NO TWO CHILI PEPPERS are created equal, and neither are the tastes of those who eat them. People bred on hot, spicy food are as comfortable in their use of peppers as many Americans are with salt.
Devotees of spicy food will tell you that food is just plain dull without peppers of some type, insisting that the spice is the salt of their lives, enhancing flavors rather than burying them.
In the interest of those without the burning desire, however, they may go to great lengths to tone down spicy dishes and pass the hottest sauces in separate bowls. They want to convert palates, not destroy them.
As wide as the world is, there is a whole universe of ideas about how hot peppers should be used in recipes.
In China and India, for example, they are dried and ground, seeds and all, for use as a flaky condiment. Hungarians use them in powder form with the name paprika on the label. In Bahia, Brazil, they're chopped into pastes. In the deep American south the heat is poured from a bottle in the form of Tabasco. And in Bangkok, Thailand, home of possibly the hottest cuisine of all, the fire starts in the sauce. THAILAND
"We use lots of fresh green chilies and dried red chilies in our sauces," says Sarim Yastsmarn, chef at the Thai Room on Connecticut Avenue. He is known for cooking some dishes so hot that he's the only person who will eat them. When he cooks crispy deep-fried fish for himself, the sauce will have seven chopped fresh peppers in it; for his customers it will have four and still be fire-hot, he says.
"Heat doesn't destroy my palate," he says emphatically. "I eat hot food every day. I could pick out all the spices in a hot dish any time."
Yastsmarn, a native of Bangkok, says he learned the taste of hot Thai food from his mother--a great cook who unfortunately kept her culinary secrets to herself. So it wasn't until moving to the United States about 30 years ago that he discovered his own culinary talents at the Thai embassy when he was hired as an unproven chef and then began developing his popular special chicken and knockout sauces.
"We taste the fresh chilies each day as they come in," he says, and then he and his kitchen staff of eight determine how many will go into his sauces and, occasionally, straight into the dishes.
The peppers are ground into a curry paste along with some combination of lemon grass, galanga (a root similar to ginger), fresh ginger, coriander seed, cumin, fenugreek, garlic and shallots. This paste, he says, is a basic hot curry that he'll saute' just before adding fish, beef, chicken or vegetables separately or in some exotic combination. The sauces, he says, should be cooked quickly over a high flame; overcooking burns out the heat of the pepper. There are also a variety of red and yellow chili sauces ranging in flavor from fire-hot to sweet-hot that can be purchased in Asian groceries to be used on grilled meats and in cold dishes.
Just in case your food still doesn't have enough kick to it, Yastsmarn recommends making a condiment tray for the table--tiny bowls filled with fish sauce and chopped chilies to use on rice, vegetables and fried fish; vinegar with hot peppers, to use over noodles; and dried red pepper flakes to use on everything. SICHUAN
If one listened to old-wives' tales one could thank Mother Nature for this hot southwestern Chinese cooking style. The long red pepper that was introduced to China in the 14th century was said to serve a specific purpose: to keep body temperatures up during bitter, cold winters and bodies sweating during hot, humid summers, says Sharon Farrington, a local Asian cooking teacher.
"There's nothing terribly difficult about the cooking style," Farrington says of Sichuan steaming, frying, simmering and roasting. She says there are eight basic flavors in Sichuan-style food, the most important being the hot--which comes from fresh chilies, dried red chilies and various chili pastes and sauces, and some pickled vegetables. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese peppercorns aren't terribly hot, Farrington says. They are used more for their flavor than their heat. HUNGARY
"It's all in the paprika," says Aniko Gaal, fashion and public relations director for Garfinckel's, about the heat in her native Hungarian cuisine. There are three types, she says--hot, mild and sweet--and they are simply dried, powdered peppers. Her cupboard is bare without a tin of each, she says, and tubes of hot cherry pepper paste regularly shipped from Budapest. And you can always find a variety of fresh hot jalapenos in the bottom of her vegetable bin, she adds. "The cherry peppers are the hottest and meatiest," she says. "Just wonderful--truly sweet and hot. Put that on buttered bread and it's like caviar.
"You have to love it," she says. "It has to be good for you and pleasant if you're going to eat it. Otherwise you're a masochist. I think most people who eat hot food truly love the taste of that burning sensation. Everybody thinks I'm crazy, that I don't taste the food. I do, much better than they do. It's simply a matter of educating your palate."
