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Your tongue feels like it's on fire. There's steam coming out of your ears. Your mouth is burning up. Going to a top ethnic restaurant can feel like a trip to the sauna, such is the range of tastes and flavours that your sensitive mouth and taste buds are exposed to. We've grown to love the exotic flavours popularised by ethnic restaurants which have sprung up in every town in Ireland over the past few years.

I've started eating Indian and spicy foods and realise that these flavours have an addictive quality that the body craves every so often. My own guilty spicy pleasure is New Orleans-style chicken with fantastic flavours of red and green chillies, plus marinades. My mouth may not thank me for the heat assault, but I can at least enjoy this dish safe in the knowledge that it is really good for aiding digestion, improving circulation, increasing the metabolism and helping to cleanse the system.

The magic in hot spicy food, properly cooked, is the chemical ingredient in chillies and spices called capsaicin. To get the best of them, always make sure that all the ingredients are fresh and not heated by microwave. Ask for yoghurt to be used instead of cream.



EXPLANATION

There's a simple biological explanation for our desire for curries or chilli-based food after a few beers. The pursuit of the 'curry high' is really the search for the fiery chemical capsaicin, which, when eaten, causes an endorphin rush.

But we shouldn't feel guilty when ordering a chicken phaal with extra chillies in the local Indian eatery. There are plenty of beneficial chemicals in a curry.

Eating food which contains capsaicin will protect stomach linings from the ravages of alcohol, aspirin and other orally-ingested bad news, according to research from the National University Hospital in Singapore. Capsaicin also has a protective effect against peptic ulcer disease.

Jokes about the alimentary effects of curries are also verified by research from the Royal Adelaide Hospital in Australia. Gastrointestinal transit -- the time it takes for food to pass through the body -- is improved by eating capsaicin. The gastric emptying is slower so the food remains in the stomach for longer for a more efficient breakdown of nutrients.



POWERFUL

So powerful is the effect of capsaicin that it's included in a group of drugs called rubefacients that reduce skin irritation by creating counter irritation -- mild pain will block the more intense pain.

Other ingredients in a curry, such as caraway, cassias oil, cardamom, cinnamon and coriander are described as being carminative in their effects -- soothing the stomach and reducing flatulence. You should look out for:

Garlic> Known to help reduce cholesterol levels by thinning the blood, helps mild hypertension and may stimulate the immune system.

Ginger> This root is linked to beneficial effects on inflammation and rheumatism. It has been implicated in helping reduce nausea and vomiting in early pregnancy.

Nutmeg> Unique in having some positively weird side effects. Dr Abernethy, of the University of Chicago, has connected the state of 'acute nutmeg intoxication' with hallucinations, palpitations and a feeling of impending doom.

Chilli peppers> Ideally, seek out an ethnic grocery store -- they're usually much cheaper. Handling chillies can be risky so wear rubber gloves when handling them. Keep peppers in the fridge for two or three days, and fresh chillies for one week. Dried chillies can be kept for up to one year.


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