This article originally appeared on VICE en Español.
Growing up in Mexico, my family would compete over who could eat the spiciest food. This typically ended with my mother, grandmother and all of my aunts and uncles getting gastritis. Just like my fellow countrymen, part of my identity is built around the adrenaline kick you get from eating capsaicin, the stuff that makes chillies hot.
In Mexico, we eat spicy food until we cry. Spicy sweets, spicy meals and spicy sauces – like Salsa Valentina, an artificial neon-orange hot sauce that shapes Mexican palates from birth. Our love for spicy food – our shared masochism – is perhaps one of the only tangible things that unites Mexicans across the world.
The Mexican diet is based on a few staples: beans, corn and the crops we grow in the milpas, small fields temporarily cleared from the jungle, like squash, sweet potatoes and avocados. But more than anything, we’re known for our chillies.
At least 100 types of chilli plant have been domesticated in Mexico from the species Capsicum annum, and most of them are highly regional. “Chilli peppers are like our birth certificate,” says chef Irad Santacruz, a self-proclaimed ambassador of the indigenous Tlaxcaltec cuisine. “From the type of chilli someone eats, you can identify where they were born, where they’re from.”
For Mexicans, chilli is a fruit, a vegetable, a condiment, a medicine, a spiritual protector. But there’s a reason why lots of people find eating chilli peppers quite painful. Unlike other traditional flavours – bitter, sweet, salty and acidic – spiciness is not perceived by our taste buds, but by our pain receptors. That’s why it’s not technically considered a flavour – it wasn’t even added to the list after umami made the cut.
It seems counterintuitive to eat something that hurts, but scientists have found our body releases endorphins after we eat capsicum. This neurotransmitter generates feelings of happiness and is perceived by our brain in a similar way to addictive substances like opioids.
Despite its ambiguous culinary status, humans have loved the sharp burn of chilli since ancient times. Chilli pepper plants, native to the American continent, have been cultivated and traded for over 6,000 years. Botanist Araceli Aguilar-Meléndez, who began researching chilli peppers 20 years ago, says many indigenous communities don’t use chilli as a condiment – they smoke them during funeral rites, or use them to rid their homes of bad energies or even to keep snakes and mice away. And the tradition of using chilli peppers as spiritual protectors also continues in Mexican society, with home cooks making the corn-based dish tamales often placing a cross-shaped chilli pepper at the bottom of the pot to protect their loved ones from the evil eye.
In Mexico, we say chilli peppers cure everything – from hangovers to skin blemishes. We say they have anti-carcinogenic, analgesic and antimicrobial properties, and that they help clear your airways. “People think they have to eat chillies because they’re good for your health,” says Aguilar-Meléndez. “But it’s more sentimental than physiological. They want to remember the taste of home, and if it tastes like chilli, they think that flavour will cure them.”
Aguilar-Meléndez became fascinated with chilli peppers after finding out they’re the only plant or fungus that produces capsaicin. She says some beliefs about the health benefits of chilli peppers are actually backed by science. For example, chillies can help to regulate our appetite and have been shown to kill the bacteria in our food that could otherwise make us sick. That’s why chilli peppers are eaten all over the world, especially in warmer climates where food pathogens proliferate. Some research suggests chilli peppers might even help us live longer.
According to chef Santacruz, spiciness is crucial to Mexican food because the capsaicin helps you digest the high-fat content typical to the cuisine. “There is a collaboration between the chilli and the rest of the dish, a perfect marriage,” he says.
But eating chillies is much more than a gastronomic choice – it’s seen as an act of strength and bravery. For example, in some towns in Mexico, it’s tradition that the family of a bride-to-be prepare an extremely spicy sauce for the groom, to test whether he’ll be able to eat it without crying. According to Aguilar-Meléndez and Santacruz, being able to stomach hot food is also associated with a sense of national pride, a sort of “stomach superiority” over any other nation and their weaker bowls. As Mexican author and journalist Juan Villoro wrote in his book Accidental Safari: “We have made diarrhoea into a sort of patriotism.”
When I was born, in 1986, a chilli pepper named Pique (sting) was made the mascot of that year’s FIFA World Cup in Mexico. The pepper sported a moustache and a sombrero, and carried a football. For Mexicans, chilli peppers are more than food – they’re the representation of our character. Eating them is just as dramatic and fun as mariachi bands and telenovelas. Once the world is a little more back to normal, the next time you see a Mexican suffering at the restaurant table next to yours, don’t feel bad – they’re crying tears of joy.