We are struggling with some language on our menu. How would you describe items that are spicy but not hot? For example, things like chai?
– Gail Weinberger, Holistic Health Coach, Be Life Café & Marketplace, Clarks Summit, PA
“Spicy” is a term that is often misused because two very different sensations are called “spicy” in English. Properly applied, spicy refers to spices, dried aromatics that come from non-leafy plant parts—roots (such as ginger), bark (such as cinnamon), fruit (such as allspice), seeds (such as cumin), arils (such as mace), or flowers or parts of flowers (such as saffron). Aromatic leaves, of course, are called herbs.
Confusing the issue is that spicy is also used to refer to heat. Heat, unlike spice, does not come from the aroma of food, but rather from the feeling of heat in our mouth (called a trigeminal sense). The hot kind of spicy comes not from aromas but from components of food such as capsaicin in chili or cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon that produce a burning sensation that many (including me!) find desirable and a little bit addictive.
Given this confusion it is important to be clear in writing menu descriptors so that guests are neither overwhelmed nor disappointed by the aromatic spiciness or hot spiciness of a dish.
For hot spicy dishes, use descriptors that connote heat: fiery, blistered, burning, inferno or simply say, “hot and spicy.” For aromatic spicy dishes that are not hot (spice cake, for example), try words like spiced, fragrant, flavored, scented or aromatic. If it applies, use a regional descriptor. “Moroccan-spiced chicken” sounds more aromatic than “Spicy chicken.” Alternatively, list the spices in question to distinguish them from hot chili: “Cumin-scented sea bass with a cardamom cracker.”
If you are still unsure, conduct some simple market research among guests by asking them to tell you how they envision a dish from its description.
Readers, if you have some spicy menu descriptions from your restaurants to share, please leave them in the comment box below.