Think you can’t handle spicy food? Think again.

"Die Gartenlaube (1887) b 437" by Various - Scan from the original work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Dog Days” Illustration from “Die Gartenlaube (1887) – a German newspaper.

I never thought I could learn to tolerate spicy food, let alone love it.

The very idea of enjoying a cup of hot salsa once seemed as unlikely as camping at the North Pole.

But recently – somewhere between spooning hot chili sauce on my rice during dinner and eating a piece of ‘scorpion cheddar’ from the sample bin at Whole Foods (complete with warning label “eat at your own risk”) – I began to ponder my path towards eating food high on the Scoville scale.

Spice shop photo by Emna Mizouni.

Spice shop in Douz, Tunisia. Photo by Emna Mizouni.

What is the Scoville Scale?

Think of it as a game of Mercy… for your mouth. The Scoville scale was developed in 1912 by a man of the same name – Wilbur Scoville. At first sugar water is given to trained testers. Then, little by little, the hot part of the pepper (a.k.a. capsinoid extract) is added to the water until the testers feel the heat.

  • If a lot of extract has to be added before testers notice the heat then it’s a mild pepper.
  • If hardly any extract has to be added before testers notice the heat then it’s a hot pepper.

Thanks, Wilbur!

Wilbur Scoville (1910)

Wilbur Scoville (1910)

For reference: Bell peppers have no heat, while a pepper called the Carolina Reaper tops the charts at 2,200,000 Scoville heat units.

That Scorpion cheddar I nibbled?

It’s way hotter than a Habanero. For a few years it was rated the hottest pepper in the world by Guinness World Records at 1,463,700 Scoville heat units. Today it rates just below the Carolina Reaper.

It made me cough, but I went back for more.

Hope for highly sensitive palates


Unlike my daughter, pictured above, I didn’t grow up eating spicy food. Mom’s cooking had great flavor but the spiciest dish we ever ate was chicken paprika – mostly mild thanks to the cooling effects of sour cream. Living in Europe as a teenager did little to change things; France and Luxembourg are not known for their use of chili peppers.

So it stands to reason that when I began cooking a meal from every country in the world during my early 30’s I had a relatively sensitive palate. Back then I swore a scant 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper in a large batch of food was enough to make me sweat. Given my age, I had good reason to think it’d always be that way.

Heck, according to the New York Times:

For the uninitiated, a relatively mild hot pepper can seem intolerably strong and truly hot peppers may even cause blistering of the lips and palate. (Source)

But I was wrong.


Every continent has something to teach us about learning to love spicy food. Here 7 of my favorite lessons learned while cooking the world.

1. Start by celebrating raw “heat.”


Nordic Around the World Lunch

While Europeans are not known for their use of chili peppers, they are known for using raw “heat” in their food. Take these classic European combinations, for example:

Building raw heat is a great place to start for sensitive palates because the “burn” is mild at best (and doesn’t inflict actual pain the way chili peppers can).

If you find these ingredients too pungent (a.k.a. stinky), slice them extra thin and remove some of their bite by adding them to a glass of cold water for 30 minutes. As for spicy mustard, a thin spread goes a long way!

2. Use your nose

Eastern Asia

"Compare Hikimi Wasabi Color And Taste" by MIURA, Yuji - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Compare Hikimi Wasabi Color And Taste” Photo by Yuji Miura.

PRO TIP: If chili peppers hurt your taste buds, try the green mound of wasabi sitting next to your sushi.

The burning sensation from wasabi (a.k.a. Japanese Horseradish) is a short-lived flare up. The “pain” concentrates in your nasal passage (making your eyes water and nose burn more than your mouth).

Best of all?

The effect fades in 5-10 seconds.


Over the last several years I tripled my wasabi intake and learned to enjoy the ephemeral pain… not in a sadistic way, but rather in the way that every melody benefits from a little crescendo. Even my six-year old daughter goes heavy on the wasabi because she now trusts that the pain will end.

And soon.

