Complicated spicy
October 22, 2013 10:51 PM   Subscribe

Lately I've been craving spicy as a flavor (rather than an overwheling punch-to-my-mouth sensation) beyond adding Siracha or chili flakes. What spice combo can I add to my repertoire that will deliver a complex, unfolding, flavorful, tear-inducing heat? Sometimes Thai food hits this note, but I'm not sure how it is made.
posted by Jason and Laszlo to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
look for a recipe for green curry curry usually comes as a paste and you tone it down with the coconut careful adding more curry gets real hot real quick...
posted by sexyrobot at 11:05 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sichuan chinese food does the job for me, particularly the 'mala' spice combo - hot chilli peppers with Sichuan pepper ("hua jiao" or prickly ash), which contains a local anaesthetic, making your mouth go numb (mala means 'numb spicy'). You can use more chilli than you normally would. Add fermented broad bean paste, and you have the backbone of a mind expanding spicy experience
posted by firesine at 11:11 PM on October 22, 2013 [6 favorites]

I really enjoy smoky-spicy flavors; smoked paprika and chipotles in adobo are two great ways to incorporate this kind of flavor into your meals. Good luck!
posted by EKStickland at 11:13 PM on October 22, 2013 [8 favorites]

Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce add a warm, sweet smokiness, in addition to tears. La Morena is my favorite. Chop up the peppers with seeds to maximize heat. Balance with sauce to get smoke and sweet notes.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:13 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have an old pepper grinder that I shoved a bunch of whole, dried chiles tepin into and I shake that stuff on everything. It's also available ground fine, but that shit is dangerously unstable and can quickly make life in your kitchen hell.
posted by carsonb at 11:13 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Chiles pequin are often smoked dry so have that flavor while having a similar heat scale to the tepin variety.
posted by carsonb at 11:14 PM on October 22, 2013

Also, by using fresh chilli peppers instead of chilli flakes, you can explore the diverse range of chilli flavours eg habanero and scotch bonnet have an interesting spicy citrus taste that's difficult to get elsewhere.
posted by firesine at 11:15 PM on October 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Lately, I've been loving Urfa peppers. They're not super spicy, but they've got a wonderful earthy, smoky, almost umami flavor that adds a wonderful depth to everything.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 11:29 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's real wasabi and Louisiana's favored Tabasco, both are flavorful and distinctive and, if not the Guinness World Record of hotness, quite hot enough to qualify, I think.
posted by Anitanola at 11:38 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Experiment with different types of chilies, and roasting them or not.

It's not so much that spicy is a flavor, but that different chiles (and other spicy things) have different flavors. The same variety of chile may have a different flavor depending on where and how it is grown. Pick up some different varieties of peppers at the grocery store and try them, you can roast them yourself on a grill outside, over a gas stove, or in the oven.

Asian grocery stores may have a better selection of peppers.

Wasabi's hotness builds a bit more slowly if that's what you are going for. Try regular horseradish as well, you can buy it fresh. If you are buying preserved wasabi, the powdered kind you need to mix up is better than the ready to use.
posted by yohko at 11:57 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fresh ginger (or galangal) with chiles give Thai food that more nuanced heat, with alliums (garlic, onions, shallots) to add pungency. (Green curry paste contains all of those plus coriander/cilantro and its seeds, cumin seeds, lemongrass, shrimp paste, and lime. Sometimes peppercorn.)

The complicated heat of Indian foods is an even more huge topic than Thai and I'm miles from even being competent to discuss it, but depending on the region, again the heat of the chiles is often deepened with ginger and sometimes alliums, and the complex spiciness is brought by other, well, spices including but not by any means limited to cumin, peppercorn, mustard seed, cardamom and turmeric.

