I love food which is obvious by my choice of profession as a chef and the fact that I continue to stick with the same profession despite the fact that I work long hours, do not get weekends off and spend every daylight hour sweating over bubbling pots and sizzling pans in a tinderbox of a kitchen. The reality is that I am a sociopath and not mentally equipped to deal with civilised society. I am also a bit of a narcissist and a renegade which seems to be a necessity in the culinary world. The renegade bit really does help when I want to throw my weight around, break rules and get away with.
The narcissistic bit however comes to a complete flop when it comes to eating food that is spicy or chilli hot.
I have tried and failed and what follows is the list of foods that I would seriously debate about for quite a while before eating.
Being Indian and having travelled and lived for a fair bit in almost every state of our country, I was under the false assumption that I had been exposed to the spiciest food in the world. I almost used to strut about thinking of other cultures as wimps and definitely not in the same league as some of my fellow citizens (I have to rely on fellow citizens at this point because I have an absolutely low threshold of pain when it comes to hot food)
From the absolutely pepper-enriched cuisine of Kerala, to the home of the world’s spiciest chillies like the Naga Jolokia and Bhut Jolokia, spanning the expanse of the Thar desert that gave birth to food as hot as the sands itself to the hinterlands of Maharashtra where chillies form the meal itself and not an accompaniment to the meal; I thought we had it all. This was right before I decided to unshackle my fetters and go out and explore the larger world that lay beyond our shores. What I tried and tasted has shocked me beyond belief. I would definitely repeat my journey at the drop of a hat but this time I may employ a bit more caution and possibly check if there is possibility of lining my stomach with lead.
There of course is a bit of difference between the hot and spicy Indian food when held in comparison with other culinary schools. Indian food besides being creative enough to contain hundreds of thousands of recipes uses spices or chillies to enhance the food and not to overpower it.
Although Indian cuisine is amongst the hottest one can find in the world, there are others that could possibly give us a run for our money.
The home of chillies is in South America and Peruvian food does have its own share of zingers despite our initial misgivings and inclination to term it a mild cuisine. The food is spiked with a chilli called aji when realistically they should have named it ‘aiyeeeaaahhh’ which is the sound you would probably make when you head towards the roof since you would prefer to leap to your death rather than burn crisp from the inside.
Then there is Africa from where chillies travelled to India. Since this is a continent that I am talking about, I would like you to pay particular attention to Senegal where a particularly spicy chilli called the Scotch Bonnet holds sway and the trio of Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria where they ramp up the temperature with shito which is a black pepper paste accentuated with palm oil and occasionally a sprinkling of anise pepper which is a close cousin of Sichuan peppers that I would discuss in a bit.
Although Ethiopia is very much a part of the African continent, their experiences with chillies allows them to have a dedicated paragraph. Their culinary style leans rather heavily in the direction of berbere which is chilli-spice mixture that is incorporated into almost everything that they cook.
During the tiny period of history when Italians conquered part of Ethiopia or rather Abyssinia as it was referred to then, the short stay was time enough for them to think of involving a bit of spice into their usually vanilla cuisine. The provinces of Sicily and Calabria use crushed red peppers or Calabrian peppers which are hot enough to fill your brow with sweat.
You can’t really talk about spicy cuisines without a mention of the countries that lie in Asia. Sri Lankan food can be fierce with the addition of nose-burning black peppercorns; Koreans can probably kick-start spontaneous combustion with their chillies and kimchi. Indonesian sambals are not for the faint of heart and they take chillies so seriously that they even managed to create a dessert centred on chillies.
The Thai are at a totally different level when it comes to adding chillies to food. They probably have the rights to the tiniest chilli in the world which is the aptly named bird-eye chilli which finds itself in every dish they produce. What they however don’t mention is that the chilli should probably have been called the death-wish chilli!
And if you thought that you could hop over to Japan – the land of bland sushi and sashimi for some respite, you are sadly mistaken! In case you have forgotten, they serve the bland fare with the spicy horseradish called wasabi and in case that wasn’t enough, they offer you the option of having shichimi which is an ultra-spicy condiment and shishito peppers which are lightly seared and served as a side.
Merely looking at this list is giving me an ulcer; I think that I am headed out for an ice-cream! Nothing like something cool like that to protect me from this gut-splitting menu!