3. Grow your tolerance bite by bite

Western Asia

"ARS-habanero" by Stephen Ausmus - This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID D812-5 (next).This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.English | français | македонски | +/−. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“ARS Habanero” Photo by Stephen Ausmus.

I once saw a grown man eat a couple of whole Habanero peppers on a dare. His face turned red and sweat pooled on his forehead. Then he got sick to his stomach.

I don’t get that all or nothing mentality.

Taking enormous spoonfuls of spicy curries will backfire if you have a sensitive palate – likely turning you off spicy food indefinitely. Take a cue from Bhutan: even though spicy peppers are so commonplace to be considered a main course (see ema datshi for example), hot peppers are not one of baby’s first foods.

Instead mothers help their babies grow accustomed to the heat by serving them foods in spicy sauces… but here’s the key: They “baby bird” the food into their kid’s mouth.

Bhutanese eat chilli raw or cooked, minced or roasted, but no Bhutanese dish is complete without ema. And young toddlers are initiated in the art of chilli eating early on. Parents pick meat or vegetables from the chilli dish, suck it to moderate the heat, and then feed their child, who breaks into a sweat but quickly adapts.

Ema:The fiery Bhutanese food (by Wangdi and Yeshi)

Here’s the win: The amazing flavor remains … but with tolerable heat levels.

TRY IT AT HOME: Dig a hunk vegetable or meat from your curry and tap it on the edge of your bowl. Let the offending sauce drip off or consider dunking the hunk into a small bowl of water to rinse it further.

4. Chill out!

Middle East/Asia, North Africa & the Americas

Ok. So you’ve bitten into something a little spicier than you’d like. Your eyes are watering and you’re certain your irritated taste buds will never recover.

Here’s the good news: Just about any spicy dish can be tamed with a heaping dollop of plain yogurt (or perhaps one of these yogurt based recipes). Over the four years it took to cook the world, yogurt was my go-to way to help lessen the pain of a good spice burn. Not only is yogurt cold but it contains a protein called capsein that helps neutralize the kick from the capscaisin in your food.

PRO TIP: Keep plain yogurt on hand when serving spicy food

Thanks to this tip, my daughter was able to enjoy a very spicy Ethiopian dish called doro wat (she’s vegetarian so she limited her tasting to the hard-boiled eggs and a bit of the screaming-hot sauce. Every bite was followed (hastily) by a spoonful of yogurt.

Sour cream and crema in Latin America works the same way, for the record.

5. Embrace the habit

Southern Africa

As I cooked meals south of the Sahara I noticed the pervasiveness of spicy food.. in everything. Well, maybe not everything. But hot peppers made their way into most meals – from groundnut soup to several recipes including piri piri sauce.

Here’s the 411: The more spice you eat, the more accustomed to it you’ll get.

After four years and 195+ countries I have a much higher tolerance for spicy food. While I still don’t like eating foods so hot that I can’t taste anything, that threshold is higher now. If I were to stop eating spicy food for 4 years I guarantee I’d be back to square one.

TRY IT AT HOME: Going forward add one spicy dish to your weekly menu every week. That means on week 2 you’re eating 2 spicy dishes, on week 5 you’re eating 5!

Eating spicy food is a skill you must hone, no different than playing the piano or practicing calculus.

Use it or lose it.

6. Find the right pepper for the job

South America

There’s no reason to jump straight into eating Carolina Reapers.  In the beginning I ate a lot of recipes with Poblano peppers – they were plenty spicy for me. Gradually I moved through the Scoville ranks – the occasional Jalapeno, Anaheim, or red Fresno all helped me build tolerance. In any recipe calling for a hotter pepper, feel free to substitute something more mild.

PRO TIP: If you’re not sure what pepper to choose, ask the grocery clerk. Most good stores will have a produce specialist on hand to help you.

7. Sweeten the pot

North America & Oceania & beyond

Ever hear of adding chocolate to a pot of chili? What about sweet and spicy barbecue sauce on a rack of homemade ribs? Throughout North America you’ll find sugar being used to balance the heat in spicy dishes. If you accidentally go overboard, try adding some to your dish. It’ll help.

