Bring on the Fire
Spicy Inroads into the USA

Mark P. Stevens

During the past 25 years there has been an unprecedented change in American eating habits.  Improved transportation systems have allowed for the marketing of a much more diverse selection of foods than at any other time in history.  One specific change in national tastes is the sweeping tide of hot and spicy food that is moving inland from the coasts and north from the southern Border States.  Fiery cuisine is taking on a life of it’s own, with specialty stores and restaurants devoted to the burn.  There is even an Internet mailing list of ChileHeads with close to a thousand subscribers worldwide who use it to discuss every aspect of this spicy food subculture, centered on the hot chile pepper they adoringly refer to as “El Grande!”

Interest in hot & spicy cuisine is due in part to the availability of them resulting from a world wide distribution system, as well as the incorporation of large numbers of immigrants from tropical climates, where a love of spicy foods seems to have always been a culinary tradition.  Large communities of people migrating from the Caribbean, Central America and tropical areas of the Pacific Rim such as India, Thailand and Malaysia have contributed to the popularity of their fiery foods.

The chile pepper itself is a New World vegetable.  Like corn, tomatoes and potatoes, they were unknown outside the Americas prior to Columbus’ discovery of the new world.  Since the early voyages to the Americas started as a means of locating a western route for the spice trade, it is felt that this is why chiles were mistakenly named for the pungent fruit of the tropical vine that produces black pepper.  Can you imagine Malaysian, Thai or Chinese cuisine prior to the introduction of chiles around 1500 AD?

Many varieties of  peppers, also known as members of the capsicum species, are not hot, or pungent. Most bell peppers grown in the US have little or no pungency.  These varieties are used fresh, or often used to color other foods. The wilder varieties, on the other hand, range from mildly to extremely pungent. This is entirely due to the substance capsaicin, or, actually, a group of similar substances called capsaicinoids.  These chemicals are found mostly in the ribs of the peppers, and especially the placenta, which are the light colored membranes that attach the seeds to the inside of the pepper pod.  Pure capsaicin is a whitish powder, soluble in alcohol but insoluble in cold water, which is why drinking water to help alleviate the burning won't work.  Drinking whole milk or other dairy products will help alleviate the burn, as will bread or other starchy fare.  Several people on the ChileHeads mailing list swear by bananas as the ultimate rescue!

Chiles are used in a wide variety of ways.  They can be chopped and used raw in salsas and salads, or used along with citrus juices to marinade seafood in a dish called ceviche.  They can also be cooked into a large number of Southwestern, Asian and Indonesian dishes.  Chiles are also often dried and/or smoked.  A smoked Jalapeno is called a Chipotle, and adds a pungent smokey heat to many soups and stews.

The capsaicinoids are unique compared to other "spicy" substances such as mustard oil (zingerone and allyl isothiocyanate), black pepper (piperine) and ginger (gingerol) in that capsaicin causes a long-lasting selective desensitization to the irritant pain by repeated doses of a low concentration or a single high concentration dose. This effect has been taken to its logical conclusion in that many pain killing salves and creams now use capsaicin as their active ingredient.  This is also manifests in 'Chile-heads' as an increasing ability to eat hotter chile peppers and foods.  Another effect of capsaicin is that although it fools the nervous system into believing that it is being burned, that no actual physical damage occurs.  As a result the brain releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkiller, resulting in a slight euphoria experienced by the chile-chomper! 

Back in the early 1900s, a chemist named Wilbur Scoville, developed a method to measure the heat level of  chile peppers.  it's called the Scoville Organoleptic Test, and is a dilution-taste procedure. In the original test, Scoville blended pure ground chiles with a sugar-water solution and a panel of testers then sipped the concoctions, in increasingly diluted concentrations, until they reached the point at which the liquid no longer burned the mouth. A number was then assigned to each chile based on how much it needed to be diluted before you could taste no heat.  The Scoville heat scale is measured in multiples of 100 units, with the lowly bell pepper rated zero, to the scorching, fruity tasting habanero which rates at 300,000 Scoville units.  One variety of habanero, the Red Savina, has been tested at over 500,000 units, and has been listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the worlds hottest chile!  These days the Scoville method of tasting diluted chiles has been replaced by  High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC).  This has allowed a more precise measurement of the actual amount of  capsaicinoids in a sample of chiles.  The resulting measurement is usually related back to the Scoville scale for comparison.

