Monday, February 26, 2007

Some Like It Hot

One of the things that various people in my life have commented on over the years is the plethora of hot sauces I keep in my home.

I will not deny this fact. Here's a shot of the sauces that are within easy reach. There's another 10-12 in my pantry. Siriachi, garlic chili paste, good old Tabasco, even Jewel brand hot sauce-- each one has a wonderful and unique flavor to me. It's hard to explain to someone who just feels heat, and can't enjoy the taste. There's a good reason for this. I read in an article a few years back that the number of taste buds on a human tongues varies wildly. If there were an average, there are people with twice the average number of taste buds and those with half. Ironically, those with half have trouble tasting things-- because they have so few taste buds, everything tastes bland. What is merely unbearably spicy to others is wonderful and exquisitely varied to people with a low amount of taste buds.

I'm apparently in that group, because I cannot bear to eat most meals without hot sauce. I put hot sauce on my breakfast nearly every day. At work, I have 5 or 6 hot sauces in a filing cabinet drawer for my lunches. I've been known to put two or more hot sauces on my meals. It's a common occurence for me to put hot sauces on all three meals in a day.

What makes peppers hot is a chemical called capsaicin. It is, ironically, colorless and odorless. Scientists think that plants evolved it as a deterrent to herbivores eating their seeds. Capsaicin is non water soluble; if you bite into something really spicy, water only spreads the capsaicin around your mouth and makes it worse. The chemical is fat soluble, so eating something oily or fatty can help absorb it.

Spicyness in peppers is measured on the Scoville scale. The Scotch Bonnet Pepper, pictured at the top of this post, is indigenous to the Carribean and was thought for years to be the hottest pepper on the planet. A few years ago, it was discovered that an Indian pepper, the Naga Jolokia, to the right, was found to be the hottest.

For me, though, that's a moot point. It's not just about the heat-- it's about the flavor.

Some years back, I was working at a very popular Chicago Barbecue joint, the N.N. Smokehouse. The owner managed to buy up the complete hot sauce stock of a defunct restaurant that had specialized in spicy. It was a hot sauce afficionado's heaven. We had probably close to 100 different hot sauces. I tried every damned one of them. They varied in heat, texture and flavor. Some were smoky-- chipotle sauces, made of grilled jalepeno peppers-- and were made with every kind of pepper, mixed with all kinds of things. One I remember, and could not find again, had yellow mustard and serrano peppers. After trying them all, I definitely had my favorites.

A few weeks ago, I dropped my stepdaughter off at my wife's best friend Palette's house. Palette and I had a chance to have a cup of coffee and catch up, and we discovered we shared a fondness for hot sauces. What's more, we discovered that our favorite was Marie Sharp's, a hot sauce that is made of Scotch Bonnet peppers, lime juice, carrots, garlic, vinegar and salt. It's a superb blend of heat and flavor, and damned hard to find. It was the sauce that was my favorite, after trying all the sauces at the Smokehouse. And it's expensive and damned hard to find.

Tonight on the way home from work, I decided to stock up on groceries. I planned to get down to Argyle Street, an area in Chicago's rough Uptown neighborhood that's become a place that Southeast Asian immigrants have settled in. There are, consequently, stores that sell Asian products. I decided, though, to swing by my big Mexican grocery store for produce and the inexpensive chicken leg quarters I use in cooking. I make it a habit to stroll down the aisle with the hot sauces and see if there are any new sauces I want to try. And there it was; they had the big (10 ounce) bottles of Marie Sharp's. Not only that, they were only $1.99 a bottle. I grabbed a bottle, and went to finish my shopping, and thought better of it-- I went and grabbed a bottle for Palette.

I was tired and thought about skipping Argyle Street, but realized I was really hankering for Chili Black Bean hot sauce, which I was out of. I ran over to Argyle Street and stocked up on the Chili Black Bean sauce, plus got myself a big jar of kimchee.

I mentioned recently that I'm finding out these days that everything that I love is turning out to be good for me. This includes green and black tea, coffee, red wine, capsaicin-loaded hot sauces, ketchup, mustard and dark chocolate. As I sat down to do this post, I pulled up Yahoo to check my email. I was glad I made my run to Argyle Street after I read one of the news articles on their portal page. It told me that I can add my Chili Black Bean sauce to that list. According to the article, black soybeans, the beans in my sauce, "may be a wonder food of sorts, helping to prevent obesity, lower cholesterol levels and possibly even reduce risks for diabetes."

Still laughing at all my hot sauces? Ha!


kim said...

Mr. Yen,

I think you have already blogged on this topic at length. Perhaps you should start a seperate blog just for hotsauce lovers.

lulu said...

Garlic, however, has fallen off the list of things that are good for you, at least according to the news this morning.

I think I must have a medium amount of tastebuds, because I can taste the different flavors in the hot sauces, but they quickly gt far too hot for me.

Dave said...

Yea, but how much sodium is in that sauce?

deadspot said...

Milk is supposed to be the best thing to drink with food that is too hot for you (and whole milk is better than skim). The capsaicin binds to the fats in the milk instead of binding to your tongue. Apparently sucrose is also helpful, and these work better at cold temperatures, so a milk shake is probably your best bet. Triple threat! Lots of milk fats, sugars, and plenty of cold ...and tasty too.

Here's more than you ever wanted to know about capsaicin

Palette said...


just do not get too hooked into the macronutrient nutritional school of thought- research is shifting away from this.

The only problem I have with your hot sauce scenario is scary hot storage. I have come over and surreptitiously sniffed some of those sauces- wow! You must have a stomach of steel. More than a little funky fermentation going on.

I found a new habanero one at the Italian market I go to

wowy zowy it is hot. I will get the name for you...

Anon. Blogger said...

