Have you ever wondered what goes on in your mouth when you bite into a chilli? For some people biting into a chilli is jut about the worst thing you can possibly do. But for others it's hard to get through a meal without biting straight into a crunchy, raw hari mirch.
So what's going on? Are these two types of people somehow experiencing different things altogether? Is there something that makes some people react worse than others? If chilli makes your tongue feel on fire, is there something damaging happening to the skin on your tongue?
As it turns out, we weren't the only people asking that question. The folks over at The Scientific American were also wondering the same thing, and at a gastro-psychology symposium - yes, such a thing exists! - some fairly brainy people went about trying to figure out what actually happens when you eat chilli. For the full and technical article, read this, but if you don't want a science lecture, then here's a quick summary:
So basically, the thing that makes a chilli spicy is actually a chemical called capsaicin. If what you are eating tastes spicy, then somewhere in your dish is an ingredient that contains this naturally occurring chemical.
When capsaicin gets onto your tongue, it attaches to the same receptors that tell your brain when something is hot - temperature hot. Although capsaicin doesn't change the temperature of your mouth, it starts telling your brain that it's getting hot on your tongue, and your body starts reacting to the temperature change. That is why you can sometimes start sweating. But really, it's all in your head, which is why chilli isn't actually damaging even though it feels like it could be.
The conclusion of the article is that some people simply like the pain on your tongue when your brain thinks it's on fire. The buzz that it gives, combined with the flavours and aromas of the rest of the food you are eating keeps you coming back for more and more. It's all psychological really - gastro-psychological.
That's why hot sauce is becoming increasingly popular as the perfect condiment: it takes any dish you're eating and adds a burst of brain-confusing, tongue-tingling goodness to every bite... After all, jitna spice, utna nice!
So there you have it. That's what happens on your tongue, and you love it because you have trained your brain to love the pain.
Stay tuned for more chilli updates on the PICO blog. Until then, stay hot, stay saucy!