Scoville scale
Scoville Units Type of Chile Pepper
15,000,000–16,000,000 Pure capsaicin
9,100,000 Nordihydrocapsaicin
2,000,000–5,300,000 Standard U.S. Grade pepper spray
855,000–1,041,427 Naga Jolokia
350,000–580,000 Red Savina™ Habanero
100,000–350,000 Habanero chile pepper
100,000–200,000 Rocoto Jamaican Hot Pepper
50,000–100,000 Thai Pepper
30,000–50,000 Cayenne Pepper
10,000–23,000 Serrano Pepper/td>
4,500–5,000 New Mexican
2,500–8,000 Jalapeño Pepper
1,500–2,500 Rocotillo Pepper
1,000–1,500 Poblano Pepper
500–2,500 Anaheim pepper
0 No heat, Bell Pepper
0-5,000: Mild 5,000-20,000: Medium
20,000-70,000: Hot 70,000-300,000: Extremely Hot

One of the first commercial condiments to be used to add a little fire to ones life was Tabasco cayenne pepper sauce.  Originated in southern Louisiana just after the civil war, it was used on raw oysters, scrambled eggs and gumbo.  Until the early 90s this and a few other cayenne type sauces were the only game in town.  The hot sauce industry is now approaching $200 million a year in business.  Now there are over 1000 different varieties of hotsauce sold, some milder than Tabasco, many scorchingly hotter!  The Tabasco Company itself now markets several varieties of sauces, one flaming version made with habanero peppers, considered by many fiery foods enthusiasts to be the hottest chile on earth.

Another product that has made deep inroads into popular culinary circles in the US is salsa, which surpassed the previous favorite condiment, catsup, in the early 90s.  Generally a tomato based product with chiles, onions and cilantro, there are hundreds of varieties offered with diverse ingredients such as mangos, papaya, Vidalia onions, jicama, corn, tomatillos and olives.  Once reserved as a dip for tortilla chips, salsas are now served as an accompaniment to a variety of meats and fish

ChileHeads don’t merely like the bite of these pungent pods; they yearn for it.  The chile pepper adds a certain sensory element to a dish, however elaborate or delicate it might be.  The ChileHead is addicted.  They start collecting different concoctions including hot sauces, salsas, fresh or dried chiles and ground chile powders.  In what some might consider obsessive, the pepper eater may begin to turn his or her nose up at foods that cannot be enhanced by the addition of some sort of  spicy condiment.  That a third of the world’s population has become so enamored of a fruit that bites back with such a vengance is remarkable.  They will seek out others of their faith and trade chiles, sauces and stories.  When they have stopped sweating and fanning their mouths they will reach for another taste of El Grande…

Mark P. Stevens

Some Firey Recipes

Piquant Salmon Rolls

8 oz. cream cheese

1/4 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped

1/4 cup green onion, chopped

1/2 tsp ground coriander

1/2 tsp cayenne (or more, to taste.  For Chilehead events I’ve used dried habanero powder)

1 stalk celery chopped

2 tsp lemon juice

8 oz. (3/4" by 2") thin slices smoked salmon

thin sliced cucumber

freshly ground pepper

your favorite crackers (I use wheatsworth)

fresh dill sprigs

hot sauce*

1. In a bowl, soften cream cheese and stir in chives, green onion walnuts and celery.

2. Add lemon juice and spices and mix well.

3. Spread mixture on salmon slices and season with pepper, roll up to form neat rolls

4. Place a cucumber slice on each cracker and place a sprig of dill and a salmon roll on each cucumber.

5. Drizzle with remaining lemon juice and garnish with chives if desired.

* To add some more heat you can add a couple drops of habanero sauce to the top of the cucumber during assembly. The sauce I use has cloves and honey which

seem to compliment the flavor of the salmon. You might want to play around with the seasonings

salmon rolls may be prepared several hours in advance, and assembled just before serving to prevent the cracker from getting soggy.

