happens so consistently…and in fact it happened again just last week.

    Carole: According to what I’ve read (see, for example, this Wikipedia article), capsaicin only produces the sensation of heat, not actual chemical burning (though the relevant nerve endings are found not only on the tongue but in the eyes and other sensitive membranes). I also read that birds (or at least some birds) do not have this reaction to capsaicin, and can eat as much pepper as they want without any ill effects.

  8. Joe Kissell
    September 9th, 2004 | 9:52 am

    John: It may be that I have an exceptionally high tolerance for hot foods, but it’s equally likely that I’ve simply had an extended run of bad luck choosing restaurants over the years. (I recall, incidentally, that one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in San Diego did an admirable job of clearing my sinuses.) It’s just that it happens so consistently…and in fact it happened again just last week.

    Carole: According to what I’ve read (see, for example, this Wikipedia article), capsaicin only produces the sensation of heat, not actual chemical burning (though the relevant nerve endings are found not only on the tongue but in the eyes and other sensitive membranes). I also read that birds (or at least some birds) do not have this reaction to capsaicin, and can eat as much pepper as they want without any ill effects.

  9. Jackie Chappell
    September 10th, 2004 | 3:03 pm

    I can confirm that parrots (at least) seem to be capsaicin-resistant. Many upmarket parrot mixes now contain dried chillies, and it’s hilarious to watch them chew away on a chilli, apparently completely oblivious to the heat. At any rate, they don’t go diving for the water dish, or stand there with their beaks open, huffing (like I do when eating chillies).

  10. Jackie Chappell
    September 10th, 2004 | 8:03 am

    I can confirm that parrots (at least) seem to be capsaicin-resistant. Many upmarket parrot mixes now contain dried chillies, and it’s hilarious to watch them chew away on a chilli, apparently completely oblivious to the heat. At any rate, they don’t go diving for the water dish, or stand there with their beaks open, huffing (like I do when eating chillies).

  11. John Cooper
    September 10th, 2004 | 4:34 pm

    Carole: According to Amal Naj’s Peppers: A Story of Hot Pursuits, capsaicin (the chemical in hot peppers that is responsible for their pungency) has no injurious effect on the tongue or the stomach lining, “exposing sensitive tissue to pepper can land a person in the hospital.” Naj quotes a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine that describes the case of a man who prepared chicken with peanuts and red pepper after sanding furniture. Capsaicin from the red chiles entered his abraded fingertips, which had to be treated with lidocaine gel after acute pain radiated “up his arms in throbbing waves,” causing dizziness and distress. A vinegar bath is also reported to give relief, even after more than thirty minutes. Ice water, however, makes things worse. More amusing is the coinage by two University of Texas physicians of the word “jaloproctitus” (burning defecation) after studying participants in a jalapeño-eating contest. Speaking for myself, I’ve observed painful redness on my hands after cleaning very hot peppers. But other than temporary inflammation of the skin, I’ve never seen nor heard of any physical injury caused by chilis.

    The same book also reports that the Indian-born conductor Zubin Mehta always carries a small box of dried chilis from his own garden. When he ate at the exclusive New York restaurant Le Cirque, the waiter would take the box and the chef would put the peppers in Mehta’s food.

  12. John Cooper
    September 10th, 2004 | 9:34 am

    Carole: According to Amal Naj’s Peppers: A Story of Hot Pursuits, capsaicin (the chemical in hot peppers that is responsible for their pungency) has no injurious effect on the tongue or the stomach lining, “exposing sensitive tissue to pepper can land a person in the hospital.” Naj quotes a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine that describes the case of a man who prepared chicken with peanuts and red pepper after sanding furniture. Capsaicin from the red chiles entered his abraded fingertips, which had to be treated with lidocaine gel after acute pain radiated “up his arms in throbbing waves,” causing dizziness and distress. A vinegar bath is also reported to give relief, even after more than thirty minutes. Ice water, however, makes things worse. More amusing is the coinage by two University of Texas physicians of the word “jaloproctitus” (burning defecation) after studying participants in a jalapeño-eating contest. Speaking for myself, I’ve observed painful redness on my hands after cleaning very hot peppers. But other than temporary inflammation of the skin, I’ve never seen nor heard of any physical injury caused by chilis.

