To the scrutiny of my Latino friends, I am one of those people who can't even handle mild salsa. In other words, spicy food and I don't get along very well. Meanwhile, I see people drowning their pizzas in jalapeños and Sriracha, and I wonder how they haven't managed to burn their tongues off. 

chili, vegetable
Photo courtesy of @laracr0ftt on Instagram

Spicy food is, in reality, just a trick of the mind. The signal received by the brain via the tongue is just relative to temperature. The pain receptors that receive the cooling sensation for spearmint, are the same receptors that receive the heating sensation for spice.

vegetable, relish, herb, mint
Julia Murphy

Being able to eat spicy food also happens to be a matter of built-up tolerance. Various cuisines such as Indian or Mexican tend to heavily spice up their food, so at a young age, children are already exposed to heat and naturally handle spicy food better. Once they become desensitized to heat, they are more appreciative of the other components that surround these flavors. There is so much more to spice than the heat that we immediately receive. 

coconut, chicken, curry
Photo by Maria Gabriela Jorge

As opposites attract, spice complements cooling flavors. Indian and Thai curries tend to be paired with coconut milk, which sweetens and cools the chilis and curry spices. Middle Eastern cooking has a cucumber yoghurt white sauce that pairs well with Halal chicken. It is simply a matter of balance.

Interested in upping your spice tolerance? Start small and go slowly. Instead of jumping into jalapeños, try adding paprika or poblanos to your mac and cheese. Have ice cream next to you because cold temperatures, dairy and sugar are perfect for combating that burning sensation. As someone who would like to handle spicy food better, I'd know that this is a good place to start. For those of you who could easily bite into a ghost pepper, may you forever enjoy salsa by the ladle full.