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Chiles are definitely one of the most important ingredients in my cooking and—not coincidentally—in many of the world’s cuisines. I would argue their importance is not because they have a hot or spicy chemical taste, but because they create critical perceptual spaces in the process of tasting. These “spaces” allow us to enhance our perception of different foods and flavors. If you cannot perceive flavors, then they are simply not there. Perception is reality.
Most of my thinking on taste has been influenced by my academic work in anthropology on culture and perception. What we see, what we hear, and what we taste is learned. It is not just chemistry. The critical factor is not the physical stimulus but how the individual organizes and perceives that sensual information. During the last few years there has been an explosion of new findings on the sense of taste from the world of neuroscience.
One of the leaders of the this is Dr. Gordon M. Shepard, a professor of neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine. He is the author of the revolutionary book Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters, which coined a movement. In his latest book is Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine Shepard states that “The taste is not in the wine; the taste is created by the brain of the wine taster.” My own thinking on taste has always been one less built on pure biochemistry, but one that taste is a pattern of cultural perception, which reflects the encultured brain, the synthesis of the brain and culture or neuro-anthropology.
Tasting is a very complex sensual process that involves both our bodies and our minds. The body provides information but the brain needs to organize and interpret that information as taste. When we taste food or beverages, we are using not only the chemical receptors in our taste buds, but the neural receptors in our mouth that perceive both texture and temperature; our olfactory system, and our memory. The sum of all these informational systems into a single perception is called taste. If we also take into consideration that our olfactory system is simultaneously sending thousands of different signals to the brain before, during and after eating, then we can conclude that tasting something is not a simple reductive linear process.
Chiles create breaks in the continuous flow of chemical-neural paths of the primary tastes. Contrary to popular belief, these chile spaces do not block other flavors but they rather help us perceive them better.
Thus, if an input of sensual information is too fast for the brain—or too jumbled, or overlapping—you cannot make sense of it. Think of listening to a scrambled radio message or watching a chaotic video message, with multiple messages canceling each other out, there is no clear discernible single message. Or else, think of trying to read the lettering on a racing car that is traveling at over 200 mph, or being able to grasp each individual picture of a movie that runs at over 24 frames per second, or hearing ultrasonic waves that dogs can hear. These sensory signals are beyond the range of comprehension of normal human perception. Sensual information must be organized into patterns of recognition in order for them to be understandable for us; otherwise, it’s meaningless. These patterns of recognition are culturally learned and they include our sense of taste. Recipes are another example of culturally learned patterns.
Chiles provide another sensual path of information during eating, one that is independent of the primary flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Chiles create breaks in the continuous flow of chemical-neural paths of the primary tastes. Contrary to popular belief, these chile spaces do not block other flavors but they rather help us perceive them better.
Chiles create a sensation of ‘spiciness’ or ‘hotness’ that is similar to the same neural response as the temperature receptors recording a thermal variation. But the response to chiles does not depend on temperature. The importance here is that these neural pathways have priority over the normal taste ones, and they are not blended together, as they are linked to the necessary auto response system to protect the body from physical harm: if it’s too hot and dangerous for the body, you record pain. We normally rid ourselves of the source of danger before it creates more damage to the body, so although these ‘hot’ messages from chiles don’t originate from a temperature variation they result in the same cognitive priority as if they did. This phenomenon is our physiological way of breaking up super dense systems of sensual information that come from complex foods into more easily recognizable patterns; i.e. enjoyable ones. What we have created culturally in our recipes is patterns of perceptions that we enjoy more. This vividly illustrates how cultural patterns are creative ways of enhancing our senses.
Chile ‘spaces’ break up and redefine the input of this deluge of sensory taste stimuli into smaller packets of organized information, so they actually help us define taste in a similar manner as negative space in art, which allows us to better appreciate the forms in a painting.
Negative space defines positive form. It lets us observe the artist’s expressive intention, giving us the opportunity to ‘read’ a painting. The same happens when breaks of silence reveal the rhythm of a musical composition, something dancers depend on in order to stop and go in a ballet performance. All forms of perception require definition, or an agent that ‘orders’ the sensual information. Think about why we cannot see the stars during daytime but only at night, when the darkness allows us to see the light differentiation. The darker it gets, the easier we are able to spot the stars because of the contrasting inputs. So, it is with chiles: they provide another context during tasting that allows us to differentiate between the contrasting stimuli that define what we are tasting.
Almost every culture has adapted to some sort of spice or seasoning that acts like a chile would: strong, spicy and initially not easy to enjoy.
It is easier for the brain to understand and read sensual inputs by using contrast as a tool of perception. Red is redder next to green in the color wheel; they define each other by being opposite. We get to know something not by what it is, but by what it is not. The more we can taste what is not, the better we are able to taste it. It seems illogical but that’s the way the brain works. While chiles are not flavors, or one of the primary tastes, they contrast and define the actual flavors, so we can more easily taste them. Another example of contrasting inputs is when you butter a piece of toast. If you were to eat the same amount of plain butter on a spoon by itself, you would reject is as ‘tasty’ because it would be too rich. Nobody eats a stick of butter but many people can eat a whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s Caramel Fudge Toffee Swirl. The brain is more interested in different inputs mixed to create a more interesting pattern. This becomes evident in our classic sandwiches, like peanut butter and jelly, a BLT, or ham and cheese.
Chiles are important not because they are tasty but because they help us taste and define other flavors. They positively affect our sense of perception, but one first has to learn to eat them in order to understand and like them. It’s always funny to me that the very people who say they cannot stand spicy food because they say “it blocks flavors or is unpleasant” are the same ones that drink lots of coffee (which is so naturally bitter and tannin-rich that that it may also block subtle flavors, and of course it has to be learned to be liked as well); or they are wine-lovers, or enjoy malt whiskeys and IPA beers. Some of these drinks are commonly rejected when we taste them for the first time, and children openly regard them as unpleasant, but over time we can teach our minds to like them, regardless of our first taste impressions.
Almost every culture has adapted to some sort of spice or seasoning that acts like a chile would: strong, spicy and initially not easy to enjoy. They include saffron, mustard, black pepper, wasabi, horseradish, thyme, and it is because they all enhance the taste of foods. They create a contrast and differentiate within the eating process that brings up taste and pleasure. They do not change or hide the food. They embellish, enrich and enlighten it.
So why are chiles the most commonly used spice in the world today? And why do almost all cuisines embrace them when they are introduced? The answer is because they improve the cuisine’s creative possibilities, and extend its sensual expressive range. In defining taste, chiles define what we eat, and who we are. Chiles activate the sense of being in this world; of being alive. Chiles are truly the spice of life.