In Oceania and India I’ve seen fruit used in curries – another great way to sweeten the dish and give your smarting taste buds some relief.

PRO TIP: Sugar or fruit takes the edge off of spicy food

Ready, set, go!

You’re now equipped to embark on a mission to try more spicy foods. With these tips, you’ll be well on your way to learning to love spicy food… with minimal pain to your tastebuds.

Of course, these are just the tricks and tips I’ve learned over the years; let me know in the comments if you have additional ideas!


    • Sasha Martin says

      Ohhh… I’ve never had any ghost pepper either – maybe in four more years 😉

  1. I tried that scorpion cheddar at Whole Foods last week, because I can’t pass up free cheese even if it’s named after a stinging animal. I immediately regretted it. But you bring up a good point: a few years ago I would have been reduced to a whimpering, slobbering mess, but having upped the spiciness ante over time, watering eyes were about the worst of it. So I must be improving my tolerance after all!

    • Sasha Martin says

      I wonder if they sampled the Scorpion cheddar out all over the country?! Interesting. Sounds like you’re on track though. If you can sample that without rushing to the nearest fountain you’re doing great!

  2. Janet Goodell says

    I am becoming more accustomed to heat as I follow you around the world. One thing that encourages me is growing some chilis of my own. Last year’s are dried and crushed. I have cayenne blossoming now, plus some unknown variety. The selection in local markets is limited, so next year, I may grow more, but will have to pickle or dry to preserve. Short Montana season is a limiter.

    • Sasha Martin says

      So awesome! Would love to see pics. Do you find when you dry them yourself the bite is stronger?

  3. Nancy Collins says

    Thank you so much for the encouragement and helpful tips on how to adapt to spicier cuisine! (I’m very tender-tongued compared to my husband and daughter.)

  4. As a Sri Lankan I grew up eating hot food, but now I can only handle it only in moderation. Maybe 4 times a month or so. Otherwise I am in the toilet. My Dad used to eat green Chili just plain and now he is suffering from a badly damaged stomach lining or some such ailment.

    I think the key is an artful blend where chili does not take center stage but adds to the flavor. For example adding one green chili to our Ceylon Cinnamon lentil curry makes the flavor really stand out. It’s subtle, almost imperceptible. The Indians for example use too much spices that is over powering to the point where you only taste the spices and not the meat or the vegetable in question. They do say less is more. But then again, this Indian tradition of adding a heavy dose of spices and chili was to preserve the food since they did not have refrigerators those days. In fact anything hot was probably used as a preservative so food would not spoil.

    But great post Sasha. The best way to do it if you want to get used to some Chili. I must send this to my Argentinian friends who with a few exceptions do not eat spicy hot food.

    • Sasha Martin says

      It’s hard to imagine how much one has to eat to actually damage the stomach etc. Sorry to hear about that!

  5. elisa says

    this is “one hot ticket” …hahaha….had to throw that out I remember this as something Mom used to say <3
    I like hot and spicey…once in a while… <3 love you sis <3

  6. Pam the Goatherd says

    I like some heat in my foods but I’m deathly allergic to anything in the nightshade family so peppers of any sort are completely out of the question for me. I’ve learned that a good dose of garlic and/or ginger and freshly ground black pepper (since peppercorns are NOT from the nightshade family, thank goodness!) can warm up a dish quite nicely. Oh, and dry mustard powder is another way to warm up some food.

    My husband has built up such a tolerance for hot peppers that when we eat out at an Indian or Asian restaurant he has learned to ask for “Indian Hot” spice level. The server always asks him if he’s absolutely certain that he wants his food that hot. We don’t know if they still restrain the level of Scoville units or if hubby truly has trained his body to be able to handle really hot spicy food, but there has only been one time in his 57 years of life that he has gotten a meal that was too hot for him to handle.

  7. Charlie The Addict says

    As a young(er) kid, I found anything that had even the slightest of ‘heat’ to it as too much to handle, now I can eat spicy meals easily up to things reading 250, 000 Scoville units and just about manage to withstand up to just short of 800, 000 or so.

