What Makes Thai Food Spicy?

April 19, 2016
Thai cuisine creatively combines the five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savory), but it is also known for being spicy! Did you know that the ingredients that cause this ‘heat,’ which can range from a slow building burn to an intense and overwhelming fiery sensation, offer some surprising health benefits?

Common spices in Thai food

Many of Thailand’s most popular dishes contain one, if not several ingredients that make them spicy. This stinging, tingling sensation is most often caused by a combination of chili peppers, ginger, garlic, and peppercorn.

Chili peppers are popular around the world. Peppers commonly used in Thai cooking include: Bird’s eye chili (prik kee noo), Spur chili (prik chee fah), Karen chili (prik kariang), Serrano chili (prik kee noo kaset), and sweet pepper (prik yuak).

Ginger and garlic create a burning sensation in the sinuses, especially if eaten raw.

Black pepper from the peppercorn plant causes a sharp, pungent sensation on the tongue and inside the nose.

The science behind spicy food

The bioactive ingredient found in chili peppers that causes the intense ‘hot’ or spicy feeling on the tongue is a chemical called capsaicin. Ginger’s spiciness is caused by the chemical gingerol, that mellows a bit when cooked, but becomes more intense when dried. Garlic, when cut or bit into, produces a chemical called allicin. And black pepper consists of a chemical compound called piperine.

These chemicals bind to special receptors on your tongue, lips, and other parts of your mouth causing a burning sensation.

If consuming these spices causes pain, why then do people continue to eat them? The painful sensations on the tongue cause the brain to release endorphins and dopamine, which are ‘feel good’ chemicals that block pain and give the consumer a feeling of exhilaration.

Health benefits of spicy foods

Although spices such as chili pepper, ginger, garlic, and black pepper are added to Thai cuisine for the taste, there are health benefits too.

The active ingredient in chili pepper is beneficial to the respiratory system because it helps to clear up congestion in the lungs and sinuses. It has also been shown to reduce blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol levels, as well as act as an anti-inflammatory agent.

Ginger is a common remedy for upset stomachs and helps to treat nausea, morning sickness, motion sickness, and diarrhea. It also aids with digestion, reduces inflammation, and has antioxidant effects. It is commonly diced or crushed before being added to entrées, or sliced and allowed to seep in hot water to produce an herbal tea.

Garlic is used to treat conditions related to the heart and circulatory system such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. It also aids with the digestive and immune systems. Whole garlic cloves are usually crushed or sliced before being added to a dish.

Ground black peppercorn helps to prevent intestinal gas and has properties that promote sweating and urination. When consumed, it also alerts the stomach to secrete hydrochloric acid, which is necessary for digestion.

Proper nutrition is the key to great health

For more information about the healthy properties of the food you eat, speak to your nutritionist. You may be surprised at what other superfoods exist, both spicy and not, which may keep your body happy and healthy.

By Dr. Chulaporn Roongpisuthipong, Clinical Nutritionist, Diabetes Program, Bumrungrad Hospital
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