From Mexican chiles to Indian "achaars" or pickles, life would be dull without these hot treats.
All hail the mighty peppers, and use gloves when cooking with them
I'm not a thrill-seeker or a daredevil. And I'm not a stunt-eater or a show off. Instead, I'm all wayward bravado and stomach of steel. So, the first time I ordered the "Level Two" green chile at a tiny little dive called Horseman's Haven - legendary for the heat of its wares and located behind a Santa Fe gas station - I had multiple voices in my head telling me to stop before the blistering inferno in my mouth began inducing feverish visions.
In the Scoville Olympics, digestive napalm is par for the course. "I like pleasure spiked with pain" is the first line in the song Aeroplane, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and they definitely could have been channelling their namesake.
"Chile" with an "e" at the end is the correct spelling in Spanish - the name of the delicious, traditional red or green gravy that smothers regional New Mexican dishes and is made from roasted green chile peppers or dried red chile pods. I have a particular fondness for smooth, fruity red chile. But at Horseman's Haven, it's all about the green.
"Chili" with an "i" at the end, on the other hand, is the Americanised version of the word, and is now used universally to reference mostly chili powder or chili con carne, the latter of which was widely popularised by the restaurant chain, Chili's. (Beguiled by its snaky logo, I called it "Chiji's" as a youngster, pronouncing it "chee-jee's").
Chili's eponymous signature dish, called "Terlingua Chili" is named after the town of Terlingua, Texas, where 10,000 self-professed "chiliheads" gather every November for two important annual cook-offs: the Chili Appreciation Society International and the World Chili Championship.
I've always thought that a miniature mace or pepper-spray on a keychain makes a thoughtful gift for a loved one, and have miraculously managed to avoid any accidental misfires in the years I've been carrying one around. And now a particularly lethal defence spray is being developed in India using the naga (or bhut) jolokia, otherwise known as the ghost pepper.
Despite its name, there's nothing faint or fleeting about the impression a ghost pepper leaves. In 2007, the Guinness World Records certified the bhut jolokia as the world's hottest pepper, more than 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce.
Capsicum chinense is one of five domesticated species of chili peppers, and it includes all the world's hottest peppers, including the habanero, datil and Scotch bonnet. In India, these peppers are smeared on fences to repel wild elephants, and furthermore, defence laboratories are now testing them in hand grenades.
That being said, a day without hot sauce is a grim enterprise, not to mention bland. Although it's kind of like comparing apples and bricks, I've always preferred Crystal hot sauce to Tabasco. I find Tabasco to be too vinegary for most dishes, making it more of a hot-pepper sauce than a true hot sauce, such as Crystal. Plus, Crystal is suave. It has finesse. I would drink it by the capful if I weren't worried that it would become a habit.
Indeed, Crystal Hot Sauce is an international success, with Saudi Arabia being the largest single importing country. In the UAE, you'd be hard-pressed to find an Emirati household that doesn't carry a bottle of Crystal in its kitchen cupboards, complete with Arabic label on its plain, graphic label. An Emirati junk food snack of "Bread + Chips Oman + cheese + hot sauce" even has its own fan page on Facebook. The hot sauce photographed in the associated user image is Crystal.
Tabasco is made from tabasco peppers, aged three years, and until recently was made only with peppers grown on Avery Island, Louisiana. Crystal is made from cayenne peppers grown in Mexico, ground to mash and aged 60 days.
Once upon a time, a friend suggested I consider exploring the relationship between the oil industry and the hot-sauce industry, both in the US and in the Gulf.
Were east Texans travelling back and forth on business responsible for making Crystal the Gulf region's favoured hot sauce? In the 2007 book McIlhenny's Gold: How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire by Jeffrey Rothfeder, he writes: "Ever since Columbus had brought chilies from the Caribbean to Spain in 1493, recipes in Europe had taken a distinct tilt toward the piquant."
Dave DeWitt, author of The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia and president of the website www.fiery-foods.com, produces the annual National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show, the most prolific and successful expo about spicy foods and barbecue in the world, and it's held in New Mexico in late winter. DeWitt also estimates that chile peppers had established themselves pretty well globally by the year 1600.
As far as I'm concerned, there's room in the world for every existing hot sauce, even though I might not have any left in my pantry (and by that I mean room, not hot sauce). I love all my charges equally and try to give them their time to shine: trusty Tapatío salsa picante on a platter of creamy refried beans and cilantro rice; tangy Louisiana Gold on buttered grits; and fragrant piri piri sauce on grilled marinated chicken. I have a serious problem resisting the "achaars", or pickles, of India, as pungent and piquant as can be - fiery salted lime pickle, or sweet, searing mango pickles with sugar cane jaggery and red chili powder, dolloped on to a plateful of biryani.
Perhaps my most inscrutable addiction was one on which I subsisted for over a year, ordering a small take-out container of it daily from an unassuming bakery near my apartment: potato salad made with sliced rounds of Yukon Golds, skins still on, chopped celery for crunch, red onion and scallions for backbone, sliced cornichons and Dijon mustard for snap, and a voluptuous dressing of mayonnaise, tarragon and good olive oil. On a little pile of this, I would shower Cholula hot sauce until it developed into a kind of moat. And then I would eat it.
I recently fell in love with a recipe for chicken wings that calls for a combination of Thai-style sriracha, Indonesian-inspired sambal oelek and Frank's RedHot, an outrageously tasty sauce that was the primary ingredient in the first wing sauce, created in 1964 at the Anchor Bar and Grill in Buffalo, New York.
When making homemade Serbian ajvar from roasted peppers, I'll sometimes throw in a Fresno peppers, or a couple of serrano peppers, a jalapeño, or a sliver of habaneros, depending on how hot the peppers are. I learnt the hard way to use gloves, too, although in an emergency, it can be helpful to know that casein, a fat-loving protein that occurs in dairy products, helps neutralise capsaicin molecules.