Spicy food is just as diverse as individuals’ ability to tolerate it. Some love the burning, numbing and tingling that comes from foods containing capsaicin and other compounds that create hot sensations; others find it unbearable. For many local chefs who prepare these types of heat-packed dishes, it’s not about overwhelming the taste buds. “Spicy food should be balanced,” says Rasika chef Vikram Sunderam. “If a dish is spicy, you should still be able to taste its flavors.” Here are a few powerfully spicy dishes with bold taste profiles.
Sliced Beef and Vegetables in Fiery Soup With Sichuan Peppercorns
Sichuan Jin River, 410 Hungerford Drive, Rockville, MD.; 240-403-7351.
Spice fiends are probably already familiar with the unique sensation offered by the Sichuan peppercorn. Used extensively in cuisine from China’s Sichuan region, peppercorns create an electric, tingling, numbing sensation in the mouth. Chef Jason Pei of Sichuan Jin River says the tiny red pods (which are actually the berries of the prickly ash tree) help to “boost other herbal flavors” in food. His fiery soup with sliced beef and vegetables ($15.25) contains spicy soybean red sauce and is topped with a copious portion of those peppercorns. Diners often mix rice into the broth to cut the heat, but the peppercorns’ characteristic numbing sensation hits before long. Try it once or twice and you may become addicted to the seemingly masochistic meal, Pei says. “It takes time to get used to” the spice, he says, “but once you have, you’ve got to have it” again.
Ghost Pepper Salsa
Fuego Cocina Y Tequileria, 2800 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 571-970-2180.
You’ll find ghost peppers — one of the world’s hottest — at Fuego Cocina y Tequileria. Thinly chopped and pickled with onions and lime juice, the pepper is served in a salsa available for free by request alongside any dish. Chef Alfredo Solis says you’d find this sort of condiment served with Mexican street food (despite the fact that the ghost pepper is native to India). On the Scoville scale of spice pungency, this pepper is reportedly rated at around 1 million heat units. (Classic Tabasco sauce, by comparison, clocks in at 2,500 to 5,000 heat units.) Think you can bear it? Try the ghost pepper salsa on the al pastor tacos ($7, above right), which contain spit-roasted pork, pineapple and moderately-spicy-by-comparison arbol and habanero pepper sauces, for an intense burn.
Chicken Green Masala With Thai Green Chili Peppers
Rasika, 633 D St. NW; 202-637-1222.
Indian food is known for containing a significant quantity of spices, but not all of it is spicy in the hot, pungent sense. At chef Vikram Sunderam’s Rasika and Rasika West End, for instance, some dishes contain no peppers at all (and, therefore, little heat). When it does come to piquant Indian dishes, Sunderam makes sure the components of the meal are balanced. If heat is “overpowering, you can’t taste the flavors,” Sunderam says. Rasika’s most popular spicy dish, chicken green masala ($17), is made with a base of cilantro, garlic, cinnamon and cardamom. A measured amount of ground Thai green chili peppers provides consistent background heat that is both potent and aromatic.
Korean Fried Chicken Wings With Spicy Sauce
Mandu, 453 K St. NW; 202-289-6899.
Look around at most bars and you’ll find plenty of hot wings. Unfortunately, they often function as an endurance challenge at the expense of actually being flavorful (or enjoyable). Not so with the bar-only Korean fried chicken wings ($5) at Mandu’s K Street location. The wings are twice-fried to achieve a high level of crispiness and then coated in a sweet-spicy sauce that’s the hallmark of Korean fried chicken. The sauce — the result of long experimentation by co-owner Danny Lee and his mother, chef Yesoon Lee — contains a base of soy sauce and vinegar; its kick comes from Sriracha sauce, Korean red chili paste and ginger. The effect is a sticky, sweet bite with heat that steadily builds in your mouth but never becomes unbearable.
Have a high tolerance for heat but never seem to end up with food that’s spicy enough? Try having a conversation with your server or chef, letting him or her know that you’re not a novice and you really do have the stomach for intense spice. Or you could try a buzzword; some Express staffers have gotten results by using such phrases as “nuclear” and “Thai hot.”