Photos by Rochelle Li, Words by Nandini Ahuja
If you’re ever rapidly fanning your mouth at the dinner table, it’s either because your meal is hot or hot. The first kind of heat can be easily controlled; just lower the cooking temperature or wait a bit before you chow down. But maybe it’s not about heat; maybe your eyes are tearing and you’re desperately seeking a refilled glass of water to soothe the burn of the Country Style Pad Thai you ordered. It’s the second case that can take a little practice to master.
Everyone wants to be the spice king or queen, the kind of person who can cooly say, “Some like it hot,” at a restaurant and order the fieriest dish on the menu. The ability to eat mouth-burning bites denotes a kind of strength unique to someone with exotic taste. Eating spicy food can give you street-cred and allow you to demand respect from your fellow diners. And yet, perhaps you’d be lying if you said you enjoy the deadly sting of a fiery pepper on your tongue taking over the flavor of your dish. There has to be a way to eat spicy food without surrendering the pleasure of your entire dining experience.
The idea of consuming jalapeño after jalapeño usually has me rubbing my chest with anticipation for the heartburn that will plague me later that night. But I still love spicy dishes and find myself wishing for a bottle of hot sauce to enhance my meal almost every night at the dining hall. After years of nose-running, mouth fanning meals, I have learned the difference between eating hot and fiery peppers and using these peppers to accentuate the delicious elements of a meal. One of my favorite hot sauces to do this is Frank’s Red Hot Sauce—even better in its “thick” version. Frank’s is just as basic as it gets, which is why I love it. It tastes great in fried rice, noodles, burritos and on pizza. Frank’s is tangier than it is hot, which is why it provides carb-rich foods with the zip that they are often lacking. This sauce is the first stop for the faint-mouthed and a wonderful one at that.
Sriracha, a Thai hot sauce, has gained an extreme fan following over the past two years. Made of distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar, chilli peppers and salt, Sriracha is also a tangy favorite. This sauce is more potent in its flavor than Franks, however; it is definitely spicier. Its wonderful versatility makes it a great sauce to keep on hand and use with dumplings, samosas, pierogies and even mixed with mayo on sandwiches. Sriracha has the burn so many of us desire without the eye-watering results.
Also from the Sriracha family comes Sambal Oelek, a chili paste simple enough to be considered refreshing. Sambal Oelek is a thin paste made from a variety of chili peppers that can be mixed into just about any dish for a sour spice. This paste allows you to control the level of spiciness in the dish so you can turn up the heat as much as you want.
The bright vermillion hues of these hot sauces not only make for a pretty condiment to have on your plate. Don't let the heat spoil a dish by overshadowing the other ingredients involved. Instead of emanating flavorless heat, the kick should act as an enjoyable accent to the meal and unite it in a way that creates a complex flavor. Don't just eat spice, eat spicy food.