When referring to the taste of products which contain chili peppers (like chips, kebabs or other dishes etc.) or contains other spices which cause to this painful taste in the tongue, then as a non native English speaker I have a big confusion regarding to the term that I have to describe them.

I found a lot of choices and I'm afraid that maybe in practical English some of them more and less common.

Then what is the common leader term that I should go with, and which always relevant to this taste?

In my vocabulary there are these ones:





n.b. If it was up to me then I would prefer other term than "hot", because it can cause confusion with the term hot which refers to the temperature.

  • 1
    RE: I would prefer other term than "hot", because it can cause confusion with the term hot which refers to the temperature. Get used to it. Avoidance is not the best policy. Most words in English have multiple meanings – don't cripple your vocabulary for that reason! (Look up words like left and right, hot and cold, thin and fat – all of them have quite a few meanings.) Related: hot and spicy; single word for hot food.
    – J.R.
    Nov 19, 2017 at 0:52
  • @J.R. I agree, but in this case that we have other alternatives, I can find myself in a situation where there is a dish that it's also hot (temperature) and also hot (spicy). Nov 19, 2017 at 1:07
  • Avbout the difference between spicy and hot: english.stackexchange.com/questions/50080/… Nov 19, 2017 at 12:44

4 Answers 4


It is always acceptable to use "spicy".It is most common to use "spicy" or "hot". I agree that "hot" can be confused with temperature so my go to word is "spicy".

Sometimes foods will be labeled "hot and spicy", common in descriptions of food in restaurants.

"Chili" is not only used to describe peppers but also used as common stew. In America I usually only see it occasionally on salsa labels.

"Pungent" refers to a sharp smell or taste but it's usually only used with regards to smell.

"Piquant" is more formal and something that could be found in a food critic's vocabulary.


The most common word choice is "hot" but the most common way is not always the best way. I've had the following conversation with many native English speakers.

Friend: Watch out, that's hot.

Me: Do you mean temperature 'hot' or spicy 'hot'?

"Spicy" is probably second-most common but is also used for foods heavily seasoned with many spices (other than chili). "Piquant" or "pungent" are probably the most accurate description, but they are somewhat marked except in technical discussions.

  • I agree, English really lacks a good standalone word for “(spicy) hot”. Perhaps pungent could work, but that’s not a great word, either – it seems to be more normally associated with smell than taste (as in a pungent cheese, e.g.).
    – J.R.
    Nov 19, 2017 at 11:13
  • Yes, pungent is better for the "sear your nose hairs" heat of onion, mustard, horseradish, wasabi, and even black pepper than for chilies. But I think it deserves mention here because it sometimes invokes the same metaphors of "hot," "burn," "heat," "sear," etc. in addition to "sharp." My unfounded suspicion is that the definition of spicy is shifting to fill this need; there seem to be fewer uses to mean "full of spices" and more of "chili pepper hot."
    – Gossar
    Nov 19, 2017 at 21:05

Hot foods usually have lots of capsaicin from "hot peppers".

Spicy foods have spices (e.g. ginger, garam masala, cumin, cinnamon, etc). They can also have capsaicin. You often see the phrase "hot and spicy".

Pungent foods have a sharp or strong taste and smell. It could come from pickling.

Piquant foods generally have a tartness or acidity.

  • Thank you. But I don't understand if they are synonym why should I see "hot and spicy" unless it is hot in temprature? Nov 19, 2017 at 12:41
  • 1
    @Versatile and Affordable. They are not perfectly synonymous. As I said, "spicy" food might contain capsaicin, but it might not. So, "hot and spicy" tells you unambiguously that it does contain capsaicin. Words mean what enough people use them to mean, and people are not perfectly unanimous in their use of a word. For some people, "spicy" always implies capsaicin; for others it does not.
    – TimR
    Nov 19, 2017 at 13:55

This book (p. 332) try discuss about some parts of the question. I'll copy here just a small phrase. All the rest is there.

I have always wondered about the words hot and spicy with reference to the tastes of peppers and other spices. For example why is black pepper "peppery", while chili peppers are hot and ginger is spicy. Are the chemicals that cause these sensations all the same?

No, those different sensory effects are caused by several different chemical compounds. It would be much neater, if we had individual descriptive words for each of these sensations, because they are indeed all different. Instead, we apply the words hot, peppery, spicy, pungent, piquant, biting, zingy, and sharp almost indiscriminately to all. But black pepper, chili peppers, ginger, mustard, horseradish, and wasabi, are all distinguishable from one another by their distinctive brands of what I'll generically call pungency, from the Latin pungere, meaning to prick or to puncture.

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