There’s a certain satisfaction derived from exciting the taste buds with heat. While tolerances may vary, the magic that occurs is undoubtedly one of life’s great pleasures and one that can lift a mediocre dish, into something infinitely more interesting. However, care needs to be taken to ensure all the other flavours in a dish are in balance, and aren’t left behind, flailing in the rear view mirror. Chilli has a remarkable ability to linger on the palate and when used well, can draw out the flavours of a dish for an incredibly long time. Smokey notes can be strung out, as can floral qualities and even deep, Marmitey, umaminess.
But you knew all that, and the array of vibrant, diverse heat sources at chef’s fingertips today is extensive. Spices provide a rich, dry heat that can’t be beaten when searching for those earthy, soul-satisfying dishes. At the bright, hotter end of the scale we find Cayenne, which works all manner of magic against shellfish and pork, while at the deeper end of the pool you find smoked paprika, cumin, and curry powder.
Fermented hot sauces are bubbling up to be quite a thing in the US and continue to grow here in the UK. From using it to underpin hefty burgers, to lacing it through marinades, the depth of flavour saddled with the prickly chilli heat, is mesmerising. At LA’s Sqirl, fermented jalapenos are used to create a hot sauce that gets used in several dishes in their breakfast line up. One of the highlight uses of this sauce is when it’s snaked through a bowl of deep fried rice dressed in lemon juice and ginger, topped with sausage meat and a fried egg, a dish that has quickly become one of the most sought after in the city.
Kimchi has had a good run over the past few years, the Korean fermented cabbage has been used in countless cheese toasties at Borough Market and has found it’s way into all manner of everyday food stuffs. The Korean fermented chilli paste gochujang has also become a cult favourite and offers a miso-like depth, making it hugely versatile in heavier meals. Chef Neil Rankin used to serve up a large croqueta when he was back at Islington’s Smokehouse, that contained smoked brisket and gochujang which was quite simply, flawless.
Another heat source that’s become impressively mainstream is sriracha. The Thai hot sauce that carries strong notes of garlic was almost unheard of six or seven years ago, but today every bearded poseur in north London owns a t-shirt with the Huy Fong brand logo and carries an emergency miniature bottle on their key ring – just in case you want your entire meal to taste like this overhyped chilli ketchup.
Of course, fresh chillies are where some of the more nuanced flavours can be found and cultivated. While the habanero might carry the most clout by means of heat intensity, it also has one of the juiciest, fruit characteristics. With a flavour profile that’s equally as citrusy as it is sweet, the habanero works incredibly well with other fruits. When run in sorbet or ice creams made with mango, orange, or pineapple, the dance between chilling icy mouthfeel and bright intense heat can be just the thing to wake up jaded palates towards the end of a tasting menu.
Sometimes though, it’s just common black pepper that’s needed for the job. The complexity of this reliable spice is often overshadowed by clever hot sauces and intricate marinades, but given the chance, it goes toe-to-toe with the best of them.
We’re seeing an increase in demand for fiery dishes these days, and with careful tempering, and a well armed larder, we can show diners just how intricate ‘spicy’ can be.