Issue No. 103: Heat Becomes What We Eat

Twenty-five years ago, you might have heard me patiently explain to a customer what a chipotle was: a smoky, slightly sweet dried pepper with a hint of heat. Nowadays there are more than 2300 “fast fresh” restaurants across the country with the same name. I remember snaking through unorganized aisles at Asian food stores looking for “that red paste that comes with Bi Bim Bop.” Now we sell two different varieties of gochujang on our shelves. And we’re a Jewish deli.

Things are getting spicy in the artisan food world.

The shift is thanks to the influence and fusion of world cuisines as well as society’s evolving attitudes about food. Our interest in dishes with heat goes well beyond the wall of hot sauces with whimsical names. We’re experimenting with dishes our parents never heard of, inspired by the flavors we encounter traveling the world or investigating that new “hole in the wall” Indonesian restaurant our friends are talking about.

We’ve been fortunate to find immigrant and first-generation businesses making sauces typical of the cuisine they remember grandma making. Chitra Agarwal and her team at Brooklyn Dehli make achaar, a relish condiment native to India and Nepal that’s spicy, bright and brings a ton of flavor to any dish. Auria Abraham of Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen concocts sambal, an all-purpose condiment made from chiles, peppers, garlic and Makrut lime leaves that brings depth, complexity and (you guessed it) heat to your meal. One of my favorite snacks is a bag of cashews spiked with chiles and lime leaves made by Cyrilla Suwarsa from her Indonesian family’s own recipe. Even Zingerman’s Candy Company has been inspired to fuse standard peanuts with a coating of the enticing combination of spicy chiles and bright lime leaves.

These aren’t fads in the food world.

These are moments of assimilation (the good kind, not what the Borg was all about). How can I be so sure? Because we’re using these typically exotic flavors in the dishes we already make. You like steak? You’re gonna love it even more slathered with sambal. Do you make rice bowl dinners every Tuesday? Throw some gochujang in with your motley crew of veggies and protein to make it extra special. Mix tomato achaar with yogurt for a tasty appetizer, or spice up the bland routine of scrambled eggs with a dollop of garlic achaar. We aren’t trying to replicate cuisine we’ve only read about or enjoyed in restaurants, we’re incorporating these new, spicy flavors into the dishes we already know and love, making them more interesting and more flavorful in the process.

But why? Where did our love affair for these spicy condiments, sauces and dishes come from? I think we simply woke up to the flavorful power of spicy foods. What used to be a frat house dare (XXX Hot Wings anyone?) has evolved into a knowledge of flavors and how they work together. Spicy ingredients, when done right, never overpower a dish, they enhance it. They bring together flavors, giving all dishes more character and a certain unity rarely experienced in our standard cuisine. We can’t put this genie back in the bottle. Heat is here to stay.