The Harbinger Online

Culinary Chemistry: Spice



With the start of senior year comes a renewed commitment to my IB mandated CAS hours. For my AP brothers and sisters, CAS stands for creativity, activity and service. Regular engagement in these categories are required to receive my International Baccalaureate diploma (yeah, we get two).

In an effort to spice up some of my creativity hours, I have decided to try cooking some new foods. This week on the menu: ramen noodles. But not the stale, plastic encased bricks that go for for 25 cents a pack. I have decided to try my hand at a more traditional form of ramen.

Ramen is a staple of Asian cooking; so much so that most countries–and even regions within countries–in eastern Asia have developed their own variation of the dish. Originating from China, the ramen noodle is made of wheat flour, salt and an alkaline water called kansui which is also referred to as lye water.Though lye is not typically an ingredient in ramen nowadays, different common bases such as baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) are used in the production of ramen to give it a unique color and texture.

I made my ramen just how I like it–spicy. I went to work measuring peppers, chopping green onions and adding dashes of sriracha. I toasted sesame seeds and fried tofu to top off my lunch. In the end, my hour or so of work had a pretty nice pay off.

As I cozied up on the couch and slurped up my soup, I pondered its scientific significance for the purposes of my blog. Though the production of ramen noodles is interesting enough, there is not sufficient literature to support such an in depth analysis. By the time I got halfway through my bowl, I started to notice an all over tingling warmth from head to toe and some of the symptoms of my late summer cold were subsiding. I sniffled a bit and realized my sinuses began to clear. By the end of lunch, my cold had improved significantly and I was ready to face the rest of my IB homework for the weekend.

This unexpected fix–albeit temporary–was caused by a common chemical called allyl isothiocyanate. It is one of the most common sources of what we perceive as spiciness. In addition to irritating your tongue, it also aggravates the mucus membranes of your nasal passages, sinuses and eyes. This is why you may have teared up the first time you tried wasabi or hot wings. The chemical is considered an intruder and so your body reacts by producing and thinning mucus to flush out the toxin. This is also why pepper spray is such an effective weapon because it causes your body to go into overdrive.

Obviously, the amount of spice that a person can tolerate is pretty variable however, for those who like spicy food, using it to your advantage can come in handy.

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