Going for the burn ... ‘Sriracha and other hot sauces have replaced salt on tables in half the restaurants in the land’ Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
The trend for hotter and hotter food is training our palates to go for the burn. But are hot sauces ruining our tastebuds?
It’s cool to go the burn. I’m usually behind the fashion, so I discovered this when I looked up from complaining that salt has been banished from restaurant tables only to discover it has been replaced by hot sauce.
Half the restaurants in the land are now sporting a bottle of sauce on the table so hot it can take the roof of your mouth off. And the really coolest places will have a dish the menu warns is “really f***ing hot’’. It makes sense, though. All the current food fads, from Korean fried chicken to Mexican everything practically demand the addition of hot sauce. Lots of it.
But there’s a theory going around restaurant land that it’s like napalm for palates of the next generation of diners.
Hot sauce certainly is an excellent masking agent for shoddy ingredients, and subtlety flies right out the window when dinner is measured on the Scoville scale. That elusive concept of balance is lost when the only thing you can taste is pain.
It’s terribly easy to imagine too though that this is causing permanent harm: that your tastebuds have died and gone to tastebud heaven when you’re peeling three layers of tongue off the roof of your mouth.
Actually it’s not really damaging for you. Here’s the science bit: capsaicin, the primary active ingredient in hot peppers, creates the impression of burn when it combines with the tongue’s TRPV1 receptor, which is responsible for the sensation of temperature. But the delicate tissues are absolutely fine, because it’s all in the brain. There’s no actual harm being done, says Russell Keast, a professor of food and sensory science at Deakin University – just the acute, searing, painful impersonation of harm.
Comforting, but that’s only part of the issue. Like most ordinary people who fall into a heat-appreciating level somewhere north of (metaphorically speaking) Delta Goodrem and south of the Marquis de Sade, the liberal application of chilli is the death of nuance. I can’t get excited about food I’m unable to taste after three bites. Yet this hot sauce thing shows no signs of abating.
So what’s a heat-fearin’ gal to do? Well, Keast says pretty much anyone can increase tolerance, which should allow you to taste what’s beneath the heat. Eventually the body will produce endorphins that help balance the pain. That’s the feel-good burn, like a runner’s high, that chilli aficionados boast about.
The only real option then may be to get match fit. At the moment a Mexican five-year-old could oust me in a chilli-eating competition, so I’m kicking off the campaign with Sriracha, the ubiquitous garlicky, vinegary red sauce with nominal ties to Thailand (although more commonly manufactured in the US). It’s tomato sauce for grown-ups, available in any self-respecting cafe to slather on innocent plates of scrambled eggs.
But Sriracha’s just the tip of the heat-burg. I’ll be moving up the ranks to Habanero tabasco, on to El Yucateco, Mad Dog and Black Mamba to finish triumphantly with Scorpion Strike, billed as the world’s hottest hot sauce.
What is excruciating today will tomorrow be merely very painful. I guess that must pass for a win.