The Art of Spicy Food

The hostel I was staying at in the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa was hosting a barbecue, and I had gone to the store to pick up some food for my travel partner and myself. Among the other things I picked up, I grabbed three of what looked to be delicious bright red bell peppers. As we cut them up to put on the grill, I placed a small strip into my mouth. All of a sudden, I was in some of the worst pain of my life–everything the pepper had touched, including my hands, lips, mouth, tongue was an inferno. Turns out, this was no bell pepper, but rather the amazing Rocoto pepper. Delicious when stuffed and cooked, though still packing a punch, these were no pepper to be snapped off a crudite tray and placed in the mouth. There is, I learned that day (and night, as I waited for the pain to subside), such a thing as too much heat.

I love spicy food, the hotter the better–to a certain extent, but I do not ever like my flavor to be sacrificed for extra heat. There is an art to the adding of spice to food, the subtle flavor changes that come with certain spicy additions. While you may know as many people as I who think slopping Sriracha over all their food makes them cooler, makes them tougher and shows off their love of spicy food, the truth is I find this a demonstration of a lack of taste buds.

Don’t get me wrong, there is Sriracha in my cabinet, along with a myriad of other types of spicy sauces: Chipotle peppers for thick, murky Mexican dishes, pickled jalapenos for that sour addition, Yank Sing’s Delightfully Hot Chile Pepper Sauce (my personal favorite), various salsas, fresh Thai bird chile, you name it, if it’s spicy I have it. I do, despite arguments with former roommates to the contrary, require each and every one of these. A lovely bit of deep fried clam needs a dollop of Bajan yellow pepper sauce for a murky but grease cutting action, while the raw version of the same clam would look for the crisp, clear heat of horseradish so as not to disturb the natural flavors. Steamed in white wine and butter, I’d give the clam red pepper flakes. There is not a single answer for any dish, but rather a logic puzzle of factors that lead you to fabulous options for adding terrific bite to your bites. You’ll find fresh jalapenos in most versions of Vietnamese foods, as those match the crunch of the rest of the fresh vegetables and offer a strong but not disruptive sting. In African stews, you’ll sometimes get fresh grated pieces of habanero or scotch bonnet peppers, for the opposite reasons–they act as a foil to the viscous textures, adding crunch and a wake up for the taste buds. To each dish, its own chile pepper.

So now you tell me, what is your favorite hot dish? What are your favorite hot sauces? And the spiciest thing you’ve ever eaten?