In our (much) younger years hot and spicy food was something we were not so thrilled about. A bottle of Tabasco sauce was guaranteed to strike terror into our hearts. All that changed in a fortnight on a trip to the Middle East more than 25 years ago.
Our love affair with hot and spicy food started while trying biryani and other Indian dishes in Dubai. We were a bit cautious about trying spicy biryani at first but since Indian restaurants served spicy food for the most part, we soon got accustomed to them. (Incidentally the hottest food we tried in the Emirates was a Chinese Szechuan dish.) We realized later that the more you eat spicy food, the more your tolerance for them increases. It came to the point where we almost couldn’t eat anything without having hot sauce or chili peppers on the side.
South Asian food (Indian, Pakistani, Bengali, Sri Lankan, etc.) soon became one of our favorites but during our travels to Southeast Asia in the 1990s and early 2000s we were also exposed to various cuisines that featured spicy food. We’ve already featured Thai food in our blog but Indonesian and Malay food also tended to be on the hot and spicy side. Then, during a brief 2.5-year stint in California we were exposed to Mexican food and a wide array of chili peppers. Near the bottom of the Mexican scale is the Jalapeno pepper with a heat range of 2,500-8,000 Scoville heat units* (SHU). At the extra-hot zone of this range is the Habanero, rated 100,000-350,000 SHU. We never tried the habanero in California but eventually got to try habanero sauces back home. Nowadays we always try to keep stock of a particular habanero sauce that we enjoy quite a lot.
We also got to sample a ghost pepper sauce but didn’t go very far with it. The Indian ghost pepper or bhut jolokia is rated at more than one million Scoville Heat Units (SHUs). This pepper is used in India to ward off marauding elephants. It used to be the Guinness world record holder for the hottest pepper in 2007 but has since been superseded by 6 others.
The reigning champion is the Carolina Reaper with an official rating of 1.6 million SHU, with the hottest individual pepper peaking at 2.2 million SHU. We got to try a Carolina Reaper sauce made locally and was surprised it wasn’t as hot as we expected (it was still quite hot though). The manufacturer told us that they prioritized the flavor of the sauce over its heat.
Filipino cuisine is not known for being hot and spicy but that doesn’t mean there is no interest in chili peppers locally. Decades ago, the siling labuyo, a tiny red pepper, was quite popular and was known to be particularly explosive with a heat range of 100,000 up to 225,000 SHU. In recent times one seldom sees them being sold in markets around the country. They have been replaced by red eye chilis and similar varieties and have been classified as an endangered heritage food.
Red eye chili peppers (sometimes called Thai chilis) have often been mislabeled as siling labuyo. A similar-looking chili pepper also mislabeled as the labuyo is the siling tingala, which like the red eye is much longer than the labuyo. The bird’s eye has a heat range of 50,000 to 100,000 SHU and is therefore less spicy than the labuyo. However, the bird’s eye and siling tingala are now more popular with retailers because of their longer shelf life.
Long green peppers, known locally as siling haba, are milder than the siling labuyo and are used to spice up dishes such as sinigang (a type of local sour soup), dinuguan (pork blood stew), kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) and other dishes. A former favorite of ours is the Dynamite Sticks, essentially a green chili pepper wrapped in a spring roll, filled with cheese and fried.
We’ve mentioned that South Asian food is one of our favorites. After our Mid-Eastern experience, visits to Pakistan and India further confirmed that. South Asian dishes feature heat in varying degrees. Nina learned how to prepare Indian curry dishes from the wife of our former team leader who is Indian and she would later expand her menu via cooking demos on YouTube. There are several stores in Metro Manila selling authentic Indian spices although the chilis Nina uses are essentially local.
We’ve been to Indonesia several times during a 6-year period in the late 1990s to mid-2000s. One of the sauces we’ve grown to love from that country is sambal. This sauce or paste is made from a variety of chili peppers with added ingredients such as garlic, shrimp paste, shallot, ginger, palm sugar and lime juice. The fiery sambal is used to enhance just about everything.
Nina also learned to cook ikan bilis sambal, a dish made from anchovies and sambal paste. Another dish that originated from Sumatra that Nina prepares and which our guests enjoy a lot is beef rendang. Rendang paste includes, among other ingredients, chili and coconut milk.
We’ve been to Malaysia twice and to Singapore only a few times and mostly in transit at the latter. We know we’ve missed a lot of their excellent food in the process but did get to try laksa in some Singapore-style restaurants here in Metro Manila. We liked it so much Nina now prepares a plant-based version of this signature spicy noodle dish.
A chili sauce we encountered in Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S. is a sriracha sauce made by Huy Fong Foods. We initially thought this type of sauce originated in Vietnam but some sources mentioned that it was first produced in the Thai town of Si Racha. The origin of sriracha is still a debated topic.
We have yet to visit South Korea but there are Korean restaurants all over that one does not necessarily have to visit that country to sample authentic Korean food. We have always loved kimchi but there are also many more Korean dishes that liberally use chili peppers, although Korean food in general is not overwhelmingly hot.
The people from the Bicol Region in the Philippines are known for their love of spicy food and their prominent use of coconut milk. Perhaps the most famous dish, the dish that illustrates the Bicolanos’ affection for chili peppers and coconut milk, is the Bicol Express. Although this dish was popularized in Manila, it is Bicol-influenced and made with long green peppers (siling haba) and/or siling labuyo, coconut milk, onion, ginger, garlic and pork.
Another popular Bicol dish now found nationwide is laing, a dish made using taro leaves with meat or seafood cooked in thick coconut milk and spiced with chili peppers, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, ginger, and shrimp paste. It is known in the Bicol Region as pinangat. Kinunot na pagi is another Bicolano dish made with flaked stingray, moringa leaves and chilies cooked in coconut milk.
Sisig, a comfort food that is becoming popular internationally is made by taking parts from a pig’s head – the cheeks, snout and ears – chopping them into small pieces, steaming, grilling and frying the mix and garnishing it with onions, calamansi (a type of Philippine lime) and chili peppers on a sizzling plate to make it crispy. Anthony Bourdain once said it’s possibly “the best thing you could ever eat with a cold beer.”
Our love for spicy food endures. Even though Leo wasn’t able to taste solid food for almost 6 months due to his Covid condition and subsequent hospitalization and recovery (he had to subsist on a liquid diet that went into a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy or PEG tube), his preference for spicy food returned when he could eat solid food again.
*The degree of spiciness of a pepper variety is measured using the Scoville Scale, a tool created by Wilbur Scoville which utilizes a standardized unit of measurement to determine the pungency of a pepper. It measures the concentration of capsaicinoids, which is the cause of the heat we feel in our tongue when we eat a pepper. The standard unit of measurement is called a Scoville heat unit (SHU).