Seasoning Snafus: Hot or Spicy?

Sweet or Heat?
Sweet or Heat?

Some like it hot, while some might like it spicy, some could even go so far as enjoying it hot and spicy… But what’s the difference between hot and spicy? As spice merchants, we regularly hear and sympathize with the confusion between the words “hot” and “spicy”. A lot of folks will hear the word “spicy” and immediately believe that a seasoning will be “hot”, which is a reasonable but not always correct assumption to make. In this edition of Seasoning Snafus, I’ll try to clear up some of the semantic confusion between these two words and show the best ways to spice up or heat up a meal.

As spice merchants, one of our prime responsibilities is educating our customers about the use of our product. Spices, herbs, and seasonings can be plutonium in the kitchen, without the right knowledge and care they can make dinner a disaster with just a few shakes. We would never want someone to take home a spice and ruin a perfectly good dish because we simply didn’t articulate a product’s proper use. So, I’ve decided to start to compile a short list of some of the most common seasoning mishaps and misconceptions. With each of these posts I’ll list a new common seasoning snafu based on ingredient, why it happens so often, and how to avoid it.

Hot or Spicy: Colloquial Confusion from Capsaicin to Curries

When ordering from a local Indian restaurant, one might tell the waiter that they like their curry “spicy”, yet when the curry reaches the table it might be anything but “hot”. In the english language, there are a lot of words that we use interchangeably which at their cores have very different meanings. Colloquially, folks in the United States might say a chili pepper is “hot” or “spicy”, although the word “spicy” is simply defined as having an abundance of spices. Not all spices or spice blends are “hot” though, take for example the fore mentioned curry, which is certainly filled with an abundance of spices but may not have any “hot” spices in it. Don’t fret if this is already confusing, it is.

So if “spicy” isn’t always “hot”, than what is “hot”? Well, “hot” can mean several things when regarding food, although it always refers to the presence of heat. The sensation of heat can be found in food in distinctly different manners, either as the radiating heat in a cup of hot coffee, the pungent bite of hot mustard, or in the masochistic mouth scorching heat from a Bhut Jolokia Ghost Pepper. Even these multiple meanings for heat can lead to confusion though, as I might like hot chilis in my gazpacho but I would always want it served at a cold temperature. As another example, some might like to season a New York Strip with the hot bite of cracked peppercorns but might not want that same steak prepared with a hot chile powder steak rub. And what about hot wasabi? More confusion abounds.

To better define the sensation of heat, setting aside the meaning of radiating or physical heat, there are several distinct heat sensations that are garnered from different spices. The sensation of heat, sometimes confusingly referred to as the “flavor of heat”, can present itself in our mouths from different chemical components in seasonings. Three of the most common of these heat inducing chemicals are piperine, isothiocyanates, and capsaicin. Piperine, a natural chemical compound found in black peppercorns gives a hot peppery bite. The chemical group know as isothiocyanates give a pungent kick to mustard seeds, wasabi, and horseradish. Finally, the best known of these chemicals is most certainly capsaicin, the chemical sometimes loved or loathed when consuming hot chili peppers.

All three of these chemical compounds bring the physical sensation of heat when present in foods, which in some cultures is known as “piquance”. Piquance, piquant, or piquancy is an english term that refers specifically to the sensation of heat in food that presents itself chemically. Although piquancy is traditionally thought of as a flavor, it is actually a tactile sensation. As many well know, the sensation that capsaicin provides in our mouths can also be felt on our skin. Anyone who has made the mistake of handling hot chili peppers then forgetting to wash their hands before using the bathroom will understand just how tactile this sensation is.

Piquant is a great word to use when speaking about heat in food, although it has seemed to work its way out of popular use in recent years. In the common north american lexicon, we still most often speak of the presence of heat in a spice or blend as “hot”, and the absence of heat as a “sweet” spice. Piquant might be a great technical term to impress other foodies and english teachers, although it will often receive puzzled looks if seen on a lunch menu. So at the Spice House we have decided to continue to label our spices with the “sweet” or “hot” terms. This might not be as technically accurate as “piquance”, but we think “sweet” and “hot” can be bit easier to understand. Plus, from a marketing point of view, I know I would just be confused if I saw a jar labeled Piquant Curry Powder.


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    That was an OUTSTANDING article describing “Hot” or “Spicy”. As a Chef and lover of the Cajun cuisine, I am constantly asked “Is this dish spicy?” I have found that most people in the United States equate Cajun with Spicy. Cajun cooking isn’t as simple to describe as the difference between ketchup and Tabasco sauce, but there is definitely a huge difference between eating a dish that is spicy-hot and just plain spicy. I like to tell my customers that Cajun cooking doesn’t necessarily mean that the dish is automatically hot just because it says “Cajun”. To me, Cajun cooking means letting your taste buds have a field day with all the wonderful flavors, seasonings, herbs and spices the dish has to offer. When people eat my Jambalaya (and yes… I use authentic Andouille sausage in my recipe), there is a little bit of heat in the dish, but not so much heat that you can’t enjoy the other twenty-two ingredients.

    Thank you for the great article and keep entertaining us with your abundance of knowledge in this wonderful world of spices, seasonings & herbs that we live in.


    Chef Clay

    Thanks Chef Clay. That nice comment means a lot coming from someone as knowledgeable about spicy cooking as you are. I will pass your comments along to Eric. Wish I had a big bowl of your jambalaya awaiting me for dinner tonight!

    Very well said ! Even i faced this many times “When ordering from a local Indian restaurant, one might tell the waiter that they like their curry “spicy”, yet when the curry reaches the table it might be anything but “hot” ”

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