    The same book also reports that the Indian-born conductor Zubin Mehta always carries a small box of dried chilis from his own garden. When he ate at the exclusive New York restaurant Le Cirque, the waiter would take the box and the chef would put the peppers in Mehta’s food.

  13. Joe Kissell
    September 10th, 2004 | 4:47 pm

    John is right about water making things worse. Caspaicin is soluble in oil, not water. So when eating spicy foods, one way of extinguishing the fire is to eat something oily (buttered bread, say, or even a spoonful of olive oil). I’ve also found that eating plain steamed rice helps, I’m guessing because it absorbs the oil.

  14. Joe Kissell
    September 10th, 2004 | 9:47 am

    John is right about water making things worse. Caspaicin is soluble in oil, not water. So when eating spicy foods, one way of extinguishing the fire is to eat something oily (buttered bread, say, or even a spoonful of olive oil). I’ve also found that eating plain steamed rice helps, I’m guessing because it absorbs the oil.

  15. Ray Keller
    June 23rd, 2005 | 8:16 pm

    John: (et al)

    I was raised in the SouthWest. Mom and Dad used to eat jalapenos whole. I grew up in there tradition. Although I don’t prefer to eat jalopenos whole–I often, like many SouthWesterners (NM & TX) eat jalapenos and serranos with my Mexican food. I like Mexican food that makes my scalp sweat and my glasses fog up. A Scoville experience. But like Joe, I have been dissapointed very many times.

    Which brings me to a joke related to your post above. Seems that a man went to a very good Mexican food restaurant, which served very pungent food with peppers. His scalp sweated and his glasses fogged up, but he kept on eating, and munching on serranos and jalapenos and in finality had an exquisitely happy endorphin high. He consumed so much pungency that his blood pressure went down, and he felt imminently safe from cancer. Happy stressless serenity prevailed. So he had a big bowl of ice cream for dessert.

    When he went home, however, “Jaloproctitus” set in, and his wife could hear him crying from the bathroom, “Come on ice cream.”

    Some fun sites: http://www.chilepepperinstitute.org/FAQ.htm capsaicin

    http://www.horseradish.org/

    http://www.horseradish.org/facts.html isothiocyanate

    http://www.chemsoc.org/exemplarchem/entries/mbellringer/endorphins.htm

    PS I have searched for the most pungent horseradishes as well. The best I have found so far are: Royal Bohemian Nitro (made in Wisconsin) and Atomic “Extra Hot” (made in CA)

  16. Ray Keller
    June 23rd, 2005 | 12:16 pm

    John: (et al)

    I was raised in the SouthWest. Mom and Dad used to eat jalapenos whole. I grew up in there tradition. Although I don’t prefer to eat jalopenos whole–I often, like many SouthWesterners (NM & TX) eat jalapenos and serranos with my Mexican food. I like Mexican food that makes my scalp sweat and my glasses fog up. A Scoville experience. But like Joe, I have been dissapointed very many times.

    Which brings me to a joke related to your post above. Seems that a man went to a very good Mexican food restaurant, which served very pungent food with peppers. His scalp sweated and his glasses fogged up, but he kept on eating, and munching on serranos and jalapenos and in finality had an exquisitely happy endorphin high. He consumed so much pungency that his blood pressure went down, and he felt imminently safe from cancer. Happy stressless serenity prevailed. So he had a big bowl of ice cream for dessert.

    When he went home, however, “Jaloproctitus” set in, and his wife could hear him crying from the bathroom, “Come on ice cream.”

