Time to stop blaming chilies for setting your mouth on fire. Culinary culprits ginger and garlic deserve some grief. So do cinnamon, horseradish and wasabi.
When a few show up in a single recipe, expect a power kick to your mouth. You can trust Bruce Bryant on this.
He’s a senior research associate at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, where he studies chemical irritants (chili peppers, carbonation, menthol, etc.) and their effect on the nerve endings (neurons), especially those in the mouth, eyes and nose.
Bryant knows a lot about the pungent compounds in chilies (capsaicin), ginger (gingerol) and garlic (allicin), and explains that their effect has less to do with taste and more to do with feeling.
“Things are pungent when one or several compounds activate pain receptors on neurons on the tongue, on the inside of your mouth, going down your throat, inside your nose, eyes and all the other delicate membranes in the body,” says Bryant. “It’s a sharp and sometimes painful sensation.
“Capsaicin and gingerol activate one kind of sensory receptor on these pain neurons. Garlic and horseradish and radishes activate a different kind of receptor that’s on many of the same neurons. It doesn’t really discriminate.”
Mix them together, though, with some acidity tossed in (vinegar, citrus juice, etc.), and “this is all sort of funneled into the perception of pain.” Especially in the fresh state (think: salsa, pesto). Cooking, however, can temper pungency (curries, moles).
“In many cases, garlic is used only in small amounts or the pungency is cooked out of it, so the compounds decompose and they’re no longer pungent,” Bryant says. “With ginger, the compound is less pungent than the compound — on a molecular basis — in hot peppers.”