Hot and spicy food - where do we start?

If you're here, then you must want to learn more about hot and spicy food! Gone are the days when spicy eating meant exotic foods. Thankfully we have become so used to not only less bland food but also more international cuisine. And whilst we may think this is a recent trend, our fascination with hot and spicy food can be traced back to at least the Roman Empire. Long before this though, in ancient times, herbs and spices were used as medicines, perfumes and preservatives. The history of spices has spanned centuries and our obsession with their exquisite aromas and flavours has caused us to pillage, plunder and explore the world.

Hot and spicy foods are already eaten by a vast number of people around the world (at a very conservative estimate of 70% of the world's population) and it is not a stretch to say that there isn't a single cuisine which doesn't use herbs and spices in one form or another. And who can blame them? Those heady fragrant aromas of spices, the lively tastes on your palette, that warm, tingling sensation that seems to run through your body and not just your mouth......mmmm, mouthwateringly good!!!

But unsurprisingly, these are not the only advantages. There is a range of health benefits to be derived from eating hot and spicy food. See we knew we were on to a good thing here :-) Not that we need the justification for it, but please feel free to browse this enlightening section for more information.

But what makes food spicy? By definition (or certainly one of them) spicy means seasoned with or containing spice or highly flavoured. So in my opinion any food which meets this criteria can be considered to be spicy, even a sweet, creamy custard tart, rich with aromatic nutmeg. And whilst we would immediately think of using just spices, let's not forget that herbs also play a major role in the world of spicy food. Some herbs are in fact part of the same plant, or closely related to, some of the most popular spices we use (think dill seed and dill weed).

And what makes spicy food hot? The characteristic odour and much of the flavour of each spice is due to volatile compounds in the plant material. These aromatic substances are called 'essential oils'. Some spices such as ginger, pepper and cassia are known as pungent spices, although the first two are hot spices while the last is a sweet spice. However they all have a warming effect on the body. The same can be said of some herbs, like basil and mint. But for really fiery heat, that culprit is chilli (yes, it is a spice!) or more specifically capsaicin, the active component of chilli peppers.

But spicy food does not necessarily mean it should be peppery hot, although they do often occur together. Dishes can be as delicately or heavily spiced as you wish. In the family, our background and cultures are varied, as are our tolerances for hot and spicy food! So we try very hard to get the balance right, as it will mean the difference between spicy and spiced food.

However it doesn't always work - some members of our family are wary of anything we cook, for fear of it being too tasty, oops sorry, 'spicy'! For some reason, they always think we're trying to trick them into eating hot and spicy Never :-) Perhaps they would benefit from a visit to our Basics and Useful Definitions, to learn more...... here's hoping :-)