Vaneisa: Acid reflux and burning desires—the consequences of our “zesty palates”

Bird peppers turned up everywhere. You didn’t have to plant them; they took root wherever they were dropped off by their bird friends. 

Small and innocuous looking, they were hot—none of the warning signs like scotch bonnets, whose succulent exteriors were a fire alarm. My younger brother, at four, was running around hollering that he was Samson, and our older cousins dared him to bite into one to prove his strength. 

Photo: Fancy a bird pepper?

The poor thing came screaming into the house, tears streaming down his face as he gasped for air. It’s my first memory of peppers.

Peppers of all kinds and heat levels form a major part of Caribbean cuisine: from the dreaded Scorpion peppers right back to the flavourful, but demure pimentos, they are ubiquitous to our pots. While I love the zing they add, I have never been heavy-handed with them. I don’t like to overwhelm dishes to the point where the burn masks the taste. 

It used to amaze me that Raymond and Steve would ask for raw scotch bonnet peppers and work them into their plates before even tasting, and how they would sweat with snotty-nosed pleasure. 

The most excruciating experience for me was a curried duck by Sita that exploded in my mouth. It was a painful assault and I marvelled at the calm with which she and her other guest savoured the meal. It was one of those times that I felt like an outsider, locked out from this celebrated presentation of a wicked duck that forms part of our culinary boasts.

Photo: A delicious curry meal, laced with pepper.

I know we like fiery food and I admit that there are times when I actually crave the heat—but my stomach lining reacts so quickly that I restrain myself to occasional indulgences.

I wrote last week about our Trini curries, intending to focus on substituting ground provisions for the traditional sides that accompany them. I got a bit carried away and although I tried to pull it back, I believe I failed. 

There were many responses to the column, but there was barely any mention of the transition I was advocating. I had to smile though, because the descriptions of my forays into learning how to temper my inclination towards excess invoked such delightful stories of similar experiences that I felt privileged once again to be invited to partake in personal dollops of nostalgia. 

Early this morning, five o’ clock, a reader, Ramish, emailed me a long chat. “I came from the days of ‘sil’ and ‘lorha,’ when people made their own curry paste at every cooking,” he chirped, making me feel that we were sitting at dusk nursing an enamel cup of some warm beverage—which we would inevitably call tea—trading stories about household rituals.

Photo: Signature coffee mugs.

But here I am traipsing off into another digression that threatens to waylay the rather nebulous intent of this column.

What had struck me with some of the comments was that while they declared that they felt hungry after reading it, they have had to reduce their intake of curries and spicy dishes because of acid reflux. 

Granted that they were older readers, but it seemed to me from my other observations, that the condition is a fairly prevalent one in our society.

In its extreme and chronic form, it is known as GERD, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and it affects a large group of people—ranging from mild and occasional episodes to severe and painful ones on a regular basis. I live with it, and know too intimately how awful it can be. While I have tried to manage it over the years, I confess that I am often careless and without fail, I pay the price. 

Photo: Understanding acid reflux.

I think mine has its genesis in the early days of abrasive painkillers for my persistent headaches. I have developed such an aversion to painkillers now that I prefer to martyr myself through the galloping pain than to be subjected to the burning sensation that creeps upwards rapidly till your jaw hurts, and your throat feels like it will burst.

So many factors are triggers. Distress and anxiety—those insidious killers responsible for the majority of the world’s ailments—are primary causes. Not eating regularly is another. 

I eat small amounts at short intervals because the minute I go too long, I get vicious headaches and acid burn. It is one of the reasons I am chary of these intermittent fasting bouts being plugged all over social media. 

I am no medic, but it doesn’t seem logical to let the acid build up while you unhappily strive to lose weight. I’ve seen people gorge themselves unhealthily because they have deprived their bodies of sustenance, and then the hunger takes over common sense.

Photo: A young woman has a hot pepper for a snack.

Spicy foods, alcohol, smoking, and a host of other treacherous elements contribute. Obesity, inertia, lying down too soon after eating; they encourage an acid backwash up through your esophagus, and over time it can irritate the lining.

While there are many over the counter medications to help alleviate the discomfort, it’s really an unpleasant way to live.  I’ve seen figures that suggest that about one in five experience some form of acid reflux over time. It is costly to manage as well. 

I feel sorry that so many are now feeling the consequences of our zesty palates—but I suppose as with everything else, moderation might be worth a try.

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