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You can learn to handle spicy foods. Let a spice-eating celebrity in Korea explain how.

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Jesse Day is "the guy from Canada who loves spicy food" on YouTube — in fact, he's become famous for it in Korea, a country with some seriously spicy cuisine. He's appeared on Korean morning shows and talk shows to celebrate his skills, and his YouTube channel has racked up 30,000 (mostly Korean) subscribers.

So as a weak-in-the-knees, bland-food-eating, total spice wimp, I asked him for tips. Along the way, I learned how he became a Canadian rapper famous for eating spicy Korean food on YouTube.

A pro's tips on how to eat spicy food

  • Work your way up. Eating spicy food is a lot like lifting weights, martial arts, or any other activity where practice can improve endurance. "The main thing is to realize the spice level you can handle," Day says. "Let's say you can't handle a certain spicy dish, but you can handle something just beneath that ... continually practice just below the level you want to achieve."

    That's backed up by the scientific consensus: You can train your tongue to be desensitized to capsaicin, the component that makes things taste spicy. The Atlantic looked into the science behind training yourself to eat spicy food and found that you really can desensitize your tongue's receptors to capsaicin over time. And you can do it at any age, too.

The tongue has receptors that can feel capsaicin in spicy food.

The tongue has receptors that can feel capsaicin in spicy food.

Christophe Haubursin/Vox

  • Breathe. "Funnily enough, when you're eating spicy food," Day says, "exhaling through the mouth helps, and to make noise while you're doing it — just a grunting type thing." Day notes that making noise in the restaurant might be a little weird, but it provides a psychological distraction. To some degree, eating spicy food is about learning to cope with the pain. "There's nothing that can save you," Day says. "You have to accept it. That's when you reach the next level."

    Exhaling also helps send cool air to those capsaicin receptors, which is good — because liquid won't help you much.

  • Don't drink anything, but if you do, drink milk. Day and the scientific consensus converge on one thing: Water won't help you. Capsaicin isn't water soluble, so you shouldn't bother chugging H20, since that won't get capsaicin off your tongue.

    Milk, however, can help. The fat helps break down the capsaicin enough that it can't bind to those pain receptors (the same goes for sugar and alcohol). Day recommends the fattiest milk you can find, though he personally doesn't drink anything and prefers to power straight through.

  • Eat butter sticks. This tip is meant for if you're eating massive quantities of spice at once. "You want to eat literally pure sticks of butter or cheese," Day advises. "Straight-up saturated fat will help absorb the brutality to your stomach." He says yogurt can help soften the pain, as well. You can do it before you eat spicy food to prep, and after to help soothe the burn.
  • Surf the endorphin wave. You've earned it. Spice can give you a powerful endorphin rush — that's one of the reasons people like Day enjoy eating spicy foods. Once, he ate six Chungyang red peppers soaked with hot sauce for a morning TV show and then had to go to the hospital. "But on the flip side," he says, "once I came back, the endorphin rush was so severe that I felt really great. I still don't recommend it."

It's all that knowledge that made Day famous across the world from where he grew up.

How a guy from Canada became a spice-eating champ in Korea

Jesse Day, ready for battle.

Jesse Day, ready for battle.

Jesse Day

Day calls Seoul home today, but he grew up in Victoria, Canada, where he remembers gorging on chili powder at age 8 and daring Mexican restaurants to throw their spiciest food at him. "I said, 'Punish me,'" he recalls.

He moved to nearby Vancouver to pursue a rap career. There, he got to know Korean and Chinese fans of his music, which soon took him to China.

He rapped around the country while eating spicy food for fun. A relationship led to his move to Korea, where he noticed that Koreans prided themselves on the food they ate. That prompted an epiphany: "There's nobody like me in this country that can eat really spicy food, so I realized that was kind of a talent."

Some Koreans were impressed with his ability to rap in Korean and wowed by his spice-consuming ability. In part, he makes a living from his YouTube channel, appearances, acting, modeling, and new ventures, like a planned entry to Korea's immensely popular AfreecaTV. If you browse the 33-year-old's Instagram, you'll find other bizarre moments from his career as an impromptu model, advertising pitchman, and all-around entertainer.

One tip Day offered about spice is probably applicable to the rest of his life, too. "I'm big in self-belief," he says (though with a self-conscious hint of irony, since we're talking about eating spicy stuff on YouTube). "If you believe you can do it, that's going to help you."