If you're a newcomer to Hungarian specialties, which she says are primarily stews and goulash, you might want to use some combination of hot and sweet paprikas, she suggests. Then just before serving the dish, take some of the sauce out of the pan and add several cut-up fresh chilies and cook it for 10 minutes. Then if you want to liven things up a bit, put as much as you want over the top of your stew. BAHIA, BRAZIL
In Bahia, Brazil, the cuisine is called Afro-Brazilian cookery, writes Margarette De Andrade in her book "Brazilian Cookery." It developed from the large slave trade flourishing in the state in the mid-15th century. In addition to their use of many peppers, the African slaves made great use of banana, okra and ginger, and introduced coconut milk and dried shrimp into the cuisine, she says.
The heat in this cuisine comes from the malagueta pepper, an extremely hot pepper that even Ana Emelia Rutherford, a local Bahian, admits she has never been able to eat whole. But in the same breath she will tell you she thinks nothing of eating pickled jalapenos and cheese for dinner. At the malagueta pepper's peak in popularity it was even used to season beer and wine, and still today sits dried and ground next to salt and pepper on many Bahian tables, De Andrade writes. The other principal ingredient is dende oil, an African palm oil.
In Bahia, four principal sauces make heavy use of the malagueta pepper and dende oil: acaraje sauce (dried peppers and dried ground shrimp), mo lho de pimenta e limbao (pepper and lemon sauce), mo lho de azeite de dende e vinagre (palm oil and vinegar sauce) and nago (peppers, onions, lemon juice, garlic and salt). In these recipes dry peppers, garlic, seeds and other condiments are ground together into a paste before they are used to season seafood, chicken and beef. INDIA
"There's a tremendous variety of dishes in India," says Quentine Acharya, a Silver Spring free-lance writer and occasional teacher of Indian cuisine. Invariably, she says, she is surprised when traveling in her homeland to find new dishes that she's never tasted or heard of before. Southern India's Mangalorian food is among the hottest India has to offer. It is where fresh and dried red chilies come into their own, she says, and are used in combination with black peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cumin, coriander and coconut ("which helps tone the burning of the hot chilies").
While many Indians are strict vegetarians, many Mangalorian dishes also rely on chicken, pork, beef and lamb; and the curries she develops from these spices make it to her dining room table at least three times a week. "It's a lot more work than American food," she says, mainly because there's a lot of chopping and toasting of spices.
Curry is not just one dish. It is a combination of spices, she says. Peanut oil is cooked with onions and spices into a type of gravy. In addition, most Indians do not use commercial curry powder, she says, because it is not as fresh, flavorful and aromatic as the powders she produces fresh for each dish she creates. For pork or beef, she says, coriander and bay leaf are usually added to the standard ingredients above. Whatever is being curried is usually marinated in the curry spices for at least one day, and preferably two, to allow the spices to soak in, she says. Then, ideally, it should sit another day after being cooked.
Spicy hot curries are always served with boiled white rice and perhaps relishes also seasoned with the hot peppers. Chilled beer and fresh mango juice are her family's standard beverages to go with curries, and they follow the meal with hot tea spiced with cardamom seeds, milk and sugar.
"A good-tasting hot Indian dish shouldn't really bite your tongue. It should not be hot and unpleasant. Even though we use a lot of spices, the way they're combined and the way we give it time to mellow makes it much more pleasant tasting," Acharya says. "The perfect level of heat, she says, is not so hot it makes your eyes water, you should be able to taste all the spices." SOUTHERN U.S.
"Everything tastes the same to me if I don't have hot sauce on it," says Lee Atwater, a 31-year-old White House political aide, adding that he's been known to "dump" an entire bottle of hot sauce on a single dish. "But every food tastes distinctly different if I have hot sauce on it. It brings out the essence of the flavor of the food."
Atwater says he empties three bottles of Tabasco each week on everything he eats, including popcorn, scrambled eggs and, once to win a bet while flying on Air Force One, even as a topping for raspberry sherbet. Each year he orders a case of 100 miniature bottles of Tabasco from Louisiana, and carries one in his pocket when eating out, including at formal White House dinners.
There are three basic types of hot sauce, he explains of the five bottles he keeps stocked in his office. Tabasco is made strictly with tabasco peppers and is truly the "premier hot sauce," because it's the hottest. "Mexi-pep," his second favorite, is made with tabasco, jalapeno and cayenne peppers. All the rest are the "populist kind," he jokes, made only of cayenne peppers. "If I use a cayenne-based hot sauce, I use it just like most people use ketchup," he says. "I'll use a whole bottle at one meal."
