As far back as I can reach in my culinary memory, hot food meant Mexican. Then we went through curries, but that was short and sweet. Barbecue fire came on gradually and will never totally fade, at least in this, its native country.

Then we discovered that the Chinese knew how to sear our tongues. So the country's Chinese menus sparkled with red stars denoting dishes that could bring tears to our eyes. The phone book became weighted with Szechuans and Hunans. Now we are blackening our fish, our beef, even shrimp and burgers with Cajun pepper powder. We're infusing our fried chicken with hot sauce in the name of Louisiana. And Santa Fe chili peppers are migrating to both coasts.

We not only like it hot, we have grown to crave it hot. But we always seem to be seeking the newest culinary heat wave, some fiery cuisine we have never heard of before.

Perhaps next it will be Thai, which can be the hottest of all, intensified as the chili pepper is with lemon to turn it into a three-dimensional explosion. Or maybe we will aim our pepper not at a particular cuisine, but we will discover pepper in felicitous combination: Pepper and fruit.

A few years ago there was a flurry of excitement over peppered strawberries. I first encountered them at Charley's Crab, which had opened a branch in Washington; in this case they were moistened with Grand Marnier and pernod and tossed with cream. Charley's Crab arranged the peppered berries on a bed of papaya and served them with a glass of asti spumante. Sure enough, a sturdy grinding of black pepper brought out the sweetness in the strawberries and somehow highlighted their taste. They were wonderful.

Next I discovered that the combination also enhances pineapple and that the Mexicans dip papaya in cayenne and salt. On the streets of Mexico I saw paper cones of tropical fruits that street vendors sprinkled with red pepper. I came across a fruit salad from Mauritius, off the coast of Africa, which combined pineapple, mango and papaya with mint, rum and hot chilies. The Four Seasons in New York served a fruity jalapeno sorbet, and Philadelphia's USA Cafe also serves a version (boil simple syrup with seeded jalapenos, remove them and add lime juice, then freeze).

Finally I tasted a Thai melon salad, prepared by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken of the Border Grill and City Restaurant in Los Angeles. Its flavors were like a tennis match on the tongue, bouncing between the cool sweetness of the melon and fire of hot peppers, earthy spiciness of cilantro, mellowness of peanuts, and a piquant salty, fishy taste of intense dried shrimp.

These are dazzling combinations, and what makes them so is the surprise -- the fire cooled by the moistness and sweetness of the fruit. The temperature and texture are at odds with the taste in a way that intensifies both.

The combination of hot chili and cold fruit has all the makings of a rage. It is exotic, light, packs a memorable punch -- and it's a lot easier to prepare well than blackened redfish. Tabletalk

Sushi may be tradition-bound in Japan, but Americans never leave anything just the way they found it. I've been hearing of a sushi salad bar in Philadelphia and Cajun sushi in Houston. Any minute I expect to run across a sushi pizza.

Watch for more Cinema 'n' Drafthouses, where you watch a movie from tables and lounge seats while nibbling pizza and sandwiches. And in Santa Fe the concept was expanded to add a dance floor. Maybe exercycles next?

The mixing and matching go even further in New Mexico: Taos has a combination bowling alley and restaurant, and one Santa Fe restaurant list mentioned a hot-tub restaurant. CHARLEY'S CRAB'S PEPPERED STRAWBERRIES (1 serving)

While this restaurant serves the berries on papaya slices and accompanies them with a glass of asti spumante, just plain berries are sufficiently wonderful prepared this way.

4 ounces strawberries, stems removed

1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon pernod

1 teaspoon Grand Marnier

1 tablespoon whipping cream

1 papaya (optional)

Sprig of mint to garnish

In a bowl, mix strawberries with pepper and sugar. Add 1 teaspoon pernod and 1 teaspoon Grand Marnier, mix well.

Add 1 tablespooon whipping cream and mix well to coat berries.

If using papaya, skin it and cut into thirds lengthwise. Remove seeds from core and from narrow end cut 6 or 7 slices to bottom so it fans out. Place strawberries stem-side down over papaya and pour juice over the strawberries. Or simply serve the berries and their juices arranged on a plate or in a stemmed sherbet glass. Add a sprig of mint for garnish.

Serve with a glass of asti spumante.