Are things getting too hot in the kitchen?

Are things getting too hot in the kitchen?

Chili peppers are one of the foods some supertasters can’t tolerate.
Chili peppers are one of the foods some supertasters can’t tolerate.
Chili peppers are one of the foods some supertasters can’t tolerate.

By Lynda Rego

I don’t like chili peppers or cayenne. Or broccoli rabe and other bitter greens. Or espresso (unless it’s in tiramisu). Or sriracha. Or ponzu. Or any of the other hot sauces some chefs seem to think are necessary in the most unexpected dishes.

I used to think my taste buds were just wusses. Then, years ago, I came across an article on supertasters and there it was — a description of my taste buds! The term was coined in 1991 after a study by Linda Bartoshuk at the Yale Medical School.

Supertasters, according to Wikipedia, experience “the sense of taste with far greater intensity than average. Some 35 percent of women and 15 percent of men are supertasters.”

That doesn’t means we are “better” tasters. My husband has a better sense of taste than I do. He can tell what type of container his milk came from. Or, sample a new dish and know that it has a particular spice I use in another dish. He’s much better at identifying ingredients in a dish than I am, but loves espresso, beer and hot, spicy foods (within reason). I think he’s a medium-taster.

But, supertasters don’t appreciate bitter foods, such as kale, tonic water, grapefruit juice, olives, broccoli rabe, hoppy beers and espresso. Sometimes, they don’t like extremely sweet items, too. No one’s sure why, but scientists think it’s partly genetic, and there’s no doubt a radar for too bitter would have been handy for early man when searching for edibles and avoiding toxic plants.

However, not all supertasters are the same. I like tonic water, kale and grapefruit juice. It’s the really bitter, spicy and overly sweet things I avoid. And, I’ve never liked beer.

I had resigned myself to asking how “hot” a particular item is on a menu before ordering it. And quartering the amount of Thai chili paste I add to a stirfry.

Before I started researching supertasters, I couldn’t understand why really spicy dishes appeal to some. I want to taste the shrimp or chicken in a dish, not simply the sauce on top. But, if 25 percent of the population are non-tasters and 50 percent are medium tasters, then I guess those diners just don’t taste the heat the way the 25 percent of supertasters do.

Then, in the May issue of Food and Wine magazine, there was a commentary by Kate Krader, a “restaurant fanatic” with an Instagram feed. She talks about becoming addicted to spicier and hotter foods to the point where she doesn’t enjoy previously favorite dishes, such as a potato gratin or roast chicken. Even worse, she’s “no longer so interested” in them.

The important question she asks is “Is this an evolution or devolution?” A colleague tells her that she just craves bigger flavors. I disagree. I don’t think spice and heat translate to flavors.

At a Mexican restaurant, if my mouth is so on fire that I can’t taste the food, where’s the flavor?

There’s a place for fish sauce, chili pastes, vinegars and other potent flavor enhancers in our food. Plenty of chefs layer a variety of flavors, spices and sauces to create dishes that speak in your mouth, not scream. More of those, please.

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