Bun Bo Hue (Vietnamese Hot and Spicy Soup)

By   Lyn Belisle of the FoodWine mailing list


4-6 pork feet

1-1 1/2 pounds roast beef

1/2 tsp. meat tenderizer

1-3 stems lemongrass, cut into 3" pieces

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon chopped dry onion

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon shrimp paste

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon MSG

1 package rice vermicelli noodles, cooked and drained

1.  Boil the pork feet 10 minutes, then drain.

2.  Cut the beef into bite size cubes, boil for 10 minutes, then drain.

3. In a deep saucepan half filled with water, add pork feet and meat tenderizer. Cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. Add the beef cubes and continue to cook over medium heat.

4.  In the meantime put oil in a small skillet, heat until very hot, remove from burner and immediately throw in the dried onion and the chili powder. Stir well and pour into soup.

5.  Add the shrimp paste and seasonings to taste. Let soup simmer for 30-45 minutes until pig's feet are well cooked.

6.  Soup is ready to serve. Fill bowls half full of rice noodles and ladle the soup over them.

7.  Serve with chopped green onion, cilantro, sliced peppers, and lime.

Serves 4-6

Chinese Hot & Sour Soup


6 cups chicken stock

1/4 lb julienned lean pork or chicken

2 tbsp garlic & red chile paste

2 tbsp soy sauce

3/4 tsp ground white pepper

4 eggs, beaten

5 tbsp cornstarch

1 cup sliced shittake mushrooms

1 can peeled straw mushrooms

1 can sliced bamboo shoots

1 can sliced water chestnuts

1 can baby corn ears

1 cake soft tofu, sliced into 1/4 inch cubes

1/4 cup white vinegar

1 tsp sesame oil

1/4 cup dried black fungus (cloud ears), soaked in water for one hour, drained and sliced.

finely chopped scallions for garnish


1. Bring stock to a simmer, add soy, pork, mushrooms & chile paste, simmer for 10 minutes.

2. add pepper, vinegar, bamboo, baby corn, water chestnuts, fungus and tofu, simmer 10 min

3. Mix cornstarch with 5 tbsp water and add. bring back to a simmer and pour the eggs in a very thin stream over the surface. Let stand for 10 seconds before gently stirring in the sesame oil.

4. serve with a garnish of chopped scallions. The pepper, vinegar and chile paste can be varied to taste. You're a chile-head, you know what to do!

Chipotle Chicken & Veggie Soup

Got the idea for this after sampling a couple bowls of a regional style soup during a trip to the Firey Foods Festival in New Mexico, just substituted Chipotles for the green


1 6 lb. roasting chicken

1 32 oz can chicken stock

1 cup coarsley chopped celery (Save all veggie trimmings for stock)

1 cup diced red bell pepper

1 cup sliced carrots

2 medium onions coarsely chopped

1 cup corn kernels

1 16 oz can diced tomato

1 14 oz. can chipotles in adobo sauce

1/2 tsp thyme

cracked black pepper to taste

salt to taste (I use heavy chinese soy sauce)

1.  Roast chicken in oven till done, cool overnight.

2.  Debone chicken and save all the bones & scraps. Cut meat into bite size bits removing fat & gristle. Refrigerate.

3.  In a large stock pot add bones and carcass as well as veggie peelings, carrot butts and onion skins etc and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 2 to 3

hours, skimming and stirring occasionally.

4.  Strain through a colander and add stock back to pot. Add celery, bell pepper, corn, onions and carrots as well as the canned stock and bring to a simmer. Cook until

veggies begin to turn tender. Add chicken and canned tomato.

5.  While soup is coming back to a simmer, take about a cup of it and put in a food processor with the chipotles & adobo. Whirr it up for about 30 seconds or untill the

peppers are well pureed. Add salt, pepper and thyme to the soup, then start adding the chipotle puree about a quarter cup at a time, stirring and tasting for the desired

pungency. Using all of it makes for a chileheads delite, but may be too much for some gringos to handle!

6.  This makes a big old pot full, which would probably serve 10 or 15 people. Good for freezing and serving at a later time.

*You could use all canned stock and one of those rotisserie chickens from the store, but my life is dull and I got nothin' better to do...

=Mark's Place
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