But the general idea I'm trying to get across here is that fresh ginger, garlic, onion, and chiles will make a zippier teary goodness than just tasty capsaicin on its own.
posted by gingerest at 12:21 AM on October 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

Harissa is a favorite of mine, I think because in contrast to most western hot sauces, it has an underlying bitter rather than sour note. It has the heat you're looking for but also a really complex flavor from all the other herbs in it: caraway, coriander, garlic and mint.
posted by danny the boy at 1:21 AM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

spices including but not by any means limited to cumin, peppercorn, mustard seed, cardamom and turmeric.

But the general idea I'm trying to get across here is that fresh ginger, garlic, onion, and chiles

Seconding all gingerest's suggestions, particularly ginger, cumin and cardamom, and experimenting with different types of chillies. Fresh ingredients and a mortar and pestle are your friends.
posted by salad at 1:38 AM on October 23, 2013

Try using harissa paste or sumac (a dry spice). Both have interesting, complex, spicy flavours, particularly when combined with another more aromatic spice like cinnamon or cardamom.
posted by essexjan at 2:08 AM on October 23, 2013

This really depends on what you're making. More information is needed.
posted by converge at 2:20 AM on October 23, 2013

But, yes, a lot of ginger and garlic. Usuallly. Sometimes vinegar. Sometimes cinnamon. Hell, you might be looking for chiles and anchovies (which is a great thing).

What are you trying to do?
posted by converge at 2:23 AM on October 23, 2013

Habenero is an amazingly complex and very sweet spicy that will kick you right in the ass if you want it to, as well as a source of endless amusement if you have friends who think they want it to. Here is one of my favorite recipes,


You Need:
Bunch of Graham crakers
1/4 cup unsalted butter to be melted
5 egg yolks
1 tbsp lime or lemon zest
1/2 to 1 habanero pepper minced without seeds (keep the seeds)
A fuck ton of habanero peppers minced with seeds
2 cups whipped cream cheese
1 cup mascarpone
5 egg whites
3 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp vinegar
  • 1: Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  • 2: Put the graham crackers in a resealable bag and crush them into fine crumbs.
  • 3: Pour the crumbs into a medium sized bowl and add the melted unsalted butter; mix.
  • 4: Mold the crust onto the bottom of a pan, about 1/4" thick. Bring it up the sides a little bit, about 1/2".
  • 5: Bake for 8-10 minutes. Let it cool on the counter in the pan - don't touch that shit.
  • 6: Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  • 7: In a large bowl combine the egg yolks, 1 cup of sugar, lime zest, and the amount of habanero you want to use in the cake proper, and whisk together.
  • 8: Add the cream cheese and mascarpone; then mix with an electric beater for another 15 seconds if you have one - or for another minute or two by hand if you also want non-culinary abilities to crush your enemies and see them driven before you. Set aside.
  • 9: In another large mixing bowl whip the egg whites with the granulated sugar and the vinegar until stiff peaks form. If by hand, mimic Ahhrnold's ecstasy as you do for motivation and to the amusement of your friends. Delicately fold the meringue into the cheese mixture for 15-20 seconds. Don't overmix. Pour evenly into the pan, over the crust.
  • 10: Place 2 layers of aluminum foil in a large roasting pan. Place the cheesecake in the middle of the foil. Bring the foil up the sides of cheesecake to create a barrier wall around the cake; do not cover the top of the cheesecake. Pour water into the roasting pan, halfway up the sides of the cake (hence the impermeable foil barrier). Bake for 1 to 1-1/2 hours.
  • 11: Make the Ahhnold cum, a simple syrup of Habenero (Bring 1 cup water and 3/4 cup of sugar to a boil in a small pot over medium heat. Add all of the rest of the habeneros you don't plan on using in the cake itself and seeds, go . Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 10 minutes, until slightly reduced.) This is for those who complain that it is disappointing and not spicy enough, it will not disappoint you.
  • 12: Allow the cake to cool completely on your countertop; then refrigerate overnight.
  • 13: Serve each slice of this cheesecake, drizzled with Ahhnold cum for those who want it
  • The milk fat of the whole cheesecake makes the 1/2 to 1 habanero pepper minced without seeds a very reasonable and accessible level of spicy as the capsaicin in the peppers gets absorbed into milk fat globules away from your tongue. The sweet complexity of the habeneros however remains in solution and is fucking delicious. The simple syrup however has the opposite effect, where the capsaicin is extremely soluble in syrup - much more so than in plain water, and hits you while sticking to your mouth. Those foolish enough to try this will be blasted by an extraordinary level of heat and it will not go away until they first dilute the sucrose and then the capsaicin.
    posted by Blasdelb at 2:25 AM on October 23, 2013 [9 favorites]

    And, yeah, the Sichuan pepper is amazing. And incredibly underused.