    Some fun sites: http://www.chilepepperinstitute.org/FAQ.htm capsaicin

    http://www.horseradish.org/

    http://www.horseradish.org/facts.html isothiocyanate

    http://www.chemsoc.org/exemplarchem/entries/mbellringer/endorphins.htm

    PS I have searched for the most pungent horseradishes as well. The best I have found so far are: Royal Bohemian Nitro (made in Wisconsin) and Atomic “Extra Hot” (made in CA)

  17. September 1st, 2005 | 11:33 am

    […] I’ve had a real run on surprise goodies recently. Last month, a reader who’s a professional photographer sent me a lovely print from a Moxy Früvous shoot he’d done in the early ’90s. A couple of weeks ago, I received a large gift basket of hot sauces, which I agreed to review and write about as a follow-up to my Interesting Thing of the Day article on Tabasco Sauce and my blog post about Measuring Spiciness. (Stay tuned. The wheels of progress are spinning slowly this summer.) A couple of days ago, I received two CDs from This American Life, courtesy of a reader I’d helped out with some technical questions. Just this morning, the Fisher Space Pen Company offered to send me a prototype of their latest model for testing—with purple ink, natch—as a result of my article on Space Pens. And yet another message in my Inbox this morning was from a reader and regular correspondent who wanted to know if he could buy me a gift subscription to Z Magazine. […]

  18. September 2nd, 2005 | 3:26 am

    I’ve run into the same problems at restaurants myself. I have a new trick, and usually it works. I first ask the server if the the chefs have control over how spicy a meal is. They usually answer, Yes. I then say, “Great. I have a challenge for your cook. If he can make it so spicy hot that I can’t finish it, I’ll give him $20”.

    It’s basically giving them permission to kill you with food. Because face it, there’s too many jerks out there in the past that have ruined it for us: Asked for it REALLY spicy, and then couldn’t eat it, demanding it to be remade.

    Seems to work well. Always fun.

    Nice blog. You’ve been ACTIVE!!

  19. September 1st, 2005 | 7:26 pm

    I’ve run into the same problems at restaurants myself. I have a new trick, and usually it works. I first ask the server if the the chefs have control over how spicy a meal is. They usually answer, Yes. I then say, “Great. I have a challenge for your cook. If he can make it so spicy hot that I can’t finish it, I’ll give him $20”.

    It’s basically giving them permission to kill you with food. Because face it, there’s too many jerks out there in the past that have ruined it for us: Asked for it REALLY spicy, and then couldn’t eat it, demanding it to be remade.

    Seems to work well. Always fun.

    Nice blog. You’ve been ACTIVE!!

  20. Lance Wheeler
    June 7th, 2006 | 7:29 am

    Last year I was in Oshkosh for the EAA fly-in and one night at dinner the bar tendor gave me a 4 oz. bottle of Royal Bohemian Cream Style Nitro-Hot Hoese Radish (made in Wisconsin). FANTASTC!!!! But now the bottle is empty and I have not been able to locate a new supplier. Do you know where I can find it.

    Thank’s Lance

  21. Lance Wheeler
    June 7th, 2006 | 12:29 am

    Last year I was in Oshkosh for the EAA fly-in and one night at dinner the bar tendor gave me a 4 oz. bottle of Royal Bohemian Cream Style Nitro-Hot Hoese Radish (made in Wisconsin). FANTASTC!!!! But now the bottle is empty and I have not been able to locate a new supplier. Do you know where I can find it.

    Thank’s Lance

  22. July 24th, 2006 | 3:10 pm

    Joe, my wife and I own a Thai restaurant, NoodleSwing – Thai Cafe in Flower Mound, TX just outside of Dallas. We love very hot food also. If you come this way please stop by. We will make sure you get the SPICY FOOD YOU LIKE TO HAVE. Sorry about all the disappointments. Do call us when you come. Our phone number is 972-355-9799. See you when you come this way!

  23. July 24th, 2006 | 8:10 am

    Joe, my wife and I own a Thai restaurant, NoodleSwing – Thai Cafe in Flower Mound, TX just outside of Dallas. We love very hot food also. If you come this way please stop by. We will make sure you get the SPICY FOOD YOU LIKE TO HAVE. Sorry about all the disappointments. Do call us when you come. Our phone number is 972-355-9799. See you when you come this way!

  24. July 25th, 2006 | 6:55 am

    Lance: Sorry, I don’t know of any sources. If a Google search can’t find it for you, I’m not sure what else to suggest.

