Modern research has been looking into various ways that the chilli may relate to diet(ing) and digestion (and testosterone) – and China has some other ideas about the same, to the point of getting hammered. Or avoiding that fate for as long as possible?
Okay, that may all sound a little wonky, and I am, in fact, trying to tease you a little. It is too funny an issue not to make a little fun of it.
Chilli is often being sold as a spice that may be working wonders for people who want to diet.
Jokingly, we’d be saying that there is a very easy way of making sure it works as advertised, far away from any master cleanse (though there is a reason even that includes chilli) – and equally as far away from any good and pleasurable use of the chilli:
Just add so much of such a hot pepper that your food becomes unpalatable, see the pounds come off as you are unable to eat anything.
Actually, though, what people refer to when they speak of the chilli as a diet aid is the hypothesis (yes, now we are talking science) that the consumption of the hot spice improves circulation in such a way that more calories are burned than would otherwise be.
Just consider how you will feel hotter after a spicy meal, and it’s easy to imagine that the chilli ramps up the circulatory system. Indeed, eating chilli does seem to lead to greater energy expenditure… (cf. Watanabe T, Kawada T, Iwai K. Enhancement by capsaicin of energy metabolism in rats through secretion of catecholamine from adrenal medulla. Agricultural and Biological Chemistry 1987; 51: 75–9.)
There has also been research into the chilli’s effect on feelings of having eaten enough, and again, there seems to be such an effect: People who ate food with (more) capsaicin wanted to eat less and felt more full (cf. Westerterp-Plantenga MS, Smeets A, Lejeune MPG. Sensory and gastrointestinal satiety effects of capsaicin on food intake. International Journal of Obesity 2005; 29: 682–8.)
Chinese explanations of what the chilli does are what makes this whole issue so much fun to me.
You see, Chinese traditional opinion would have it that XiangCai, dishes of the Xiang kitchen, which is another name for the kitchen of Hunan that is (in)famous for its spiciness, are dishes with which to get more rice down.
This idea of “getting rice down” comes from the traditional notion that one eats “cai” (various dishes) for enjoyment and perhaps diverse nutrition and “fan” (rice) for the basic nutrition.
This is why, in a more luxurious restaurant meal, the rice would only be served at the end, for people to get full if they haven’t had enough dishes until then – which would reflect badly on the host’s generosity, which is, in turn, while that rice should not generally be eaten.
And hey, if the research is right, after all the chilli ingested up to that point, one should be feeling quite full enough.
On the other hand, however, at meals in a casual setting, rice will be served alongside the dishes. And there, eating enough rice is seen as a good thing for getting enough energy to get through the day. Furthermore, not least as you will want to cut the spiciness of the dishes with the blandness of the rice, the chilli-infused dishes there are seen as helping people eat more rice – “get rice down” (xia fan).
Think about it, though.
In that situation, it is very understandable that more rice might be eaten with more chilli (i.e., hotter dishes), but that then contradicts the observation that people felt fuller and had lower appetite when they ingested more capsaicin.
Where it gets really peculiar, however, is with another observation:
Among the chilli sauces in Chinese supermarkets, one can now not only find one or the other labeled as “xia fan cai”, i.e. a dish/ingredient with which to get the rice down, but also “xia jiu cai”. That would be “dish/ingredient to get (or perhaps keep) the alcohol down”.
Considering the role that alcohol plays at Chinese social and business events, alongside lots and lots of (preferably luxurious) food, it should perhaps not be surprising to find something like that. It is quite the social lubricant as well as a sign of character and prowess, at least if you can keep it down before it gets you under the table.
If chilli will really help with that, though, I’m doubtful…