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I make a distinction between "hot" and "spicy" food ("hot" not referring to temperature). I consider "hot" food the kind that "burns" and "spicy" food that has lots of flavor, but that may or may not "burn", but has some "heat" to it and is flavorful.

I've been told that there is no real difference between the two and that I'm crazy for thinking that Tabasco sauce makes something "hot", while something like curry, ginger, or cumin makes something "spicy". Please help me out a little here with a little clarification.

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  • Readers of this thread might well find this thread from cooking.SE approaching the topic from the other angle to be of some interest: Is wasabi considered to be spicy or to be a spice? Apr 2, 2014 at 12:31
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    as an anecdote, Hebrew has very specific words to describe each and every one of them without having ambiguity like English. חם - hot in temperature, חריף - has the feeling of burning, מטובל - seasoned, spicy, not necessary the rest. English really makes the life hard in this case.
    – David Haim
    Dec 23, 2017 at 15:33
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    I'd like to point out that every english speaker I know uses spicy and hot completely interchangeably. For "spicy" things in the sense that you use it we say well-seasoned. Feb 24, 2019 at 17:30
  • Heh, if we are throwing anecdotes, Portuguese also has separate words for hot-as-in-temperature (quente), hot-as-in-flavoured-spicy (temperado) and hot-as-in-stingy-and-makes-you-red-and-sweaty (apimentado) - the later one being literary "peppered"
    – chesterbr
    Jan 12 at 19:05

4 Answers 4

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I (and this Wikipedia article) recommend the use of the of the word piquance (or piquancy) to describe the condition of something being spicy hot, such as chili peppers.

The article explains:

A pumpkin pie can be both hot (out of the oven) and spicy (due to the common inclusion of ingredients in its recipe such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, mace and cloves) but is not actually piquant. Conversely, pure capsaicin is piquant, yet is not naturally accompanied by a hot temperature or spices.

To avoid ambiguity:

  • Use piquant [pee-kuhnt, or pee-kahnt] to describe something that is spicy hot. (The Scoville scale measures the piquance of chili peppers according to the amount of capsaicin they contain.)
  • Use spicy to describe something having the quality, flavor, or fragrance of spice. (Many curries are spicy without being piquant.)
  • Reserve hot to describe the temperature of something.
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    Wikipedia - is there anything it doesn't know? Thanks for the awesome answer. I have a new fancy word to both expand my vocabulary and annoy the common person.
    – Dave
    Nov 30, 2011 at 6:50
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    Though OP might want to note that virtually no one (other than perhaps a restaurant critic or cookbook author) would describe a seriously spicy dish as piquant.
    – user13141
    Nov 30, 2011 at 8:51
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    +1 onomatomaniak. My Pocket OED defines piquant as "agreeably pungent, stimulating". I doubt anyone would apply that to a Thai red curry or a phal. "Hot ..(of pepper &c.) pungent" - note the lack of "agreeably". Note also that Scoville gives Scoville Heat Units so that rather argues against the wikipedia article.
    – Wudang
    Nov 30, 2011 at 9:30
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    :) I'm not sure using piquant does eliminate the ambiguity, because in several definitions Scoville scale heat isn't a given. For instance: Pleasantly pungent or tart in taste; *spicy* and stimulating to the taste; *giving zest*; tart; sharp; pungent from: wordnik.com/words/piquant. Also, synonyms for piquant include highly-seasoned, savory, spicy, tangy, tart, well-flavored, and zesty here:thesaurus.com/browse/piquant. As a spicy food lover, but a wimp about hot food, this is a question I might have asked, so I'm hoping for a definitive answer.
    – sarah
    Dec 2, 2011 at 7:21
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    This is a very misleading answer which does not reflect current general usage. The linked Wikipedia article is using piquant according to a fairly technical definition which would only be used by food experts (presumably the author of the article falls into this category). As an native English speaker and regular curry connoisseur in London, I can guarantee that if you follow the recommendation in this answer you will just end up confusing everyone.
    – mikera
    Jan 18, 2012 at 2:44
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Merriam-Webster defines spicy as having the quality, flavour or fragrance of spice. OALD defines spicy as having a strong taste because spices have been used to flavour it. CALD defines spicy as containing strong flavours from spices.

If we use these definitions then spicy food may or may not be hot, depending on the particular spices being used. Having said that, because many spices are hot, spicy is considered almost synonymous with hot. Therefore, there is a difference between the two but it is slight.

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  • Right. A slight difference, and almost synonymous - but not the same thing. Research on some culinary sites said basically the same thing. Score one for Dopyiii.
    – Dave
    Nov 30, 2011 at 3:33
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    Restaurants have skewed spicy towards "peppery", but not many of us would describe Bhut Jolokia chili pepper as really spicy. We'd call it "Really [your expletive] hot!" And a glass of pungenty-flavoured mulled wine would be really spicy, rather than hot (unless the actual serving temperature was a bit excessive). Nov 30, 2011 at 3:51
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If you refer to food there is that slight distinction but think about: We are hosting the "spicy" dancers from Spain. vs We are hosting the "hot" dancers from Spain. Now,there is big difference, isn't there?

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Spices are the something visible, spicy is where those things are used. Hotness is the effect of those things. and you know spices are always hot. You can make it less hot by adding less spice. So it's a synonym but spice is something tangible, while hotness is not tangible. I think.

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    Spices are not always hot. For example, vanilla and cinnamon.
    – Hugo
    Nov 30, 2011 at 8:52
  • Hugo, that's a good point.
    – Tristan
    May 2, 2013 at 20:36

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