Some like it hot – and some like it hotter, still.
When it comes to the world’s best spicy dishes, we have some of the world’s hottest peppers to thank, along with incredible layers of flavor and a long, spice-loving human history.
“Spicy food, or at least spiced foods, clearly predates the idea of countries and their cuisine by a very, very long time,” says Indian author Saurav Dutt, who is writing a book about the spiciest foods on the Indian subcontinent.
“Every spicy ingredient has a wild ancestor,” he says. “Ginger, horseradish, mustard, chiles and so on have predecessors which led to their domestication.”
Hunter-gatherer groups historically made use of various wild ingredients to flavor their foods, Dutt says, and there are many ingredients all over the world that can lend a spicy taste to a dish or stand on their own.
Peppers – a headliner for heat – are rated on the Scoville Heat Units scale, which measures capsaicin and other active components of chile peppers. By that measure, the Carolina Reaper is among the hottest in the world, while habaneros, Scotch bonnets and bird’s eye chiles drop down a few rungs on the mop-your-brow scale.
Redolent with ghost peppers, Scotch bonnets, serranos, chiltepin peppers, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and more, the following spicy dishes from around the world bring the heat in the most delicious way.
Egusi soup, Nigeria
Ata rodo – Scotch bonnet pepper – brings the fire to Nigeria’s famous spicy soup. Egusi is made by pounding the seeds from the egusi melon, an indigenous West African fruit that’s related to the watermelon.
In addition to being protein-packed, the melon’s seeds serve to thicken and add texture and flavor to the soup’s mix of meat, seafood and leafy vegetables. Pounded yams are often served alongside this dish, helping to temper the scorch of the Scotch bonnets.“The joy of this dish is not only the delightful warming ingredients of cinnamon, cloves, star anise and, of course, the Sichuan peppercorns, but the fact that you can cook exactly what you like in the bubbling spicy broth,” says British-born Chinese chef Kwoklyn Wan, author of “The Complete Chinese Takeout Cookbook.”
Duck, seafood, chicken, pork, lamb and seasonal vegetables are all fair game for tossing into the pot to simmer in a mouth-numbing broth made with Sichuan peppercorns and dried Sichuan peppers for serious kick (the dipping sauce served on the side often has chile paste, too).
Also known as Chongqing hot pot, the dish is said to have originated as a popular food among Yangtze River boatmen. It’s enjoyed by those who can handle its heat all over China, not to mention elsewhere around the world.From northeastern Thailand’s spice-loving Isaan province, this fresh and fiery salad is a staple dish at Thai restaurants around the world and is also popular in neighboring Laos.
Som tam turns to green (unripe) papaya for its main ingredient, which is usually julienned or shredded for the salad. The papaya is then tossed with long beans or green beans and a mix of flavorful Asian essentials that include tamarind juice, dried shrimp, fish sauce and sugar cane paste, among other ingredients. Thai chiles, also called bird’s eye chiles, give the salad its requisite kick.
Piri-piri chicken, Mozambique and Angola
The Portuguese introduced this spicy dish also known as peri-peri chicken into Angola and Mozambique as far back as the 15th century, when they mixed African chiles with European ingredients (piri-piri means “pepper pepper” in Swahili). And it’s the perky red pepper of the same name that brings the spiciness to this complex, layered and delicious dish.
Piri-piri chicken’s poultry cuts are marinated in chiles, olive oil, lemon, garlic and herbs such as basil and oregano for a fiery flavor that blends salty, sour and sweet. The dish is also popular in Namibia and South Africa, where it’s often found on the menu in Portuguese restaurants.