There is a vast linguistic confusion in English on the subject of “hot” food, or “spicy” food. Why? And why does no one even ask why? Then, beyond mere words, there are many other facets of culinary heat-worship we generally do not consider…as we expose our digestive linings to ever-higher examples of Scoville-chart explosive devices at Sichuan restaurants, Mexican restaurants, Indian restaurants, etc. Today, let’s look at the whole range of chile confusions—hoping, of course, to enjoy our food better at the end of the day!
For starters…we do not even have a clear word in English for food that burns. When you say “hot” food…you may be referring to food that has lots of chile heat…or food that is at a high temperature! When you say “spicy” food, you may be referring to food that has lots of chile heat…or food that contains lots of spices…and not all spices burn! A Christmas dessert brimming with clove, cinnamon, cardamom is spicy…filled with spices…but there’s no burn at all!
The other vocabulary at our disposal seems almost feeble in sorting these meanings out. People occasionally say “piquant”…but when you look over the dictionary definitions, and uses of the word, you can see that it too is ambiguous; only a low level of stimulation, and not necessarily a burning stimulus, is needed to draw out the word “piquant.” “Pungent” seems to be a little closer to an indication of burn, but not always; various dictionaries tie “pungent” to strong tastes only…including, in one case, the “pungent taste” of a ripe tomato! How about the “pungent” smell of rotting fish?
Add to this the extra confusion of various “types” of culinary burn. Clearly, the burn that chile peppers create is the most important kind of burn, resulting from the stimulation of somatosensory fibers. Intriguingly, it’s only in the mouth that these burn sensations are mixed with flavor sensations. Many other parts of the body have somatosensory fibers that pick up burn—such as the nasal cavity, the genitals, exposed wounds—but, lacking taste buds, outside the mouth only the burn is registered. Rub a cut jalapeno on a leg wound, and it will hurt like hell—but your tingling wound will not “taste” anything green.
But then, ready to complicate our day, there’s another major category of “burn” that has nothing to do with somatosensory fiber contact. Do we not call some mustards “hot?” Wasabi? Horseradish? The science is beyond me, but I know that these ingredients offer an entirely different kind of burn. No chiles are involved and, even more compellingly—the heat is entirely different! It’s not a topical aggression…it seems, instead, to carry directly back to the center of your head, where an “overdose” (like too much wasabi) brings scary waves of what feels like a deeper, more oscillating pain. And it’s not in your mouth.
Why does English contain all of these ambiguities? Is it possible that our puritanical heritage, which long suppressed the discussion of food (because it was “sinful!”), played a role in the paucity and imprecision of chile talk? It has often been noted that the English vocabulary for food in general—and wine!—appears limited (though Lord knows we’ve been catching up in the last 20 years!) But it seems logical that a type of taste sensation not even ON the table for centuries—burning food—would lag behind other sensations in the advance towards proper description. Oh brother, is it time to catch up—I don’t even know what to think when a friend tells me he’s making me a “spicy” dinner!
A linguistic study of countries that regularly favor “spicy” food would be illuminating. For the moment, the only spicy cuisine about which I understand a little of the categorization is Sichuan cuisine. As we all learned from Fuchsia Dunlop, in her extraordinary book Land of Plenty (a great compendium of Sichuan recipes and ideas), there are roughly 23 flavor classifications that are regularly referred to in Chengdu, home of Sichuan cooking. If we could only match that in English! The classifications don’t all include “heat,” but quite a few include some facet of heat, or some combo of heat and other things.
The most important to this discussion, of course, is ma la.
Now, with ma, we have an entirely different type of “heat!” The word “ma” specifically refers to a mouth-numbing quality—literally numbing!—that is most often used by chefs by way of a favorite Sichuan ingredient, which we usually call “Sichuan peppercorns.” These little seeds are actually prickly ash tree seeds or, in Chinese, hua-jiao. It is a whole different kind of “hot!”
Intriguingly, this mouth-numbing sensation turns up in the Sichuan roster of the 23 tastes—mixed with the heat of chiles! Many Sichuan dishes (try the awesome rabbit appetizer at Café China in NYC!) combine Sichuan peppercorns and dried red chiles (known as la)—creating a taste they call ma la.
That’s specific! I love it! Let’s aspire to that!
The next set of confusions applies to the eaters of “spicy” food. It is often assumed that people in “spicy” food cultures around the world eat spicy food from cradle to grave. “Grave” may not be so far off, because older people—suffering from the natural loss of taste buds—often find increasing satisfaction in “spicy” food.
But the cradle part simply ain’t so. The truth is: “hot,” chile-infused food is an acquired taste.
In spice-savvy countries like India, the distinction is always made between the “spice” that comes from ingredients like cumin, cardamom, fenugreek, etc…and the “heat” that comes from chiles. Babies are allowed to consume “spice,” usually in gradually ratcheted-up form. But it is very rare in India, and other “hot” countries, to expose your child to chiles before the kid gets older. The babes don’t like it, nor do their digestive systems.
I had a wonderful greenhouse in my own home. My two daughters grew up eating everything…and I mean everything…except hot food. I remember them, at 8 and 10 years old, telling the world that their favorite food was raw sea urchin…but refusing to try any dishes I offered that included chiles. They finally came around a few years later, and are major chile-heads right now at their respective colleges. But I could see that something about chiles was not natural in youth for them…
And for whom is it natural? Why is it that some cultures are big on “hot” food, and some not?
Well, there are all kinds of historical/geographical/
As most foodies know, chile use in Europe, Asia, Africa…only goes back to the 16th century! Chiles are native to the New World, were discovered on a Columbus voyage, and were brought to Spain by a Columbus doctor in 1494. Through Spanish and Portuguese trade, they spread to the rest of the world after that.
