- Sweet and spicy pairings have existed for centuries and can be found in cuisines around the world.
- Sugar helps tame capsaicin, the chemical compound that give peppers their signature burning kick.
- Classic sweet and spicy pairings include Mexican hot chocolate and Thai chili sauce.
The act of eating is so habitual, it’s easy to forget we’re engaging in a sensory experience that helps us decode flavor. The bites that make our taste buds sing occur because signals sent to the brain – the gustatory cortex to be exact – work to decipher what we’re eating. Even smelling and hearing food as we chew can affect our perception of flavor.
This powerful sensory experience makes room for a lot of seemingly counterintuitive combinations that actually complement each other, including the marriage of two classic flavors: sweet and spicy foods.
How we process flavor
To understand how peppers and sugar go together, it’s important to know how taste works. “Eating food is a huge sensory experience,” says Brittany Towers, a Chicago-based food scientist. “We actually use most of our senses when we eat: sight, smell, sound, and of course, taste. Most of us learned in school that we have taste buds on our tongue that let us taste sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami, but processing flavor is much more than that.”
The experience of flavor not only comes from the basic senses that we taste, but also the complex flavors that we smell while eating, called retronasal olfaction. “If you’ve ever tried eating while you are sick and your nose is stuffy and your sense of taste is really diminished, then you understand how much your nose and taste buds are connected.”
Classic sweet and spicy pairings
- Mexican hot chocolate
- Hot pepper jelly
- Elote with chili-lime mayo
- Mango salsa
- Sweet chili sauce
- Chipotle baked ham
- Jalapeno margarita
The history and science of sweet and spicy
The fusing of flavors has been celebrated in cultures around the world for centuries. For sweet and spicy in particular, consider combos like chili-dusted mangoes and xocoatl, the ancient Aztecs’ pepper-spiked hot chocolate. In more recent times, condiments such as hot honey and sweet chili sauce have become readily available at supermarkets and chefs continue to experiment with sweet and spicy in professional kitchens – pairing chile crisp, for example, not only with noodles, but also chocolate and ice cream.
“Odd flavor pairings are all about balance. With sweet and spicy, our body processes spice through receptors in our taste buds and the capsaicin in peppers binds to our taste buds,” says Tower. “This emits a sensation of warming and burning – and can even make you sweat. The sweetness is there to balance out this spicy flavor.”