Benign Masochism and Harissa for the Naughty

I really love spicy food. I love the rush of the heat and the thrill of the burn. By the end of a spicy meal, I expect to be a dizzy, fevered and sweaty mess of a human being. Since childhood, I’ve always been partial to strong, bitter and spicy flavors but this preference has grown steadily over my adult life. I think I can pin-point the exact moment when I switched over from “dabbling with spice” to “this boring if I can still feel my tongue”. When I was in Thailand a few years ago, I ordered a green papaya salad because it sounded like a nice, refreshing break from the deliriously spicy meals I’d had there. When it arrived, it made my mouth water just to look at it. The shredded green papaya was mixed with a few vegetables, peanuts and a tasty sauce. Turns out that it also contained a few (dozen?) chilies and was the spiciest dish I’d eaten on that trip.

Harissa splash

I remember the pain distinctly. My mouth and throat burned like hell fire and all orifices on my face were dripping uncontrollably. Possibly bleeding (Well… maybe not). The thing was, I couldn’t manage to stop feeding myself with it. It tasted delicious, and I was actually enjoying the pain of it. Since then, I have become increasingly willing, if not eager, to immerse my senses in the pain of spicy food on a regular basis.

Harissa bowled

Why would I wish to subject myself to this torture intentionally? Do I love pain that much? Doctor Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania theorizes that I, and countless others who share the same pleasure, are benign masochists.


Well, that’s an interesting term. Synonyms of benign are good, kindly, benevolent, tender, humane, gentle and compassionate. Not malignant. NOT disposed to causing harm or suffering. If we look at the meaning of masochism, we discover that it is a condition in which pleasure (notably sexual pleasure) is derived from pain, humiliation or domination. So,… what? I’m a docile pain lover? A gentile who likes naughty time? A humane person who gets a kick out of inhumanity? Kinda confusing. Contradictory, even. But funny!


Hot peppers are all part of the Capsicum family and contain a substance called capsaicin, which is what gives us the burning sensation. Once the pain of capsaicin kicks in, the body releases morphine-like painkillers called endorphins. These pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters are basically nature’s way of making us not hate everything. The same release occurs when exercising. Without endorphins to entice and reward us with good feelings, most of us would probably never do it.

jalapenos 2 

So, if you want to have painfully wonderful day, go for a long run, get out the whips and chains and follow it up by eating some spicy harissa. I made some when I found myself with an excess of various chilies. Harissa is a northern African chili sauce. The recipes for harissa can vary from region to region and the style I made was particular to Morocco. The flavors are delightful and the heat is devilish. Beware. Contents may cause pain… and pleasure.

harissa splash

Spicy Moroccan Harissa


  • 4-5 chilies (I mostly used jalapenos, but any will do)
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 lime


Blend all ingredients until it forms a paste. Spread onto toast with butter or pesto. Or add a dab to your rice. Or eat it with everything, like I do.

5 thoughts on “Benign Masochism and Harissa for the Naughty

    • Turmeric and Twine October 14, 2012 / 11:20 PM

      Thanks a lot! I’ve had this sort of idea in my head for a long time. It’s very satisfying to get it all out!


  1. tommy August 20, 2015 / 7:55 PM

    can you post a video? i tried to make it but it turned out nothing like it was in the picture


    • Turmeric and Twine August 29, 2015 / 12:53 AM

      Thanks for your comment, Tommy. As long as it tastes good, that’s really all that matters. Are you pleased with how it turned out otherwise?


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