    On a minute's reflection, I think that's what you're looking for.
    posted by converge at 2:25 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

    There are two things here.

    First, there's the quality, the essence, of the spicy heat, separate from the intensity. Consider it the "timbre" of the heat. Different chiles have different proportions of different capsaicinoids. Habanero has a slow, building heat that lingers, like glowing charcoal. Tepins and pequins have a fast, flaring heat that fades quickly, like spraying alcohol across a flame.

    As a rule, Capsicum annuum (most chiles, including Anaheim, jalapeno, cayenne, and Thai chile) has a sharper heat as the chile gets smaller. Capsicum chinense (habanero and related types) has that characteristic, slow, warming, fruity heat.

    Second, the flavor of each species, and the varieties within the species, varies with the heat. I think that a lot of that particular flavor of Thai food that you sometimes note is from good Thai chiles, often in combination with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and sometimes tamarind.

    The next time you're ask a Thai restaurant, ask for "prik nam pla". This is usually chopped or sliced Thai chiles in fish sauce, for adding to your food. Taste a piece of chile and see if it suits you.

    There's an endless variety of styles of flavor combinations to use with chiles. Everyone else has good ideas.
    posted by WasabiFlux at 2:27 AM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

    Lots of great suggestions in here! I'll only add that when I want an extra flavorful spicy kick to my food, that doesn't involve much effort, I invariably turn to chipotle powder. The stuff is magic and you should try it.
    posted by 9000condiments at 4:03 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Ethiopian berbere spice mix! Very complex and unique but also with a great burn. You might have to go to some sort of Ethiopian/international grocery to get it, but my local natural food store in Atlanta had berbere in bulk, so you never know.
    posted by threeants at 4:21 AM on October 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

    I think Shichimi is a nice change of pace sometimes.
    posted by zengargoyle at 5:13 AM on October 23, 2013

    Grow some cayenne peppers, and use fresh ones instead of the powder. Adds a lot of depth.
    posted by oceanjesse at 5:48 AM on October 23, 2013

    Szechuan peppercorns and peppercorn oil. They give this amazing, deep, rich, hot, tongue-numbing taste... I don't know that I'd trust myself to cook Szechuan food myself, but if you have a Szechuan restaurant in your area, you will be so, so pleased.

    Edited to add: yes, cosign to firesign and converge above. I searched the page for Szechuan and didn't find it, so didn't think anyone mentioned them before, but didn't search for Sichuan. Whoops.
    posted by The Michael The at 6:22 AM on October 23, 2013

    Like others who've mentioned ginger, etc, spicy-ish adjuncts create lots of flavors

    ginger, cinnamon, allspice, clove, paprika, etc

    These things aren't really hot on their own, but get some pretty good heat going, with lots of interesting flavors, in combo with hot pepper
    posted by colin_l at 6:51 AM on October 23, 2013

    All of the above, plus gochujang (sorry no link, on mobile). It's a delicious Korean red chile and garlic paste.
    posted by matildaben at 6:52 AM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

    This Jolokia hot sauce has a really delicious flavor that isn't all just empty heat. It is very hot though - you only need a drop or two.
    posted by capricorn at 7:19 AM on October 23, 2013

    I've been thinking a lot lately that the Chinese really have something with the yin and yang of cooking. Think about it - when you eat salty food, you likely want to have a sweet drink, or some sweet dessert to balance the salty meal. Often with Chinese food I find that I don't want anything additional because both of the flavor needs have been met.

