If spicy food were as cooling as it’s claimed to be, I’d never need an air conditioner; sadly, though, I’ve developed a bit of a tolerance over the years, so once again, I’m looking at steep energy bills this summer. But every little bit helps, right? Here, in honor of New York’s sky-rocketing heat index, five sweat-inducing, tear-provoking categories of food and drink.
1. The Source.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: One of the best things about eating in Asia is the easy access to fresh hot chilies. Available upon request everywhere from mom-and-pop hole-in-the-walls to finer-dining establishments, I have no control around a dish of chopped peppers, adding more and more until I finish my meal with tears streaming, nose running and mouth on fire. And I must be a sadist, because I love every second of it.
No list would be complete without the inclusion of at least one hot sauce, but I find it next-to-impossible to narrow down my top choices to a single favorite. True, I’ll put sriracha on pretty much everything (try it on pizza—it’s life-changing), and when I run out of Trini-style pepper sauce, the withdrawal is ugly, but there’s also El Yucateco (the green one), Elephant Pepper (more tangy than hot, with a fairly fascinating backstory), sambal olek (as spicy—if not more so—than sriracha, minus the sweetness), and the bottle my aunt slips me every time she visits State College, Pennsylvannia, from Cajun spot Spats (a solid balance between heat and flavor, great in tuna salad). I haven’t cracked open the bottle I brought back from the Philippines yet, but I dust this smoky, super-hot chile powder (featured in the last photo on that page) on anything I can; luckily, a little goes a long way, so I’ve managed to make it last. And those are just my pepper-based staples. Horseradish in all forms (especially wasabi), Colman’s mustard, and kimchee all deserve a mention.
Cocktails with a kick combine two loves for the price of one. Favorites include the late Cabrito’s hot and dirty martini, made with jalapeño juice instead of olive and garnished with a slice of pickled jalapeño itself; Back Forty’s addictive Loisaida Sling, a deceptively delicious combination of caçhaca, ginger beer, and chipotle (I won’t tell you how many I’ve consumed in one sitting); and Fatty Crab’s fiery pickleback (above).
I’ve developed a roster of go-to restaurant dishes so I’m always prepared when the need for heat strikes. From Szechuan Gourmet’s mapo tofu (a striking conflagration of silken tofu, ground pork, a smattering of leeks, lip-tingling chili oil and numbing szechuan peppercorns) to my local Indian takeaway’s lamb vindaloo (never as hot as I want it to be) to Xi’an Famous Foods’ slippery, spicy liang pi noodles (above) to the karaka miso ramen—my current favorite—at downtown stalwart Ippudo, I’m pretty well covered…though always looking for new additions to the list.
5. Hot and Sweet.
Though I’m a sucker for the classic salty-sweet combination, I much prefer my sugary treats to have a bit of a burn. I like my nuts hot and candied (yes, that’s what she said, and yes, that link may be rated R), my tamarind balls spicy, and my hot chocolate laced with anchos and chipotles; in a pinch, Hot Tamales and cinnamon Life Savers also do the trick.
Tell us, where do you stand on the issue: hot or not? Any mouth-burning favorites to share, or do you steer clear of the heat?