    Pote: Thanks for the tip and the kind offer! I lived in Dallas about 13 years ago but haven’t been back since. If my travels ever take me that way again, I’ll look you up!

  25. July 24th, 2006 | 11:55 pm

    Lance: Sorry, I don’t know of any sources. If a Google search can’t find it for you, I’m not sure what else to suggest.

    Pote: Thanks for the tip and the kind offer! I lived in Dallas about 13 years ago but haven’t been back since. If my travels ever take me that way again, I’ll look you up!

  26. Butch
    October 9th, 2006 | 2:46 am

    I agree, I have never found food that was too hot. Lance, the maker of Royal Bohemian horse radish passed away this past year (at least that was what I was told at Open Feilds 06) it was some great stuff, like a hammer hit between the eye’s, lol.

    Butch

  27. Butch
    October 8th, 2006 | 7:46 pm

    I agree, I have never found food that was too hot. Lance, the maker of Royal Bohemian horse radish passed away this past year (at least that was what I was told at Open Feilds 06) it was some great stuff, like a hammer hit between the eye’s, lol.

    Butch

  28. October 9th, 2006 | 8:47 pm

    Butch: Thanks for your comment.

    Incidentally, this story has a coda; it’s on The Geeky Gourmet at Torchbearer Hot Sauces.

  29. October 9th, 2006 | 1:47 pm

    Butch: Thanks for your comment.

    Incidentally, this story has a coda; it’s on The Geeky Gourmet at Torchbearer Hot Sauces.

  30. Sean Daly
    February 3rd, 2007 | 9:29 pm

    Hi, I know this thread started back in 2004, but I hope you don’t mind me sharing a story, pretty much the complete opposite of what Joe experienced at the Thai restaurant. This happened at, of all places, a diner next to a golf course driving range in Connecticut – go figure. They had chicken tenders on the menu listed as Regular, Spicy, Crazy, and Madness. Having had similar experiences before where they doubt my ability to handle spicy, I asked for the Madness. The waiter said, “Are you sure?” in a menacing tone. Not to be deterred, I said, “Do your best…” trying to sound just as menacing. All I can say is… I lost. This dude blanketed those chicken tenders with the hottest sauce I’ve ever tasted in a restaurant, possibly the hottest I’ve ever had in my life. I mean, I’ve chewed on habanero peppers before, eaten jalapenos and laughed. These chicken tenders kicked my butt! After one bite followed by a lot of bread, I had to admit defeat. My buddy went back in the kitchen to find out what sauce it was. Unfortunately I was in too much pain to go look.

  31. Sean Daly
    February 3rd, 2007 | 1:29 pm

    Hi, I know this thread started back in 2004, but I hope you don’t mind me sharing a story, pretty much the complete opposite of what Joe experienced at the Thai restaurant. This happened at, of all places, a diner next to a golf course driving range in Connecticut – go figure. They had chicken tenders on the menu listed as Regular, Spicy, Crazy, and Madness. Having had similar experiences before where they doubt my ability to handle spicy, I asked for the Madness. The waiter said, “Are you sure?” in a menacing tone. Not to be deterred, I said, “Do your best…” trying to sound just as menacing. All I can say is… I lost. This dude blanketed those chicken tenders with the hottest sauce I’ve ever tasted in a restaurant, possibly the hottest I’ve ever had in my life. I mean, I’ve chewed on habanero peppers before, eaten jalapenos and laughed. These chicken tenders kicked my butt! After one bite followed by a lot of bread, I had to admit defeat. My buddy went back in the kitchen to find out what sauce it was. Unfortunately I was in too much pain to go look.

  32. February 3rd, 2007 | 10:09 pm

    Sean: That’s a great story. Thanks!

  33. February 3rd, 2007 | 2:09 pm

    Sean: That’s a great story. Thanks!

  34. April 13th, 2013 | 2:53 pm

    […] as a follow-up to my Interesting Thing of the Day article on Tabasco Sauce and my blog post about Measuring Spiciness. (Stay tuned. The wheels of progress are spinning slowly this […]

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