Spice up your life!
I am one of those who do indeed like it hot. In fact, somewhere along the way I became a bit of a hot sauce addict. Well, not just hot sauce. Heat in general.
I’ve already done a little poetic waxing about Sriracha on this blog. I also have a strong affinity for pickled peppers, and those amazing Italian chills packed in oil. But when it comes to heat, I don’t discriminate - I like it across all domains, all food types and flavours.
That said, I don’t seek the kind of heat that overwhelms, destroying your palate for meals to come. I’m not trying to prove a point by ordering the spiciest wings, for example. I’m not going to be entering into any hot sauce guzzling competitions anytime soon. (Is there such a thing? Probably.)
But I do love spice, for that extra bit of oomph it provides. The way it can add depth of flavour. A little surprise, a little edge; spice can be that something in a dish that keeps you engaged, keeps you on your toes. Just a little bit of interest, that little bite, that little - let’s face it - pain, that leaves you wanting more.
Therefore I think it’s a shame when people tell me they can’t take spice. Everyone has their own threshold, of course, but if you’re in an opt-out situation, avoiding all kinds of ethnic foods and flavours, squirming as soon as a dish crosses over from the comfortable, the familiar or bland.. well, that’s just a bummer.
Some people tell me their palate simply isn’t built for spice. Well, taste being so personal, how can I argue? But I’m willing to bet that spice, like many things, just requires a little bit of experience. You don’t run a marathon right out of the gate - you start by learning to run just a little, then walking, then running a little more.
So, if you consider yourself a bit of a spice wimp, here are some tips to start getting a little more comfortable with the hot stuff.
1. Get to know your enemy.
If your pantry is totally spice-free, you’re really not giving spice much of a chance at all. And what’s more, you really don’t know what you’re missing. But if you start to introduce a few ingredients to your kitchen, then you can start to experiment in your own domain. Bit by bit, you can increase your familiarity with different spices - know their smells and tastes, and start adding them in small - maybe very small, maybe even teeny weeny - doses.
I have a hunch that if you start to differentiate between spices you’ll be starting along a path of recognizing and understanding their flavours. You can start to move beyond lumping them altogether as ‘evil’ and knowing what each one brings to the table.
So take the risk - next time you’re shopping for spices, add one or two new things to the mix. You can take your time integrating them - they’ll be there when you’re ready.
*See my egg challenge at the end of this post for something fun to do with all those spices.*
2. Go slow.
You want to build up your spice tolerance bit by bit but you don’t want to wreck every meal you eat trying to get there. Instead, look for opportunities to take on just a bit of spice at different stages of the meal.
Say you’re eating pasta and completely ignoring the jar of dried chilies on the table. Okay, eat half your pasta as you normal would. Once you’re half way done, your palate’s probably getting a little bored anyway. Now’s the time to wake it up just a bit. Add a touch of chilies, a very small amount, to the rest of your dish. How does it taste? If you’ve added a small enough amount it shouldn’t overwhelm you. Might be a little uncomfortable, but let it be there. Pay attention to the feeling - look for the reaction in your mouth, in your body. This can seem disconcerting but it’s actually one of the delights of spice, because it can actually wake up more than just your palate.
Small doses is key. If you burn your palate out every time you add spice of course you’re going to hate it. What you’re looking for is just a wee bit of burn. So use caution adding chilies or hot sauces to your food, and add more as you start to get comfortable.
3. Look for balance.
Get to know the types of foods that balance out spice. Basically, dairy is your saviour. Think yogurt or sour cream. You can try adding a little kick of spice to creamy dips, or keep a bowl on the side as a relieving condiment depending on what you’re eating. If you get desperate, drink a small glass of milk rather than water.
Sweetness is also a great pairing, helping to balance the spice out. Try mixing a touch of Sriracha into ketchup, for example. Or a tiny dusting of cayenne pepper on sweet corn.
Keep in mind that alcohol can intensify spice. If your’e drinking, look for a low-alcohol wine to pair with the food - possibly one on the sweeter side, too.
Okay… now it’s time to shake hands with the devil.
Really want to start to understand spice, but have some fun doing it? Take my devilled egg challenge.
Make a bunch of plain devilled eggs: you know the drill - hard cook the eggs, cut the peeled eggs in half, whip the yolks with a little mayo (nothing else except maybe a pinch of salt), and re-fill the eggs. Basic, right? Now, top each egg half with a different spice from the list below. Just a pinch of each - don’t overdo it, but aim to give yourself enough to actually taste.
Then work your way through sampling the eggs. The eggs and mayo will temper the list, so it won’t be too intense, and you’ll be able to do a tasting across the board, so you’ll start to see what the spices actually taste like.
Here’s your spice list. You can mix it up depending on your preferences. I recommend them in the following order.
- Fresh black pepper. Maybe this is a no brainer but some spice-haters even avoid this basic spice. Fresh ground pepper and kosher salt are the essential building blocks of flavour. Buy a grinder, and grind it fresh - just a little at a time, trying out different grinds, and see what a different it makes.
- Mustard powder. Not a lot of spice to it, but actual mustard does have a bit of a kick. If you want to get a bit more daring, mix in a little hot mustard with the yolks for this particular egg.
- Hot smoked paprika. This is not a staple spice for most people but it’s packed with flavour and not too hot. And a natural for devilled eggs.
- Chili powder. Not actually pure chilies but a mix of spices, intended for, well, chill. Usually not too hot, and a more rounded, softer flavour than straight-up chili flakes.
- Dried chili flakes. This one is a staple but again do your best to get good quality, fresh spices because it will make them taste better.
- Sriracha. Mix a little into the yolk. Juuust a little. Yes, you’ll have to buy a big bottle of the stuff, probably, but it will last a very long time and just maybe you’ll grow to love it.
I could go on and on but by this point you’ve probably eaten a lot of eggs and you might be getting all spiced out. So we’ll end it there for now.
Hopefully, though, this given you a sense of the different flavours spice has - how it can add so much with so little. As always, keep trying; keep experimenting.
And enjoy the pain, people!