The fact that he's a "southern boy", combined with his wife's southern cooking, helps him maintain his pepper sauce habit, he says. Hot-pepper-doused green beans, black-eyed peas, fried chicken and pork chops are among his favorites.
Atwater says doctors have been warning him since he was 5 years old that his habit would eat away his stomach lining. "By the time I was 21 and into politics, the doctors were telling me I was going to have ulcers, 'bout this time next year or something," he says. "My philosophy is a bottle of Tabasco a day intimidates your ulcers away. ANIKO GAAL'S HUNGARIAN CHICKEN PAPRIKA S (4 servings)
This sauce should be as thick as stew. Serve on a large oval platter on a bed of lettuce leaves and noodles. 2 large onions, finely minced 1 clove garlic, finely chopped 4 tablespoons bacon fat 3 heaping tablespoons hot paprika (substitute 6 tablespoons sweet hungarian paprika) 1/2 cup water Salt and pepper to taste 3 1/2-pound chicken, cut up 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce 6-ounce can tomato paste 3 green peppers, cut into 1-inch squares 1/2 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced (optional) Water (can be enriched with chicken broth) 1 tablespoon cornstarch (optional) Hot sauce (recipe follows) Sour cream sauce (recipe follows) Galuska (recipe follows) or hot buttered noodles
Melt bacon fat in heavy 5-quart sauce pan and add the minced onions and garlic. Simmer slowly until onions are soft and cooked through. Add all the paprika. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 1/2 cup water. Stir. Add salt and pepper. Add all the chicken pieces and stir until chicken is thoroughly coated with the cooking mixture.
Add tomato sauce and paste. Keep stirring. Add green peppers, optional mushrooms and enough water (or a water/chicken broth mixture) to cover 3/4 of the ingredients in the pot.
Let it simmer, covered, over medium heat 30 to 40 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce is thick. If the sauce is not thick at this point take out a cupful, mix it with 1 tablespoon cornstarch and stir it back in the stew. Serve with the following two sauces, passed separately, and galuska (Hungarian hot buttered noodles). HOT SAUCE 2 cups thick sauce (from chicken paprika s) 2 to 3 hot cherry peppers or jalapenos, chopped Cook peppers in thick sauce for 10 to 15 minutes. Obviously, the heat of this sauce depends on the number of peppers you add. SOUR CREAM SAUCE 2 cups thick sauce (from chicken paprika s) 2 to 3 tablespoons sour cream Stir sauce into sauce pot. Add sour cream, reheat and serve. GALUSKA (Hungarian gnocchi) 2 cups flour 2 eggs Salt and pepper Water 1 to 2 tablespoons butter Mix flour, eggs, salt and pepper together in a bowl. Add water bit by bit until all the flour is absorbed and you have a thick, sticky dough. Cover and let rest 20 to 30 minutes. Hold plate in one hand, resting it against edge of 2-quart pot of boiling, salted water. With a knife slice off half-inch-thick, three-inch-long strips. Snip off quarter-inch pieces of dough and drop into boiling, water. When cooked through but al dente, (this takes about 2 minutes), drain and toss with butter to prevent the noodles from sticking together. Place in shallow saucepan to be heated up just before serving. SARIM YASTSMARN THAI DEEP-FRIED FISH (4 servings) 4 to 7 hot fresh chili peppers*, finely chopped 1 tablespoon crushed dried red pepper (optional) 1 clove garlic, mashed Oil for deep frying 2 1-pound whole fish, cleaned and scaled 2 tablespoons oil 2 tablespoons fish sauce 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar With a mortar and pestle grind chili pepper, dried red pepper and garlic together into a paste. Put in saucepan and set aside. Heat to 325 degrees enough oil (about 3 cups) in wok to submerge fish. Deep-fry fish over medium heat for 10 minutes or until done--the skin will be crispy and flesh will be opaque and fork tender. Remove from oil carefully lifting with two spatulas and drain on paper towels.
While fish is cooking. Saute' chili paste in 2 tablespoons oil until light and aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add fish sauce and sugar. Cook 2 more minutes. Pour sauce over cooked fish and serve immediately with boiled white rice.
