Hot & Bothered

Once a rite of passage for stag-night dares, chillis have become an ubiquitous ingredient while every fridge in the land now boasts an array of hot sauces. What fans this flame?

By Joe Warwick

February 14 2023

The delicious sting of chilli has always brought out the grinning masochist in me, with one notable exception. It was just over a decade ago, during a spell working frontof- house at Ned Conran’s Soho Mexican, El Camion, when I discovered that even I have my limits when it comes to feeling the burn. The dining room had an impressive display of hot sauces that covered the full spectrum of the Scoville scale, the recognised unit of measure for a chilli’s potency.

A customer had asked, as they often did, to sample a particularly fearsome-looking vial. I can’t remember the brand, but I recall that it had a pipette with a rubber dropper, most likely had a skull and crossbones on its label, and might have been called something like “Colon Cleanser”.

Aware of the dangers, I handled it with care, delivered several drops, listened to the groans of pleasure and pain, then headed immediately to the bathroom to scrub my hands. I thought nothing more of it until the end of the evening when, after a call of nature, I headed home.

As I strolled through Soho I noticed a gentle tingle in my loins, one completely unconnected to running the late-night gauntlet of massage parlours touting for business. By the time I’d reached my bus stop on Regent Street, the sting had spread south. A little later, as I climbed the stairs to the top of the night bus, “Little Joe” was very much on fire.

At some point I must have rubbed my eyes, because I started crying and found myself temporarily blinded. I remember managing to call my then-girlfriend – now Mrs Warwick – and explaining that (with apologies to the Kings of Leon) my sex was on fire and I couldn’t see. Suspecting – incorrectly in this instance – that drink had been consumed, she refused to meet me and guide me home, instead pointing out rather tersely that my bus went past St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington and perhaps I should make my way to its Casualty department.

A tasting at the Tabasco Factory store on Avery Island, Louisiana – birthplace of the world-famous hot sauce
A tasting at the Tabasco Factory store on Avery Island, Louisiana – birthplace of the world-famous hot sauce

That sorry incident aside, which provided a potent practical demonstration of why pepper spray is such an effective deterrent, the tingle and sweat of chilli has always put a smile on my face. It began when I was a teenager at a local Tandoori, with pints of lager to soothe the burn. Then I discovered the chilli-fired heat of Thai, Mexican, Korean, Jamaican Jerk seasoning, and Portuguese Piri-Piri, and went on a trip to Louisiana to visit the Avery Island birthplace of Tabasco, the world’s most famous hot sauce. Shortly afterwards I went through a phase of always carrying around a small bottle of Tabasco attached to a souvenir key ring and became a member of the Tabasco Club – an occasional gathering of restaurant folk of the old school who met for lunch on an irregular basis to eat a menu that made use of the fiery, rusty-red condiment in every course.

Extensive studies have been conducted into why so many of us crave the so-called “benign masochism” of chilli. Apparently it comes from the same place that lead many of us to watching sad or scary films, riding rollercoasters, and sky diving. It’s about initial perceived danger giving way to pleasure, when we realise that we’ve been fooled and we’re going to be fine, our brains are rewarded with a juicy hit of mood-boosting dopamine. At the same time we’re getting high on endorphins, the same natural painkillers that we get from sex and exercise. That’s why chilli – and more specifically capsaicin, which activates the chemical within that produces the burning sensation – can be considered a drug, one which we can build up a tolerance to and crave, although addiction is not as yet something you can attend group therapy for.

Chilli peppers evolved their (un)pleasant heat to deter us and other animals from eating them, but we have since conditioned ourselves into enjoying the very sensation originally designed to scare us away. We’re kinky like that. As Yale psychologist Paul Bloom notes in How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans – language, rationality, culture, and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

Words with which I must agree, albeit with one caveat: Only when orally administered.

Joe Warwick is the author of the bestselling
Where Chefs Eat. Follow him on Twitter,
@joewarwick and Instagram, @joe_warwick.