Discover the new spice world
September 26 2014 1:45 PM EST
December 09 2018 8:44 PM EST
Discover the new spice world
Clockwise from top left: Mission Chinese, Pot, Uncle Boons
Fact: There is no taste bud for spice. The cells on your tongue are primed to experience the joys of sugar and instigate salt-fueled potato chip binges, but when it comes to heat, another system is in charge. That would be your nociceptors. Whereas taste buds help distinguish the flavorsome from the foul, these nerve cells exist to warn you of danger. So when you have a five-alarm fire raging in your mouth, it's because your pain receptors are doing damage control.
If pain is your game, you'll be thrilled to know we now live in an age of foodie masochism, a world in which restaurants are increasingly forcing daring diners' nociceptors to work overtime. New York City's Nolita hot spot Uncle Boons (7 Spring St.; UncleBoons.com) isn't bashful about tossing chilies into its elegant Thai fare, which far surpasses your average pad kee mao. Although specialties, like its golden curry with egg noodle and a chicken leg that falls off the bone, may seem tear-inducingly bold to the typical American palate, co-chef and co-owner Ann Redding asserts that a little extra spice has long been a mainstay of most Asian cuisine. "With Thai dishes it's all about balance: hot, sour, salty, sweet, and bitter," she says. "Heat is simply a part of the makeup of Thai food."
Of course, not all of these piquant dishes will have you grasping for a hankie, at least not right away. When applied properly--as with Danny Bowien's Sichuan peppercorn-spiked, thrice-cooked bacon at his famous San Francisco haunt Mission Chinese (2234 Mission St.; MissionChineseFood.com)--the heat is more of a slow burn, one that builds to a climactic buzz that's a little bit dangerous and majorly delicious.
But the best part of America's spice fetish may be its customization. If you want to ease your way into the boiling, spicy crab hot pot at chef Roy Choi's brand-new Los Angeles eatery, Pot (3515 Wilshire Blvd.; EatAtPot.com), simply ask the kitchen to go easy on the chili oil. Just be warned: If you've developed a true hankering for the heat, most chefs are more than happy to oblige. "Our guests who seek out the very spicy dishes really aren't messing around," says Redding. "We had a guy who kept asking for more Thai bird chilies and was eating them straight up by the spoonful. I think he was trying to impress his date, though."
Burning Down The House
Aspiring chefs need only a few ingredients to turn up the heat in their home kitchens. Here, your best bets, from medium to super-spicy.
The Gateway Spice: Sriracha has become a go-to because the ingredients' sweetness keeps the heat manageable. Chef Redding suggests a Thai Sriracha. "I find it tends to have a bit more balance and flavor than the Sriracha most widely sold in the U.S."
The Sprinkling Spice: Use Calabrian chilies instead of those tame red chili flakes you throw on pizza and pasta. These Italian peppers contain notes of smoke and fruit in addition to that zesty zing.
The Third-Degree Spice: Compared to Americanized Chinese food, authentic Sichuan fare is a veritable inferno, and its most challenging chili is the Sichuan peppercorn. These little peppers ignite a party in your mouth, creating a numbing, buzzing sensation--like a spicy Novocain.
The Must-Try Spicy Cocktail
If you're looking for top-shelf sippable spice, head to New York's General Assembly (360 Park Ave. South; GeneralAssemblyRestaurant.com). Its Loose Cannon cocktail contains ice cubes infused with jalapeno, so as the drink gets colder, it heats up. The cubes also add a swell swelter to a standard margarita. Get the recipe on Out.com.
Photo credits: Casey Oto (Mission Chinese). Rick Poon (Pot). Oleg March (Uncle Boons). Courtesy of Fourth Wall Restaurants (General Assembly).