Chemistry of really hot foods

Hot as in picante, not calor. Because I’m a layperson, I’ll probably use “hot” when I mean “spicy,” but since I won’t use it to mean “hot” (temperature) I don’t think this will be a problem.

In a none-too-far-gone thread (that I nonetheless can’t find), someone mentioned that they ordered food as hot as it could be made and revelled in the transcendent experiences that it caused.

A couple of questions:

What exactly is the chemistry behind these foods being “hot?” Will I damage my tongue/mouth should I choose something too hot? I know Cecil had a column re: chemical burns from drinking a bottle of tobasco sauce.* I’m certainly familiar with the raw-tongue feeling from hot foods, but could this damage be permanent? Is this burning/damaging factor related to the amount or intensity of the spices?

I’m assuming that the poster was using hyperbole, but are really freakin’ hot foods a potential ticket to nirvana (if only for a short time)? If so, how would I build my way up to tremendous hotness?

Given that I can’t take a dollop of wasabi, I probably should just give up on this.

  • I distinctly recall this being in MORE OF THE STRAIGHT DOPE, but can’t find it in that, any of the other books or on the archives.

Aha. It would help if I could spell it correctly.

I’ve got the chemical reaction questions answered.