*Note: The amount of pepper you use, of course, depends on your taste. Seven peppers, Yastsmarn says, would make for a very hot fish, and that's the way he would eat it. Four peppers would be mild. SHARON FARRINGTON'S SICHUAN DAN DAN NOODLES (18 servings) 3 pounds medium Cantonese dried egg noodles (substitute vermicelli or linguine) 1/3 cup peanut oil 2 to 3 tablespoons Chinese sesame oil For sauce: 1/2 cup sesame seeds, toasted and crushed 3/4 cup scallions, minced tops included 3 large cloves garlic, crushed 2 tablespoons shredded ginger 2 tablespoons sichuan chili paste with garlic 1/4 cup each sweet dark vinegar and rice vinegar* 1/2 cup soy sauce 1 tablespoon toasted ground sichuan peppercorns (substitute red pepper flakes) Salt to taste 1/3 cup cilantro (Chinese parsley), coarsely chopped For garnish: 1/4 cup scallions, chopped tops included
Cook noodles al dente, about 2 minutes. Drain, rinse with cool water and drain again. Toss with peanut oil and sesame oil.
Mix sauce ingredients together. Check the seasoning; you may want to increase or decrease the heat depending on individual taste. Toss with noodles and garnish with scallions and cilantro leaves.
*Sweet dark vinegar is difficult to find and can only be purchased in rather large quantities in oriental groceries. If you wish to substitute, use 2 1/2 teaspoons sugar and 1/3 cup rice vinegar. QUENTINE ACHARYA'S PORK INDAD (6 servings) 2 1/2- to 3-pound pork loin or shoulder, cubed in 1 1/2-inch pieces (do not trim off all fat) 1/2 cup cider vinegar Salt 4 teaspoons cumin seeds 2 teaspoons coriander seeds 8 dry red chilies 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns 1 teaspoon ground turmeric 12 fat cloves of garlic 2-inch piece fresh ginger root 4 tablespoons corn or peanut oil 1 or 2 bay leaves 1 stick cinnamon, broken into pieces 5 or 6 cloves 1 large onion, sliced thin 5 hot chili peppers, slit in half 3 to 4 teaspoons sugar
Place cubed pork in large glass or ceramic bowl and mix with vinegar and 1 teaspoon salt. Set aside. In small heavy skillet roast cumin and coriander seeds over medium heat for 5 or 6 minutes, until lightly toasted. Cool a few minutes. In blender place cumin and coriander seeds, dry red chilies and peppercorns. Grind to a coarse powder. Pour powdered spices and 1 teaspoon turmeric over pork and mix well. Cover and keep 2 to 3 hours at room temperature or overnight in refrigerator.
Peel garlic cloves and cut ginger into small slivers. In a large heavy pot heat oil. When quite hot add bay leaves, cinnamon pieces and cloves. Fry for 1 or 2 minutes. Add onion slices and fry over medium heat until translucent.
Add undrained pork pieces, whole green chilies, cut-up ginger and garlic. Brown about 10 to 12 minutes. Mix in the sugar, stir. Cover pot and simmer about 40 to 45 minutes. Salt according to taste. Indad will be ready when oil has risen to the top.
The taste improves greatly in this dish if left in refrigerator 2 to 3 days and reheated before serving.
Served with boiled white rice and a salad of cut-up tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, seasoned with salt, pepper and a dab of lemon juice. BAHIAN ACARAJE 2 cups dried black-eyed peas or navy beans 1 onion 1/4 cup ground dried shrimp Salt and pepper Dende oil* For the sauce: 4 dried red peppers 1/4 pound dried ground shrimp 1 small chopped onion 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon ginger 2 tablespoons dende oil
Pick over beans and either soak overnight or rinse and blanch by plunging into boiling water for 5 minutes, then drain and cool under running cold water. Remove all outer skins of the beans by rubbing with the palms of the hands to loosen the skins and then pulling them off or by placing beans in a folded napkin and lightly pressing with a rolling pin. Discard the skins. Grind beans in a food processor with the onion. Add ground shrimp and season well with salt and pepper. Beat well. Place enough dende oil in a saucepan to deep-fat fry. When the oil is very hot, drop spoonfuls of the batter into it. Each spoonful will puff up and take the shape of an elongated dumpling. Drain on absorbent paper and serve cold with sauce.
To make the sauce, pound the peppers, shrimp, onion, salt and ginger together in a mortar and pestle and mix thoroughly, or put through a blender. Heat in the dende oil for about 10 minutes.
*Note: Dende oil is an imported African palm oil, available in Spanish groceries. Substitute peanut oil colored with mild paprika. --From "Brazilian Cookery," by Margarette De Andrade