A common complaint I hear from spice newbies is that their palates just can't take hot dishes. And while I'm not one of those people who eats spicy food just for the sake of it, some of the world's best cuisines employ heat as an essential part of their flavor profile. So what's a globally-minded spice wimp to do?
If you didn't grow up eating spicy food, and don't have a natural tolerance for it, there's good reason to not to love it. The capsaicin in chiles is interpreted by the body as pain.* Plants developed capsaicin so we wouldn't eat them, which is enough to make you question why we started eating them in the first place. No wonder spice-fiends are often regarded as cultists by outsiders.
* Is there a German word for the awkwardness when your girlfriend gives your father a habanero burn—the first time they meet?
But chiles carry powerful, vibrant, and wonderful flavors that really are worth your while, even if they cause some pain. Here are some tips to strip chiles of (some of) their fire while keeping their flavor intact.
Buy Whole Chiles and De-seed Them
With pre-ground chiles, you're stuck with whatever heat level the blender decided to use. If you buy whole chiles to grind or soak yourself, you've got some options. Most of a chile's capsaicin lies in the pale membrane-like ribs that cling to the interior flesh, and to a lesser extent the exterior of the seeds. Remove those and you'll significantly cut down on a chile's heat while keeping its flavor intact. To de-seed, lop off the top half-inch of the stem end with a knife and dump out loose seeds. Rub the chile between your fingers to dislodge more seeds (wear latex gloves while doing this if you're really sensitive), then split the pepper in half lengthwise (like splitting a vanilla bean) and pick out the pale ribs.
You can use this same treatment on fresh chiles. Try it on poblanos and jalapeños to preserve their fresh, grassy flavor with less heat. You can also keep the chiles whole from start to finish, which locks in most of the capsaicin. My chili recipe, which packs in lots of chile flavor but not that much heat, calls for a habanero or two floated in the pot—they add a lovely tropical lilt to the chile without their blistering fire.
Stick to Relishes and Hot Sauces
There's nothing worse than summoning the bravery to cook a spicy recipe, only to realize it's too hot for you to eat. On the same note, every once in a while you find a freak chile that's way hotter than it should be. Short of adding more mass or burying your plate in sour cream, there's not much you can do to lessen the pain of a too-spicy dish.
That's why I recommend that spice newbies looking to increase their tolerance avoid adding much chile to a dish, and opt instead for fiery, pungent hot sauces, relishes, and chile pastes. Harissa is one of my favorites for this; it packs plenty of heat but also tons of flavor, with verves of cumin, garlic, and lemon. It's the perfect thing to spice up everything from workaday chicken breasts to more ambitiously (but gently) spiced Middle Eastern fare. Also look to fruity hot sauces that temper heat with sweet, bold flavors. Add these in small doses to build up your tolerance. Meat and starch are great starters, as they can absorb a good dose of heat before becoming unmanageable.
Balance with Acids, Sugar, and Fat
Look to most of the world's hottest cuisines and you'll see that spice is kept in careful balance with acidity, sweetness, and fat. Acids add sharpness that stands up well to chile heat. When tasted together, acids and chiles convey bright flavor over pure fire. Sugar and fat do the opposite—they round out flavors and mellow chiles out. Fats are especially effective at washing out some of the heat from fat-soluble capsaicin.
The best example of this I know is larb, one of my favorite salads, which is built on a platform of ground meat. It's hot—really hot when done right, but is rendered palatable by a bright, tart dressing, moderate amounts of rendered animal fat, and sweet toasted rice powder. When you have so many flavors going on at once, chiles really start to make sense. They become, in their own way, refreshing, like a big spoonful of sinus-clearing horseradish.
And Whatever You Do...
Water is not your friend. All it will do is spread the pain. Fat and casein, a protein found in milk, are. If you overdo the spice, have a lassi, some Thai iced tea, or a glass of kefir by your side and drink through the pain.