‘Dominicans don’t like spicy food’. I heard that yet again last night from someone who certainly enjoys spicy-hot food, and I agree with her. Unlike our Mexican cousins or our neighbors to the west, Dominicans don’t handle spicy-hot food very well; this is in part a matter of taste, but also due to misconceptions regarding the effects of hot food on our health.
First, let’s address the myths. The most commonly held one is that ‘spicy food causes ulcers’. This is now known to be false. According to the CDC: ‘In the past, spicy food, acid and stress were thought to be major causes of peptic ulcers. We now know that up to nine out of ten ulcers are caused by a bacterial infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)’. Spicy food may aggravate ulcer pain, but it will not cause stomach problems to a healthy person.
The other widely-held belief is that spicy foods cause hemorrhoids (sorry to bring the H word in here). This is also false. The American College of Gastroenterology cites other causes that have nothing to do with spicy food. They suggest, however, not consuming spicy foods to avoid discomfort when the condition already exists.
But what makes food spicy? The answer is: ‘it depends on the spice’.
The most commonly used hot-spice is peppers; peppers as in the fruit called pepper (yes, it is a fruit, not a vegetable). The source of heat in peppers is capsaicin, a tasteless, odorless compound found in minuscule concentrations in all varieties of wild peppers. What we know as sweet pepper has been actually cultivated to achieve varieties with low or no content of capsaicin.
Capsaicin works by irritating pain receptors in mammals, causing a ‘fake’ burning sensation; this sensation has no relationship with the sense of taste, proven by the fact that we can feel the same burning sensation in other parts of our body as well.
The reason why humans are the only mammals to purposely ingest capsaicin, and even enjoy it, is explained by the fact maybe we are not as smart as we think. Or perhaps is the proven fact that after ingesting capsaicin the body releases endorphins, a morphine-like substance to soothe the burning sensation. And this is the only time I can ever quote John Mellencamp in an article about food. Because the words ‘Hurt so good’ truly describe what hot food is about.
We eat hot peppers because it feels good after we do. The hotter the food, the more endorphins our body releases, but we also ‘condition’ our body to that level of capsaicin, making it possible to progressively tolerate increasing levels. Hot food lovers are the real ‘food junkies’.
Unlike other things that make us feel good but are bad to us, spicy food can actually be beneficial to us. Good news indeed.
Researchers in Britain have concluded that ingesting hot peppers improves our metabolism. Better still, there seems to be evidence that hot peppers improve digestion and may even prevent ulcers. Capsaicin releases sinus congestion, which is what gives us a runny nose when we eat hot food. In other good news, preliminary research shows that it also acts as a blood thinner, which could decrease the chances of having a stroke. What’s more, it makes you sweat, which lowers your body temperature; always a good thing in the tropics.
Rabo Encendido ("Tail on Fire", translated literally) is a spicy stew usually prepared for special occasions. It's preparation is long and it contains many ingredients but it is definitely worth it.
- 4 lbs of ox-tail cut in the joints
- 2 tablespoons of oil
- 2 large bell peppers, chopped
- Juice of 1 lime
- 2 large carrot cut into 1-inch thick pieces
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 8 tomatoes, chopped
- 1 cup of tomato sauce
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 1/4 cup of olives, pitted
- 1 teaspoon of oregano
- 2 sprigs of parsley
- 4 sprigs of thyme (optional)
- 1/2 Scotch bonnet pepper, crushed
- 1 cup of chickpeas, boiled soft
- Season the oxtail with oregano, a pinch of pepper, lime juice, and a teaspoon of salt.
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a deep bottom pan.
- Add the oxtail and brown.
- Add enough water to cover the meat and cover with a lid.
- Cook until the meat is very tender, adding water as it becomes necessary (see notes).
- When the meat is very tender add the carrots, chickpeas, olives, onions, peppers, thyme tomato sauce, garlic, and Scotch bonnet pepper.
- Cook until the vegetables are cooked through.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve hot with a few slices of avocados and white rice.
You can shorten the preparation time by using a pressure cooker. Without the pressure cooker getting the meat tender enough (it has to fall off the bone) may take over an hour. With the pressure cooker it will take about 25 minutes.
If you are unsure how you will like it with the Scotch bonnet pepper (they are very spicy) use your favorite hot sauce instead and add to taste.