    Itt’s like a sport or a game, if you work to progess GRADUALLY, your ‘ability’ to tolerate ‘hotter and hotter’ food will get better.

  8. Matt Brewster says

    My life would be a lot easier if I could eat anything even remotely spicy! These are good suggestions, but I think there are people like me who just cannot do it even after years and years of trying. It’s still an unappetizing, painful, horrible experience. So my sisters continue to roll their eyes and put up with me when we go out to eat.

  9. Mr Coffee says

    I have some of the hottest hot sauces an extracts. Mad Dog 357 Plutonium number 9 is insane ! Carolina reaper is good. Pepper X is the name for a Capsicum chili pepper bred by Ed Currie, creator of the Carolina Reaper. Pepper X resulted from multiple cross breedings which produced an exceptionally high content of capsaicin in the locules of the pepper.

    Scoville scale: 3,180,000 reported SHU

    Origin: Rock Hill, South Carolina, USA

    Good luck getting your hands on this pepper, you need a license to obtain it !

    I dab Mad Dog 357 Reaper on pizza it’s great! I love when the cousins try to act like a bunch of badass’s , then when the hot sauce meets their mouth they cry like little girls!

    Current favorite : Mad Dog 357 Reaper

  10. Isaac Kalder says

    What’s the point of making an Article telling people they should learn to tolerate, and eventually love Spicy Food? That people who don’t like Spice, and don’t like Pain are doing it wrong, and that everyone in the whole world “SHOULD” all love Spicy Foods, and that they all would if only they would just man up, and learn to tolerate it?! WRONG!!!

    This is yet another arrogant “If You Don’t Like What I Like, You’re Living Life Wrong, And Need To Learn To Like What I Like. My Way Is The Only Way” article. GOD do I HATE you’re doing it wrong articles.

    Spice isn’t the only way. That’s like saying people who don’t like Straw Berries are doing it wrong, or people who don’t like Sweet Things are doing it wrong.

    Spice isn’t for everyone, and it sure as Hell aint for me either. Pain is not for everyone, and that doesn’t make them Weak, Cowardly, or Overly Sensitive, or Thin Skinned either. Or, if it does, it needs to be accepted, and embraced as equals to the Thick Skinned Ones.

    It’s not about knowing, or not knowing that the pain is only temporary, and will go away. It doesn’t matter that it WON’T hurt in the future. All that matters is the here, and now, and that it hurts in the present right this very second. So what? Because it will go away in the future means the pain was never real, and doesn’t matter right now while I’m currently feeling it it? Like EXCUSE ME?!?! That’s a really stupid argument to make. That’s like saying, you should let me pinch you really hard, pull your hair, or pepper spray you because the pain doesn’t last forever, and will eventually go away. Well duh. NO pain lasts forever, but why does that mean we should HAVE to go, and purposefully seek it out right now in the current moment?

    It doesn’t matter how long the pain lasts. All that matters is that it burns right this very second, and that is 100% unacceptable for me. I shouldn’t HAVE to feel ANY burn, or pain for any amount of time unless it’s something that life just throws at me, and then the point is to try to get rid of that pain in any way possible, and as fast as possible. But not seek it out for no reason other than to just show off how “Masculine, and “Cool” I am.

    The only point in eating Spicy Foods is for a man to make himself feel superior to all of the Spice, and Pain Haters. It’s a Masculine, and Patriarchy thing. Nothing less, and nothing more.

    I am an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) and I don’t like ANY pain for any amount of time. The fact that Spicy Foods burns at all is enough for me to not eat them period. I don’t care about building up a tolerance because I don’t care if I am missing out on some flavor that doesn’t effect, or bother my current life style one way, or the other as it is. I mean, I am the eat at McDonald’s as my main food type of guy every day anyway.

