Spice is culture, environment … and cravings!

October 28, 2022

If you went skydiving yesterday, will your chili rellenos at Mariachi taste extra spicy today? If you’re scared of stubbing your toe because of how much it will hurt, are you still willing to knock back a couple of David Engle’s double-hot cucumber martinis at Café Azafran?

Ocean Spray’s sensory science manager Nadia Byrnes is hot on the trail to answering these questions. Back in the day when she was earning her PhD at Penn State, her dissertation focused on how spicy food relates to personality and experiential variables, i.e., a study of people and eating (sort of like one of my evenings in Rehoboth – but throw in a doctoral thesis). She’s an avowed foodie and an expert on taste perception. In fact, Dr. Byrnes’ presentation to Penn State’s Graduate Research Exhibition, “Determining the Relationship between Personality Variables and Liking of Spicy Foods” won second place in her category.

Patterns are emerging that link certain personality traits with the love of spicy foods. As you might predict, Byrnes found that sensation seekers (like the guy jumping out of the airplane) don’t seem to be as sensitive to the alarming effects of capsaicin, the pepper extract that causes the burning sensation and gets your nose to running.

So, Cape Region sensation seekers, unite! Grab your not-so-sensation-seeking friends (tell them it’s not going to kill them) and investigate some of the local spots where they will make it blazing hot – if you ask. One of the eateries that tops that list is Confucius Chinese Cuisine. Chef and owner Shawn Xiong takes particular delight in seeing just how hot you can take it (only on request, of course). His hot pepper pork and spicy tofu with long hot peppers will have you mumbling to yourself. If, however, you are concerned about (1) stubbing your toe, or (2) having your head taken off by a mouthful of piquant chilies, 90% of Shawn’s dishes will be perfectly mild for you. But it’s that smokin’ 10% that lures me to Wilmington Avenue.

When you ask for “hot sauce on the side,” most restaurants bring the milder varieties like Texas Pete or Crystal. Not Dos Locos Stonegrill. They make it themselves with four varieties of habaneros and smoky chipotles. They call it Melt Your Face. I’ve left there many times with my face suitably melted, and lived to tell … uh, write … about it. Confirmed chiliheads take note: Approach this one with caution!

If sauces are your thing, the mother lode is at Peppers in Lewes. Certified hot sauce maven Chip Hearn will happily take you from the mildest all the way to bottles requiring a signed, legal release. Yum!

When Touch of Italy first opened, I received emails asking me to identify the powdery substance in little jars at each table. Intense research determined that the mystery substance is red pepper flakes typical of most pizza joints – except Bob Ciprietti grinds them up so they’ll spread out in your mouth quicker. Sort of a search-and-destroy mission aimed at your taste buds. It’s delicious sprinkled on the sharp provolone and spicy sopresatta sub.

Curry lovers who are feeling frisky will love the green curry at Sticky Rice in Lewes (near Capriotti’s across from Five Points). Sawanya Conway crafts her curry the way she did in Thailand, and it will certainly get your attention. But don’t let that scare you away! She also serves equally delicious dishes that won’t make you cry, like the pad Thai, the red curry and her delicately spiced Tom Yum soup.

While you’re running for a glass of cooling milk, I’ll give scientist and spice lover Nadia Byrnes the last word: “Food choice is a really complex system that takes into account cultural expectations, the physical environment, cost, cravings … there may [even] be genetic components. For me, enough [spice] is when I get a moment of blackout, and my whole head kind of goes whoosh.”

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at

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