It's hot, hot, HOT. Whether merely pungent or absolutely incendiary, food with fire is fast becoming the cuisine of choice for more and more Americans.
"It wasn't so long ago that people actually had to be warned about hot food," writes Janet Hazan in "Hot, Hotter, Hottest" (Chronicle Books, 1992, $12.95 paperback). "Some had to be coaxed to sample just a morsel of the wicked stuff. Well, the tables have taken a turn. Droves of hungry 'hotheads' now flood grocery stores, restaurants, cafes and farmers' markets . . . in search of foods that will bring tears to the eyes, lightning bolts to the sinuses, a tingle to the lips, sweat to the brow, and heat that surges through the body."
Why would anyone seek out such sensations? Well, for one thing, the food is delicious; heat seems to enhance the flavor of almost everything, from beef to shrimp, from fruit to vegetables, from avocados to ices.
And for another thing, it makes you feel cooler. It's no coincidence that the hottest foods come from some of the world's hottest places: Africa, India, Mexico, for instance. The heat from the food causes blood vessels to dilate, which increases blood circulation, allowing the body to expend heat through perspiration.
"In the past, particularly in America, truly hot ingredients were treated as condiments, to be applied sparingly," say New Mexico authors Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach in "The Fiery Cuisines" (Ten-Speed Press, 1991, $11.95 paperback), a cookbook that explores "the world's most delicious hot dishes."
"But," they continue, "as more of us sample hot cuisines from around the world, the forecast is for a gourmet heat wave."
"Americans are getting a lot more adventuresome about trying these things," Mr. DeWitt says. "America was sort of behind the times in eating hot foods, because most of the early immigrants came from Europe. Most of the early experience with hot foods was limited to the South and Southwest." But now, he says, with new citizens coming from such hot-food hotbeds as the Caribbean, Africa and East India, a lot more people are being exposed to "fiery cuisines."
There's more to "hot and spicy" than heat, says Mr. DeWitt, who is co-editor, with Ms. Gerlach, of the Chile Pepper Magazine. It's the combination of heat with intense flavor that makes such dishes so popular.
Ms. Hazen has another reason: "Worth considering along with the sheer fun of eating hot foods is their healthfulness," she writes. "Oftentimes a dish that is highly seasoned requires no salt, or very little. Since most of us try to avoid excess sodium in our diets, adding spicy or hot ingredients becomes not only a tasty alternative but a sensible and healthful one as well."
Five 'firepower' ingredients
Hot tastes in food -- what Mr. DeWitt and Ms. Gerlach call "firepower" -- are generally associated with five ingredients: pepper, horseradish, ginger, mustard and chile peppers.
Pepper, the other half of "salt and," is the dried fruit of a vine native to India. It is so common now that it's hard to remember it was once as valuable as gold. Christopher Columbus was looking for pepper, among other things, when he crossed the Atlantic. (In a move that today might be called a public relations coup, he named one of the first things he saw "pepper," to make his voyage seem more successful. Today, Columbus's peppers usually get adjectives, such as bell, or chile, to distinguish them from the peppercorn-type.) Picking at varying stages of ripeness results in peppercorns that are black (the most common), green and pink or red. White pepper is black pepper that has been soaked in water and the outer skin rubbed off.
Horseradish, the root of a plant in the cabbage family, is native to Europe and has been used in cooking since the Middle Ages. It can be used raw, chopped or grated, or in the commercial form, which is combined with oil, vinegar and sometimes spices. Like garlic, it loses some of its pungency when cooked or when stored for a long time.
Ginger, which Ms. Hazen points out is not a root, but a rhizome, or underground stem, is associated mostly with Chinese and Southeast Asian cooking. It can be fresh, dried, powdered or crystallized; it also loses some potency when cooked.
Mustard, which comes from the seeds of a plant in the genus Brassica, which also includes cabbage, cauliflower and turnips, is still thought of as a relief for chest colds, though recently, in its culinary form, it has proliferated on the shelves of specialty food shops in various "gourmet" forms. It comes in the form of seeds or dried and powdered.
Columbus's pepper, peppers with the genus name Capsicum, are technically fruits and not vegetables. They are native to central and South America. They may be fresh or dried, and the dried forms of the same pepper may have different names. Not all peppers are hot. Some are sweet. Of course, some are hot enough to burn your skin before they even reach your mouth.