The wide world of spicy international cuisine

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Think there is a lot of hot food in Houston? You can thank the many cultures that contribute to the sizzling recipes of our culinary tapestry. We’ve dug a little deeper into the connections that six specific cultures – Mexican, West African, Thai, Indian, Chinese, and Caribbean – have with the heat to show how important chili peppers are in our lives.

MEXICAN

Chili peppers are native to Mexico, making the country the genesis of all the spicy food in the world. Pre-Mayan civilizations dating back to 7,500 BCE grew and ate hot peppers. The Spanish conquistadors and colonists then scattered these peppers all over the world while passing on their influence on Mexican cuisine.

Today, says Hugo Ortega, award-winning chef James Beard from Mexico City, “we don’t use chili peppers just to add heat. We use them to add depth of flavor… texture.

In its eponymous Montrose flagship, Hugo’s, which serves authentic Mexican cuisine, almost every dish incorporates a mix of ancient indigenous and Spanish colonial influences, perhaps none quite as good as the lechon (braised suckling pig), a dish originally imported from Spain, but served in a tightly packed banana leaf with a bright red, sweaty habanero salsa and homemade corn tortillas reminiscent of the beginnings of the Meso- America.

CARIBBEAN

“As a style of cooking, jerk refers to the way meat is seasoned, smoked and grilled. It was developed during slavery on the island of Jamaica to preserve meat, ”says Tony Davis, entrepreneur of the Reggae Hut restaurant in the Museum District Caribbean and the hugely popular The Breakfast Klub in Midtown.

This seasoning includes allspice berries, thyme, Scotch Bonnet peppers, green onions and ginger, all of which speak of the civilizations (European settlers, African slaves, and Arab and Asian traders) that influenced the vibrant Jamaican tradition. cooking with spices, curries with roasted flatbread to his signature Jerk chicken.

The traditional version of Reggae Hut is grilled to blackened perfection and served with rice, peas and your choice of mixed vegetables or Caribbean potato salad. How hot is this bird?

“The intensity of the heat,” says Davis, “really depends on what the consumer is willing to put up with.”

WEST AFRICA

West Africa is perhaps the most historically influential region in the world when it comes to eating habits and therefore heat. The export of West African slaves also led to the creation of Creole and Caribbean cuisine.

In Houston, Nigerians have the largest West African population in the city and, according to Tiffaney Odewale, the greatest flavors too. “Nigerians think spicy food is a satisfaction. If it’s not spicy, then they’re not satisfied. They spice up every meal.

At Odewale’s Cafe Abuja restaurant, which she runs with her husband and native of Nigeria, Avo, the go-to order is a traditional West African dish, egusi soup, a thick stew of dried and powdered melon seeds, powdered crayfish and mixed peppers (scorching Scottish caps, popular in West African tribes, are typical), best served with fufu yam, a bouncy, bun-like dough – a staple in most Nigerian households.

INDIAN

“The cultural importance of spices in Indian cuisine cannot be overstated,” says Anita Jaisinghani, chef-owner of Pondicheri. Even turmeric and cumin (probably traced back to the Middle East) made their way in and out of the subcontinent through the world’s oldest trade routes around 10,000 years ago, which as Jaisinghani so eloquently points out, “thrived for over a millennium, created and destroyed kingdoms and ultimately resulted in the accidental discovery of America. Somewhere along the way, in the 16th century, three varieties of chili peppers were planted along the Malabar coast in southwest India, and today Indian farms in Chile grow chili peppers. like the skinny Guntur Sannam and the plump Salem Gundu.

In Pondicherry, his restaurant Kirby, the semi-finalist of the James Beard Award popularized Indian cuisine which combines ancient blends of spices – “is integral to every region of India and what really sustains the country’s food. together ”- with contemporary creativity and Western influence, as she morning thali. The classic sample plate, including a fried egg on carrot flatbread, homemade saffron yogurt, potato curry, yellow oatmeal uppma, and keema, a hot Indian chili with spicy beef with serranos and other green peppers, is a unique Indian take on American breakfast.

CHINESE / SICHUAN

Chinese cuisine may be the oldest living cuisine (circa 15th century BCE), but chili peppers did not land in Sichuan, its province known for its heat, until the 18th or 19th century AD. Yet around this time, his cooks essentially rewrote the book on spicy food, combining peppers with their native Szechuan pepper for an experience that somewhat resembles the typical capsaicin-fueled fire.

“Instead,” says Cori Xiong, owner of Mala Sichuan Bistro, “the combination of chili peppers and Sichuan pepper gives you a pleasant feeling of numbness and tingling in your mouth and tongue, together making up the flavor. mala or, translated into English, numbing and spicy. ”With most Sichuan dishes, mala is followed by a tangy, vinegar flavor that gains in complexity.

At Mala Sichuan, Xiong’s beloved restaurant named for the feeling of numbness, order the spicy and crispy chicken to experience it for yourself. Quickly fried pieces of dark meat are mixed with this quintessential mala seasoning, which includes chili peppers, including moderately warming Facing Heaven pepper, whole Sichuan peppercorns and fermented bean paste. It is a deeply spicy dish that conveys the spirit of Sichuan and it is also normal to call it Szechuan.

THAI

Thai cuisine has developed over the centuries under the influence of early Chinese settlers, Muslim and Indian traders (who brought curry and more spices) and even European colonialism – the Portuguese brought Thai chili peppers. , also known as bird’s eye peppers, here during the Columbia Exchange – adding a myriad of flavors to what is now considered one of the richest cuisines in the world, not to mention the one that sounds the most alarm bells. .

“If you’ve seen someone eating a meal with tears in their eyes but a big smile on their face, it’s probably a spicy Thai dish,” says Lukkaew Srasrisuwan, co-owner of Kin Dee Thai Cuisine in the Heights. Restaurant must order khao soi, Nordic-style curry – an egg noodle-based curry dish with Thai chili-accented curry paste and coconut milk served over chicken – represents Thailand’s diversity and love of spices. . “Herbs like lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, coriander seeds,” says Srasrisuwan. He could go on.

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