One interesting implication of this is: Sichuan food, Indian food, Thai food, etc.—once had no chiles! We know that some heat was obtained from peppercorns (as in India’s Tellicherry peppercorns)—but it is unlikely that those cuisines pre-16th century had as much heat as they came to have later.
So why do culinary variations of only 400 years standing seem to be the global leaders in chiles?
You could play the geographical card: chiles grow best in tropical zones. You don’t see a lot of chiles growing in Scandinavia, and you don’t see a lot of chiles in Scandinavia food. Of course, we have these things called jet planes…so geography should diminish as a factor.
Another variation of the geographical card has to do not with growing, but living. It is HOT in those countries…and “hot” food makes you sweat. Sweating is a kind of natural air conditioning, which makes you cooler. Nobody in Stockholm in January needs to get cool!
You could play the medical card, also: “hot” food is often said to be anti-bacterial, and the thought is that bacteria are more abundant in the more sultry climates. The original neutraceutical!
I have no idea in which ways the world will change over the next hundred years, so I have no idea if greenhouses in Denmark and Rene Redzepi are going to turn Copenhagen into the new hot spot for spicy food.
But I’ll tell you this…
Those places that have emphasized chiles, for whatever reasons, have developed chile-laden cuisines at varying levels of success! I mean it: some are better than others, in my opinion. And this is the insight that I think all creative chefs can learn from…
What is the best “hot” cuisine in the world? For me, no doubt…Indian! Why?
I don’t think anyone enjoys “incendiary alone.” I think the best-tasting chile-infused dishes offer great, powerful flavors that stand up to the chile heat. The profusion of spices in India food—all kinds of spices—create the perfect foil for chile heat.
Second-best in the world, to me, is Thai food…but here the constellation of strong chile-confronting flavors is of a totally different order.
The flavor engine that drives Thai food has mainly to do with the flavors perceived on the tongue: sour, salty, sweet. It is the brilliant concatenations of lime juice, fish sauce and palm sugar that combine to stand up to the chile craziness of Thai food.
Now I’ll give you an example of a “spicy” cuisine that works less well for me, theoretically: Mexican food.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Mexican food. But at its most chile-obsessed level, Mexican food backs me off. I simply don’t find enough balancing/counteracting flavor in the cuisine to stand up to major chile assaults. Can it be a coincidence that, in Mexico, lots of heat is added to the food by the diner, who applies hot sauce in whatever ratios he/she prefers? Lots of dishes come out of the Mexican kitchen that are NOT as hot as Indian/Thai dishes.
So how are these observations useful for the cook?
To demonstrate, I’d like to take you through a recipe development session I ran this weekend: I was looking for new recipes to go with my line of varietal chile extracts—some call them hot sauces!—from Virginia.
I’d already gone the Caribbean/Indian recipe routes (with, respectively, a great ceviche, and a soulful south Indian curry). I wanted something different this time.
Thinking of the great spicy cuisines of the world…and knowing that my Yellow Fatali African Habanero chile extract is not that spicy…I looked for something moderate in flavor. Knowing that the African use of spicing usually seems more moderate than the Indian use of spicing…I turned to Africa, and a spice blend that seemed to suggest the flavors of that great untapped culinary continent. (The fact that the chile comes from Africa only made the coupling more compelling!)
I blended ground ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin and coriander seed into a rub. I schmeared it on shrimp, which I broiled. I partnered these medium-strong-tasting shrimp with a dip that employs the yellow hot sauce. For me, it was all about balance…and, bingo!…the balance worked beautifully!
Try for yourself, if you wish. The recipe is just below, and sources for the hot sauce are just below that…
HOT AFRICAN SHRIMP, WITH YELLOW HABANERO DIPPING SAUCE
This is a great dish for any party! You serve the crunchy shrimp warm, just from the broiler, tails up for easy finger-grabbing. A dip in the yellow chile sauce, and deliciousness is yours. The only question is heat level…which you can adjust by adding more Yellow Fatali African Habanero chile extract to the dip.
½ cup plain thick yogurt
½ cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons buttermilk
2 teaspoons Yellow Fatali African Habanero chile extract, plus extra drops for garnish
3 tablespoons finely minced chive, plus a little extra for garnish
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cumin (preferably made from toasted whole seeds, SEE NOTE)
1 teaspooon ground coriander seeds (preferably made from toasted whole seeds, SEE NOTE)
1 teaspoon salt
a few grinds black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
24 large shrimp, about 1 lb.
1. Prepare the sauce. Mix together all sauce ingredients. Use more or less of the chile extract to your taste. Cover and hold in refrigerator.
2. In a medium bowl, mix together turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, salt, black pepper and oil into a paste. Set aside.
3. Peel the shrimp, leaving the last section and the tail on. Cut the shrimp deeply down the back, removing the vein, and creating a butterfly effect.
4. Rub the spice paste all over the shrimp, spreading evenly.
5. Place the shrimp on a cookie sheet, cut side up. Broil for 3 minutes or so, or until just cooked. The shrimp should be crusty-brown.
6. Place shrimp on a serving platter, fantails up. Serve Yellow Habanero dipping sauce alongside. Garnish sauce with extra chopped chive, and a few splashes of Yellow Fatali African Habanero chile extract as desired.
NOTE ON TOASTED SEEDS: You’ll get the very best flavor if you buy whole cumin seeds and coriander seeds, toast them in a dry pan for 60 seconds over medium-high heat, then powder them in a spice grinder.
NOTE ON HOT SAUCE ACQUISITION: If you are one of the lucky readers who has already purchased my new varietal chili extracts, grab that yellow bad boy and get going with this recipe! For first-timers, delight awaits: you can order some in my shop! Use discount code TASTE20 for 20% off.
Photos Via: David Rosengarten, BigStockPhoto