I was blessed with a mom who was a spicy food addict. From a young age, I remember chugging glasses of milk to be able to tackle her five-alarm chili. And working for Chile Pepper magazine has increased my spice tolerance, what with having to participate in taste-tests dedicated to hot sauces, salsas, and other fiery products. But for anyone new to the spicy food world or who just wants go to the next level, here are six ways to do it.
1. Start Small
Begin by dousing your mac and cheese with extra black pepper or sprinkling crushed red pepper flakes into your soup. Seema Vora, an Integrative Health Practitioner in NYC, recommends a spicy diet to her clients due to a variety of health reasons (stimulating metabolic rate, lowering blood pressure, etc), and recommends starting out by using ketchup spiked with a couple drops of Tabasco.
2. Savor the Flavor
Modern Spice author Monica Bhide says to focus on tastes and aromas that make you want to keep eating. Just remember to keep restraint. "The number one mistake most people make when spicing their food is using too much of a spice. Fresh spices, used sparingly, add great flavor," she says. Also, add one spice at a time to figure out if you enjoy its flavors before muddling a dish with several types of spices and flavors.
3. Increase the Spice... Slowly
When your taste buds get accustomed to these small measures of spice, bring it up a notch. Try adding seeded, chopped chiles to your meals. Start with milder ones like poblanos and cubanelles before moving onto jalapenos and serranos. A friend of mine who worked up his spicy tolerance advised this: "It needs to be somewhat gradual, but don't be afraid to go a little too spicy sometimes. You don't have to douse every meal with hot sauce, but if you want to stretch your tolerance, then you need to have an occasional meal that leaves you with a burning mouth. It's like exercising a muscle—no pain, no gain."
4. Keep It on the Side
Marie Oaks, head chef of the Bosque Village in Mexico, often cooks for groups of people, needing to balance the spicy fans with those who aren't. One successful way she's found to do this is by serving spicy sauces or salsas on the side, so each person can add to their liking. This idea is especially useful if you are trying to increase your tolerance while other people in your family may not be as interested in doing so.
5. Have Coolants on Hand
Have a little milk to go with your meal or mix a spoonful of sour cream into the salsa. Dairy products go a long way in taming any spicy pain. "A great tip is to have spicy food with something that is a natural coolant for the body. For example, Thai food tends to be spicy but they use a lot coconut milk, which is cooling," Seema says. "You will also find that Indian and Mexican food tends to have cilantro or lime, which are both cooling and help to ease the powerful effect of spicy food."
6. Don't Force It
Not everyone's stomach can handle spicy foods. If you repeatedly experience pain after incorporating spiciness into your diet, then stop. It's not for you.
How have you increased your tolerance to spicy foods?