How to build spicy food tolerance
We all have that friend who always shies away from spicy food. You’ve never seen them eat a McSpicy, and jio-ing them for mala hotpot is definitely out of the question. Perhaps that friend might even be you, and that’s why you’re reading our guide in the first place.
Sure, we all know the tried-and-true method of gulping down a glass of milk whenever your mouth is on fire. But for the moments when you might not have milk by your side – or if you’re lactose intolerant – here are some other tips and tricks to calm the heat in your mouth and train your taste buds so that one day, you can finally have buffalo wings without breaking a sweat.
1. Pair every bowl of spicy food with carbs like rice
Mala fried rice
Image credit: Eatbook
Mala hotpot is often accompanied with platters of meat and just a small serving of white rice or noodles. While that might work for those with tongues of steel, those with weaker spice tolerance might want to pile on the carbs, especially starchy options like glass noodles.
The starch helps to soak up the capsaicin – the chemical in chilli peppers that makes it hot – in spicy foods and distributes it so each mouthful of mala fried rice isn’t as painful. This is also why curry is often accompanied by fluffy loaves of bread and even roti.
While there is no special ratio for X amount of carbs to X amount of spice, it’s recommended to have more starch than less so there’s room for absorption of the spicy food.
2. Drink high-ABV alcohol like baijiu and vodka – but not beer
Image credit: Badagnani
There’s a reason why legit Sichuan cuisine is paired with shots of the Chinese liquor baijiu. The high alcohol content in the spirit dissolves some of the capsaicin, balancing out the extreme heat that the region’s food is known for.
If you don’t have a bottle of baijiu nearby, you can also drink spirits with a similar alcohol by volume (ABV). The Chinese spirit averages around 50%-60% ABV, and the only comparable spirits that even come close are vodka and whisky.
We’ll stay well away from beer as a pairing to spicy food though. The coldness only temporarily numbs the pain, and you’ll soon feel a burning sensation on your lips again, no thanks to its low ABV.
Warning: Drinking too much alcohol will still get you inebriated, and we do not condone binge-drinking just to help with the pain.
3. Have a cup of your favourite BBT with milk on hand
Thai milk tea can also help sooth the burn
The chances of you having a cup of your favourite bubble tea is a lot higher than you having a glass of milk by your side as you’re walking into your regular zichar stall. Yes, the milk in your BBT will also be able to chill your mouth from the heat of that sambal kang kong you’ve always been wanting to try.
Even though it’s not as concentrated as a full cup of fresh milk, the casein protein in milk will still break down the capsaicin and wash it away, just like how soap washes away oil on dirty plates.
Plus, this method might be more preferable to those who hate gulping down a glass of milk straight up.
4. Order ice lemon tea or lime juice with your mala
Image credit: Tyler Nix
If you’re a lightweight drinker and lactose intolerant, don’t fret – you still have some beverages to try to help with your spicy-food tolerance like iced lemon tea or lime juice. These two particular drinks have the acidic content from their respective fruits that neutralises the capsaicin of chilli peppers.
Or if you’re brave enough, you can take a bite from the lemon and lime that some restaurants provide with their dishes. Just make sure that your iced lemon tea isn’t the weak, packeted version that comes from vending machines.
5. Add loads of peanut oil to the dish
Peanut gravy mala noodles? Yes please.
One unexpected ingredient that actually helps to remedy mouths on fire are peanuts. The most effective form is peanut butter, but if that’s out of reach at the restaurant you’re at, perhaps peanut oil would work as a replacement.
The fat in peanut oil works similar to how milk and dairy breaks down the capsaicin in spicy food. Similar nutty oils like sesame oil – which is one of the main dipping sauces at hotpot eateries like HaiDiLao – will also work to reduce the spiciness of food.
Drizzle some oil on your mala noodles or rice to diffuse some of the heat; dipping your mala-infused meats into your own oily dipping sauce can also do the trick but at the risk of contaminating it with spicy oil.
6. Start with mild sauces like sriracha or sweet chilli
While the above tips are quick tips to soothe a burning tongue and throat, some of you might want a long-term solution to building a better tolerance for spicy foods. But rather than going straight into the deep end with a spoonful of Lao Gan Ma, we suggest starting small first by incorporating mildly spicy sauces like sriracha and sweet chilli into your everyday diet.
Consistency is the key here; once those sauces are no kick to your taste buds, you can then upgrade to tabasco sauce and spicier ingredients like jalapeño. Soon, you’ll be able to join your pals in a spicy food challenge.
Bonus: Opt for warm to hot water instead of cold
It’s very natural to reach for a glass of cold water to numb and hopefully cool your mouth with each bite of your McSpicy. But contrary to popular belief, cold water is only a temporary fix to your tolerance problems.
Instead, ask for a glass of warm to hot water the next time you’re sweating from eating all those mala skewers. It “heats” up your mouth to make the spice a bit more tolerable, and then the water swishes all the capsaicin away from your tongue and taste buds into your stomach to be digested.
But it should be noted that water is probably the worst option when it comes to alleviating the pain from spicy food out of all the other tricks on this list. Mala noobs will be bloated with water in their bellies before they finish their meals, and no one wants to feel like a water bag while dining out.
Spicy food tolerance hacks
Not everyone was born with taste buds that can tahan the strongest chillies of the world, and that’s okay. Those of us who have a weaker tolerance for spicy food can eventually train our mouths to eat sambal kangkong and “spaghetti from hell”. Just remember to start small and always have a cooling beverage on hand – but not cold water!
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Cover image adapted from (L-R): Tyler Nix, Eatbook