Some Like it Hot

From Mexico to Mali, nearly every cuisine on the planet embraces the hot pepper. Even French cuisine has a few spicy dishes, but they tend to come from the more rustic southern region, Andalusia and Provençal. Actually, I’m pretty sure there’s an inverse relationship between regional affluence and spiciness.

If I were required to limit my blog to one type of food, it would have to be “spicy.” And the truth is, I could go endlessly about the virtues of spicy food. I already have to some degree, come to think of it. I even have a small cookbook that declares cayenne pepper can cure everything from dandruff to athlete’s foot.

Sure, why not?

In this article I want to focus on two very different spicy condiments. Each one uses a heat component completely differently, yet the end results are quite similar in their hotness. Even though I provide amounts, because each person has their limit for heat, I encourage you to play with the ratios of the various ingredients until you find your – you should excuse the expression – sweet spot.

But first, some history. Hey, it’s my thing, okay?

Paging Mr. Scoville

If you’re a chili head you’re probably familiar with the Scoville heat unit scale for measuring capsaicin in a pepper. Our hero, Wilbur Scoville, a pharmacist in Connecticut, decided to create a way to measure the heat from different varieties of hot peppers. The Scoville Organoleptic Test, measures the ratio of sugar water to capsaicin extract at the point where tasters can no longer detect the heat from the extract. Multiplied by 100, it gives you Scooville Heat Units, or SHU. It’s not terribly scientific, as there were many subjective factors that varied the results. But, it was also 1912.

Here are some examples of well-known peppers (and pepper products) and and their relative measure in SHU:

Pepper SHU
Bell Pepper 0
Anaheim 4,000
Jalapeño 10,000
Tabasco 50,000
Habanero 300,000
Ghost pepper 750,000
Scorpion T 1,200,000
Pepper Spray 4,000,000
Pure capsaicin 16,000,000

Nowadays, liquid chromatography provides a much more accurate measure for heat. They kept the name though, which was thoughtful. Okay, on to the food.

Zchug – Spicy, Near Eastern Style

Zchug is a fresh hot pepper paste that is popular throughout Israel and its neighboring countries. You see it everywhere, mainly because it is the spice paste used at falafel stands. While I find that they are somewhat sparing when they add it to my falafel or schwarma, I think it’s because they look and say, “there’s no way that white boy can handle this.” Nevertheless, I find my Shabbat table wanting when I don’t have any to use, and while I’m more than happy to enjoy ‘commercial’ zchug, for my house and my children, I make my own.

Roasted Green Hot Peppers are an absolute must. A half-kilo of fresh peppers. In this country, there is only one “hot” pepper. I can find the other hot peppers — you know, the ones with actual names — whenever I want to change things up, otherwise, they’re more than acceptable. I have played with the peppers in all different ways. I roast the peppers whole; cutting them decreases their intensity. I don’t bother with oil while roasting. I pull off the stems before processing them.

Garlic Cloves are whole, fresh, and limited to five or six. Because as much as we love garlic, it can’t overpower the other flavors.

Cilantro instead of parsley, simply because I like the lighter flavor. Parsley tends to taste too “green” if you use too much of it. I only use 2/3 of a bunch, too.

Salt to taste.

Sometimes, if I’m feeling like it, I’ll add what I call “gratuitous heat” by throwing in some dried Thai peppers. That perks it up some.

After I blend it into a paste, I add the olive oil. I don’t process the oil, because it’ll turn the zchug a funny color due to the partial emulsification.

Kimchi – Spicy, Far Eastern Style

Kimchi is fermented cabbage. It comes to us from Korea, and it is highly addictive. All of the other weirdness that you’ve heard about – burying it in the backyard, fermenting it with shrimp heads – is completely unnecessary. It doesn’t even have to be bok choy; regular cabbage will do. What I find most intriguing is how similar the preparation is to sauerkraut, created half a world away.

Cabbage is cut into 3-4cm squares and the leaves separated. The leaves are salted and left to wilt.

Radishes, Scallions and Garlic and ginger are sliced thinly and mixed with the cabbage leaves

Miso is a fermented soy paste. This you need to buy, and you can’t substitute anything for it. It is found in the Asian section of most supermarkets.

Hungarian Hot Paprika Gochujang, the hot pepper powder/sauce ‘traditionally’ used to make kimchi is available here if you know where to look for it. It is, in my opinion an unnecessary expense. You don’t want to use red pepper flakes nor cayenne pepper. It resembles paprika, but it has some seeds in it. Sometimes it’s called שאטה/shata. This is mixed with the miso until you get a thick paste.

Smear the paste all over the cabbage/vegetables, coat thoroughly, then shove into glass jars as tight as you can. use something to tamp it down. Air bubbles are BAD, and will cause spoilage. Cover the jars halfway, meaning, don’t tighten the lid all the way, but don’t leave it open either. Leave the jars on the counter, don’t put them in the fridge. It will start giving off liquid, and you want it to be able to drain. Which means that you need to put the jars in a plastic container to catch the runoff. After ten days, you will have something that is transcendent in its flavor. You will want to try it with everything. Be sure to make enough.