A Brief Taxonomy of All the Different Ways that Korean Food Can Be Spicy

There are nuanced distinctions between irritatingly spicy, deliciously spicy, or refreshingly spicy.

Vivian Song

I think my eyebrows are sweating.

Can eyebrows do that?

I’m normally no slouch with spice. But this Haek Buldak chicken ramen—famous for being the world’s spiciest instant ramen and known by its viral YouTube name, nuclear fire noodles—has kickstarted physical reactions akin to allergies. After just a few bites, the spice has filled my mouth with a runaway, quick-spreading fire and produced a level of heat my body is unfamiliar with.

Despite my trying to expel the spice by exhaling it out, the heat refuses to evacuate, and instead decides to spin around and around over itself, like the tumble cycle of a clothes dryer. My face feels swollen, shit’s running all over the place, and I’m breathless and panting as though I’ve just run my fastest 10k. Between hot, salty tears, I squint down and see that I’ve involuntarily clenched both fists which have come to rest on either side of my ramen bowl. Shit. I forgot the milk. And what the hell is going on with my eyebrows?

I’m now wondering if my grand plan has backfired.

After a terrible few days of general, overall, existential angst in which I’ve been forced to question some of my life choices—country of residence, career path, bangs—I’ve borrowed a strategy out of the modern Korean handbook for stress therapy, and am trying to exorcise my anxieties with a bowl of spicy ramen.

In South Korea—which boasts the dubious honor of its residents working the second-longest hours of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 35 nations, after Mexico—the quick-fix therapy to being overworked and stressed is to hit up a bowl of spicy rice cakes, noodles, or stew. Same applies for the broken-hearted and depressed. The rationale? The thrumming pain of eating scorchingly spicy foods acts as a distraction to one’s anxieties and miseries and releases feel-good endorphins throughout the body. But different types of heat produce different results; there are nuanced distinctions between irritatingly spicy, deliciously spicy, or refreshingly spicy.

Jjajeung or “annoying” heat
This prescription is particularly effective for work-related stress: Fight fire with fire. Spice that can be indexed under jjajeung, or “annoying” heat, is the overpowering kind that slaps you in the face. It’s obnoxiously spicy, drowning out other flavors.The effects of the heat—sweaty face and back, numb tongue, runny nose—make you uncomfortable and irritable. You huff, puff and grunt in pain as you shovel mouthfuls of chile-infused broth down your gullet, or rage-chew on spicy red bean paste–coated rice cakes (tteokbokki). Any memory of crazy bosses, unreasonable deadline demands, and insufferable colleagues evaporate with every heat-packed bite, mostly because you’ve gone mind-blind.

Because you are a glutton for punishment, you continue to anger-eat, taking quick bites and leaving little time or space between mouthfuls because, by experience, you know that one doesn’t linger over spicy foods and give the body time to register its full impact. You soldier on, knowing that at the end, you will be rewarded with a feeling of lightheaded euphoria that will erase your woes—if only for a few hours.

The owner of one of the spiciest noodle restaurants in Seoul, Shingil Spicy Jjambbong—which he claims causes about 10 people to faint a year—claims his clientele comes to him just for that reason: “People who have a hard time, with depressions, who have a lot of stress; that’s solved in 10 minutes,” he says in a YouTube video from DKDKTV.

Mashi-neun or “delicious” heat
Unlike the aforementioned grumpy heat which wallops you over the head, mashi-neun heat builds in a slow, gentle crescendo, with each bite bringing you back for more. It’s comfort food, perhaps best effective for the broken-hearted or depressed—not nearly as violent or dramatic as jjajeung dishes. It swaddles you in protective layer of warmth, and whispers a maternal “there, there.”

Like a good cocktail, you might not realize how strong the dish is until it’s a little too late. For that moment, we also have a term: wass-eo. As in, it’s here. While it doesn’t take long for someone eating an annoyingly spicy dish to scream out “wass-eo” in panic and pain, the experience is less aggressive and sudden in mashi-neun heat.

Siwonhan-mat or “cooling” spicy
It’s a confusing oxymoron. Even more so when you hear Koreans exclaim “ah, siwon hada” or “ah, that’s cooling,” after having just taken a spoonful of scaldingly hot and spicy broth from a still-bubbling cauldron of volcanic stew.

But while Korean-English dictionaries will misleadingly translate the word to “cool,” in K-food speak, the term refers less to temperature, and more to the after-effect of consuming a warm and spicy broth.

Here’s how scientists describe the enigmatic sensation unique to Korean cuisine, in a paper published in the Journal of Ethnic Foods in 2016: “Siwonhan-mat is a refreshing taste that is associated with the sensation of food touching soft tissues in the mouth, swallowing food in the throat, and digestion in the stomach.”

They’re foods that have a “refreshing and pleasurable taste experienced through the body rather than by a sense of smell or taste.”

Here’s my take: Just as chicken soup is considered the Jewish penicillin, red pepper-based soups are panaceas to Korean woes (siwonhan-mat applies uniquely to broths, soups and stews). When a soup has a siwonhan-mat, it relaxes your tense muscles, and quiets the mind. As the hot broth travels down your throat and through your digestive tract, it produces a warming, soothing sensation, akin to taking deep breaths and huge sighs of relief.

While mashi-neun spicy is an addictive, flavor-based experience, siwonhan spicy is more about the calming physical effects produced by a familiar, spicy broth.

Meanwhile, though there was nothing particularly “cooling” or calming about my spicy ramen experiment, my mental fog has lifted. The heat has receded. I’m coming down from my high and the feeling of catharsis is fading. As is the memory of the discomfort from the ramen. What I do remember, though, is the smoky sweet flavor beneath the satanic heat. I’m feeling peckish.

I think I have a stash of Buldak-flavored almonds kicking around here somewhere.