Would you like your puttanesca with a dose of red pepper flakes, your udon noodles with chili garlic sauce, your fish sandwich with tons of Tabasco? No thanks, you say? Hold the spice? Well, while many cuisines boast a high degree of spice in their dishes–and while many eaters love hot food, whether or not they grew up with it–some eaters simply can’t tolerate spice.
Though scientists don’t fully understand the biological background for liking, not liking, or merely tolerating spice, they do pinpoint our spice sensitivity to the trigeminal system, according to Popular Science. That means we register spice as a sensation–like pain!–not as a taste. In this case, the pain comes from capsaicin, the spice molecule in peppers.
So if your goal is to have everything taste delicious and be painless, bookmark this list and leave the elements out of your recipes. (If you love spicy food, it’s a different challenge: try as many as you can!)
A North African hot sauce made with garlic and oil–and hot red peppers, of course.
Red chili paste
From Southeast Asia, this paste comes already equipped with Thai flavors, like lemongrass.
There’s a seaside town in Thailand called Si Racha–and that’s where this beloved sauce with the rooster on the bottle originally hails from.
All-American Tabasco is made on Avery Island, Louisiana, delivers a slightly vinegary punch along with its heat. We love tiny Tabasco bottles!
In small quantities, even spice-haters can tolerate ginger and mustard, but ramp up the amounts and you’ll be running for a cold beer.
Real wasabi is related to horseradish and cabbage and delivers a short-lived heat similar to horseradish. Most of the wasabi you see in your Japanese take-out, however, isn’t actually wasabi; rather, it’s a mixture of horseradish, mustard, and food coloring.
Pungent horseradish is usually served grated and mixed with vinegar, as a condiment for roasts or fish. The root has a peppery punch, though the spicy feeling doesn’t last all that long in your mouth.
Whole Grain Mustard
Mustard is enjoyed worldwide, in all kinds of preparations, and with all kinds of pairings. The spiciness doesn’t always come out, however, but the warm heat comes through in large quantities, in whole grain mustard, and in mustards labeled clearly as hot.
Ginger root can contribute a mild heat to stir-fries and teas, but using a lot of minced fresh or dried ginger will make spice-haters pucker in pain.
Like whole grain mustard, mustard powder has the warm heat of the other brassica plants–horseradish and wasabi–and is a great way to balance out rich dishes, like macaroni & cheese.
Peppercorns & chilies
Dried Thai Chilies
Thai cuisine makes fantastic use of bird’s eye chilies in noodles, soups, and stir-fries, and though fresh chilies can really enliven the dish, these whole dried peppers are easier to keep around.
You probably already know the jalapeño from its frequent appearances, well, everywhere. You can actually control the heat of the medium-sized green pepper by preparing it in slightly different ways.
So many recipes call for freshly ground pepper that we forget peppercorns can be more than an everyday spice. In fact, those black peppercorns, once thought of exotic because they came all the way from India, have a complex and delicious heat. So, once in a while, try using more than a sprinkle to flavor your food.
Red Chili Flakes
A pantry staple, the flakes are made of dried, pulverized red chilies–a pinch is all you need to spice up pizza, pasta, or any dish that needs a kick.
Despite their name and appearance, Szechuan peppercorns aren’t related to black, white, green or even chili peppers. But rather than spice, the peppercorns deliver a quintessential tingly menthol feeling.
A sweet-spicy soybean-based chili paste often used to garnish the Korean rice dish bibimbap.
These flakes deliver a bright, light spice, complex and slightly reminiscent of cumin.