    So I think you might think about finding dishes that balance out the spiciness of your foods, along the lines of Blasdelb's recipe.

    I don't have a good recipe to share, but your question made me think of the current fad of chocolate bars made with spicy peppers. The best one I've had was Italian - dark chocolate that you could savor on your tongue, and right at the end the burning spicy pepper hits you at the back of your throat. Divine.
    posted by vignettist at 7:53 AM on October 23, 2013

    This won't do it be itself, but maybe try adding horseradish to other spices (chili peppers or any of the excellent recommendations above). It definitely has a flavor, and does produce that tear-inducing effect, at least for me.
    posted by likeatoaster at 8:11 AM on October 23, 2013

    Try this lemon rice, recipe. It has amazing flavors with the heat, lemony tang, rice, and nuts, you won't be disappointed, I promise!
    posted by greta_01 at 1:21 PM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

    I'd like to suggest Sambal. it's an Indonesian condiment consisting primarily of chili peppers (usually with seeds) but it also commonly includes ginger, garlic, vinegar and shrimp paste. I like it because it falls halfway between a sriracha-like wet sauce and a typically dry curry paste. it's dense enough to carry deep, complex flavours without being all heat. it's light enough that an extra spoonful or two won't completely ruin your meal. it's also not so distinctively asian (depending on what variety you use, sambal ulek is pretty generic and is often used as a base for other sambals) that you can't use it for added spice in other cuisine (it really lights up my meatballs).

    my personal favourite quick and easy recipe. if you crave a fair amount of heat and plenty of umami, here is my noodle soup face-melter.

    you need:

    tom yam flavour instant noodles
    fistful of fresh veg (I like mushrooms, white cabbage) - roughly chopped
    as much sambal as you think you can handle (for me 3 heaped tsp pp)

    fry the veg just enough to take the crisp off (sesame oil is good). add noodles and sambal - dash of fish sauce if you fancy. bring to boil in the right amount of water. you want it somewhere between soupy and stewy. when the noodles are done (3 mins), tip it out into a bowl.

    eat it with a fork. if you do it right you'll be left with three or four good mouthfulls of broth in the bottom of the bowl. grab the bowl in both hands and drink it down as fast as you can. that's precisely the "spicy as a flavor" you've been craving lately. I know because I had a similar gap in my flavour palette and this recipe really filled it. I hope you enjoy it.
    posted by rog at 5:24 PM on October 23, 2013

    So I'm not that into hot for the sake of hot, but a Thai Larb Moo (spicy pork mince salad) even leaves tears streaming down my face? Oh man, deee-lish!

    So the type of chilli usually used in Thai cooking, is a birds-eye chilli, if it's that particular flavour of hot that does it for you? I think it's the combination of that very flavorsome hot, with things like the lime, fish sauce, garlic/onion/shallots, brown sugar and mint/otherherbs pulling the flavour together.
    So, just try a larb/laab recipe from online for starters.

    If you are lazy, and like thai flavours, and just want spice-paste-ness, what I do for cheatsies, is get a jar of Tom Yum flavour paste (it is supposed to be for soup, but it is so tasty, why limit yourself?), then throw a couple of spoonfuls in with any kind of stirfry (it isn't that hot by itself, but, it is such a tasty spicy base), with some more chilli flakes or birds eye chill to suit.
    Flavour plus a dash of extra hot!
    posted by Elysum at 5:58 PM on October 23, 2013

    One of my favorite spicy food experiences was at Clancy's Meats in Minneapolis. Their sandwiches are served with a stone-ground mustard that is potent enough to blow an aerosol-like heat through the roof of your mouth. However, once my eyes watered and the spice dissipated, the heat was gone; this wasn't a cumulative increase of heat like with Thai food, but repeated jabs of spice with a respite in between. So yeah, stone ground mustard. It's phenomenal.
    posted by Turkey Glue at 5:39 PM on October 28, 2013

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