It is interesting how you are finding that the things you love to eat are good for you. I think if people really 'listen' to themselves they know what they should and should not eat. Cravings are a way your body tells you what it needs, I think.

GETkristiLOVE said...

I love going to the big Asian supermarket in Denver and looking at all the things soaked in chili oil and whatnot. I usually come home with three different jars of that, three different types of kimchee, and a big bucket of wasabi peas.

My favorite Christmas culinary gift is a hot sauce that has Santa Claus on the label and says, "Ho, Ho, Ho, Hot!"

Beth said...

You need to check out Desperate Dave’s Spice Company. If you're ever in Baltimore, it's well worth the trip down to the Fell's Point neighborhood (as are all the bars).

Natalie said...

I think that hot sauce is one of the best things ever. I would love to expand my collection because I really don't have a lot. I'll have to try some of these. I have never been a fan of chipotle sauces though, I think as a life long veggie smoked flavors taste very wrong to me.

Grant Miller said...

You should refer to it as "The Jewels brand hot sauce" next time - just to mess with Ten.S.

Bubs said...

Once again the lattice of coincidence expands. We are also lovers of the hot sauces. Hot sauce makes nearly everything taste better.

I cannot wait for summer, when we seem to consume a lot more hot stuff.

It was nice to see your exposition on capsaicin--I'm something of an expert in that area, as a pepper spray instructor, and I've been pepper-sprayed about 18 times. Mmmm mmmm.

Tenacious S said...

We don't hold a candle to your hot sauce collection, but we do have at least 5 or 6 different types. As for the Scotch Bonnet friend bought some not knowing what they were (she thought they were cute little red peppers). She cut them up when I was in the other room and then convinced me that I should give them a try before she put them in the soup she was making. Like a dumbass, that is exactly what I did. Apparently the faces I made as I spat out the pepper in record time were legendary. I spent the next half hour with my tongue hanging in a cup of milk. Holy crap those things are hot!!!!!

vikkitikkitavi said...

In L.A., the cradle-to-grave hot sauce of latino denizens is El Tapatio. It's not too hot, so you can really slather it on. Plus, the mustachioed man in the sombrero on the label is like old friend to me now.

My other favorite is that Korean hot sauce with the rooster on the label. Srirchan, or something like that, it's called. Everyone I know just calls it "that rooster sauce."

Johnny Yen said...

Yes, I will start a hotsauce blog, and post it right next to your "my family's bathroom habits" blog.

I saw that yesterday. I think that there are other benefits. But whatever the case, I'll just eat garlic because I love it. The keeping vampires away is just a side benefit.

(hands over ears) nyah nyah, I can't hear your...

I choose sodium as the lesser of many evils. I eat lowfat, lots of veggies and fruit, high fiber, etc. I take fish oil, saw palmetto, folic acid and aspirin every day. I need one vice. My blood pressure's under average, so far.

So a Wendy's frosty is the best thing, probably. And they cure hangovers.

But they're so good that way...

Anon. Blogger-
I agree with you on cravings. I eat really healthily, but sometimes I'll get an overwhelming craving for red meat, or some kind of fruit or vegetable.

I love wasabi peas-- unfortunately most of them use wheat in the mix.

I'm always trying out some new thing or another from the asian market.

Cub Foods here was closed, and the one a block down from my school has become "Great Market," or "Mercado Grande." Not surprisingly, it was largely hispanic products, but for some reason they also carry a bunch of asian items. Inexplicable because there is no large asian population within five miles of here; the area I work in is, like parts of LA, black and turning latino.

Thanks for the heads up on the Desperate Dave's!

I'm not big on food cooked on charcoal-- if I wanted to ingest dozens of carcinogens, I'd take up smoking. But I do loved those chipotles-- they were a late life discovery. Good for you being vegan! I always enjoy your recipes on your blog.


A man's gotta love his work...

I've only been pepper-sprayed once, in an attempted mugging. About 15 years ago I was waiting for a bus at Fullerton and Damen and carload of guys pulled up to me one night at and asked directions. I had trouble hearing them-- I hear poorly in one ear-- and had turned my head to one side to hear better. They missed one eye, and now they had a drunk, then-220 pound construction worker in a leather motocycle jacket pissed off at with them. They were four little guys, and when I tried to pull the guy who maced me out of the car to kick his ass, they decided to go look for an easier target.

One of the sauces we had was basically pure extract-- pretty much just pure capsaicin. It wasn't good for much other than practical jokes, which we used a lot in the restaurant.

I see Tapatio here a lot too, and have had it on my shelf in the past. You'll note the big bottle of Valentina, which is very similar and inexpensive. The "Rooster" or Sriachi, is on my shelves too. It's made in Thailand, but everybody uses it. I remember seeing it in China when I visited there.

Another one big here is the one with the wooden top-- I can't remember the name.

Natalie said...

Oh, I'm no vegan I eat cheese with the best of them. Just a veggie. The wooden top is Chalula (which i think i spelled wrong) and is in my fridge aloge with El Tapito and Rooster.

Flannery Alden said...

My next door neighbor and good friend Frank makes his own hot ketchup, barbeque sauce and cocktail sauce. It's yummy and it's called Hotszup

Flannery Alden said...

If you want a sample, email me and I'll send you some.

Tenacious S said...

Johnny, when we lived in California my favorite hot sauce was Pico Pica. I haven't seen it since we moved back here. Let me know if you ever run across it in your hot sauce travels.

Alasdair said...

Another benefit of hot stuff is that it helps fight off parasites. I know that the standard bio version of this effect (ask Holly about it - she knows, like, everything about it) is what most people mean when they say peppers fight parasites, but I also notice that nobody steals my lunch when it is topped with harissa or sambal oelek. I think you'd enjoy Tunisia, if you haven't already been. Every meal is harissa time there. :)