    Building up a tolerance for Spicy Foods that I don’t care about one way, or the other anyway is not worth it for me just to eat something I don’t like anyway. Just so I can end up sick, and with Stomach Ulcers like Adam Rich Man? Yeah, no, I think I’ll pass.

    Spicy Foods, and pain just makes me miserable, and effects me 10x worse that it does most other people, and it emotionally damages me in the sense that the memory of it is still bad. I’m easily traumatized, and so bad things, and pain stick with me well after they are physically over. I cannot handle static shocks AT ALL either, and is one of my most hated sensations. So much so that I am permanently terrified of touching anything metal, have a Metal Phobia, and take forever to shut the Car Door, and shut it using the Window, much to everyone else’s annoyance.

    I have NO tolerance for pain, and as such cannot handle, or tolerate Spicy Foods, and am not willing to do what it takes to build it up either. I just don’t care to. I hate, or rather LOATHE all Spicy Foods, don’t like tasting them, smelling them, touching them, being in the same room as them, or even looking at them on TV.

    Then again, I’m one of the many people who don’t believe in No Pain, No Gain either, and believe the phrase was invented by an insensitive jerk who has no understanding of sensitive people. I also advocate for not having to step outside of your Comfort Zone, and tell people that if they want to stay in it forever, there is no shame in that. After all, my entire life is in my Comfort Zone, and I have everything I need within it, and care not for anything outside of it. I aint ever leaving it for nothing, or no one.

    All in all, there is nothing wrong with not being able to handle Spicy Food, and Pain, and not being willing to build up a tolerance for it either. There’s nothing wrong with just avoiding it all together.

    Life is too short to worry about what you are missing out on. All that matters is that if you are happy with how you are doing things, and don’t care about what you might be missing out on, then you’re doing it right, and living life correctly no matter how limited that life may be.

    I don’t think that makes us Sensitive Ones Cowards, or Thin Skinned either. It just means we are accepting of who we are, and not willing to change that just so we can adhere to Society’s expectations, and vision of everyone being Super Tough, Macho, and Masculine, and Thick Skinned who can do anything.

    No, Spicy Food is not for everyone. No, not everyone can handle Spicy Food. No, they should not have to build up a tolerance for it. No, there is nothing wrong with avoiding Spicy Foods, and living a Spice Free Existence.

    The only people who should build up a tolerance for it are those who actually WANT to build up a tolerance for it, those who like Spicy Food already, and like the taste but just can’t handle the Spice, and for those who feel they are missing out, and wanted to build up a tolerance for it, BEFORE seeing this article. And no, wanting to out of shame that articles like these try, and push on people doesn’t count either, but rather, it has to be people who actually genuinely want to.

    But for those who are like me, who hate pain in all forms, and hate the burn, and feel that building up a tolerance for Spicy Foods is not worth it, and doesn’t serve our purposes anyway, and just don’t care to, and genuinely hate all that is Spice, then no. We shouldn’t build up a tolerance for it. We should all just keep doing it the way we’re doing it which is avoiding it forever.

    Some Cultures are brought up in a Non Spicy Environment as well, and it’s better to just leave them be, and let them keep to their Non Spicy Traditions. Spice is not for every Culture. It’s only for the Cultures who were brought up in it. There’s really no point in trying to convince all of the different Cultures to try each other’s foods. After all, even if all of the Culture’s remained segregated food wise, they wouldn’t know what they were missing out on anyway, and thus their lives, and happiness wouldn’t be effected by their lack of Spicy Foods one way, or the other, and they would all die the same without trying out other Culture’s foods the same way as they will die having tried out all of them.

    My stomach thanked me for it too, and I have been better off, and healthier ever since I decided to quit trying to build up a tolerance, just accepted myself for who I am as a Spice Hater, and cut all Spicy Foods out of my diet.

    Trust me, I’m better off, and much happier without it, and just being myself for once. If that makes me a Wimp, then oh well. I guess I’m a Wimp then. I’ll proudly own my Wimpery.

    I made my choice years ago. The choice is that living a 100% spice free existence is the right path for me, and I plan on religiously staying on it for the rest of my life.

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