For the inexperienced tongue, peppers and spices can deliver a world of pain, packing a punch that many diners must train themselves to tolerate. But around the world, these staples provide the signature kick in iconic meals. From the berbere-spiced plates of Ethiopia to the sansho-laden dishes of Japan, no one seasoning is quite like another; each brings a uniqueness and intensity of flavor to the table, making dishes both difficult to conquer and to resist. Each contributes an essential thread to the weaving of an international fabric—a worldwide culture defined not by borders, but by a love of supremely spicy food.
These eight spices, and eight chefs who hail from the countries that love them, are sure to help anyone build up their flame resistance—failing that, cooling agents like lemon, ice cream, chocolate, milk, rice, and honey do the trick. Read their recipes, push your taste buds to the limit, and remember: if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Red Miso Soup (Sansho Pepper Flakes)
2 cups water — 1 3x3-inch piece dashi konbu (dried kelp) — 4 tbsp katsuobushi (dried smoked skipjack tuna) — 11⁄2 tbsp red miso — 1 tsp white miso — Handful nameko mushroom, cleaned and sliced Handful tofu, cut into small cubes — Little bit of wakame (seaweed) — Little bit of scallion, thinly sliced Little bit of mitsuba (Japanese wild parsley) — Pinch of sansho pepper.
Step 1) For the dashi, combine water and dashi konbu in a medium saucepan over high heat. When pan is steaming, turn off the heat. Remove dashi konbu and add katsuobushi. Step 2) After 10 minutes, strain and discard solids. Step 3) For the miso soup, in a medium saucepan, bring the dashi konbu to a boil over moderately high heat. Step 4) Whisk in the two miso pastes and mix well.
→ To Serve
Ladle the soup into bowls, sprinkle with mushrooms, tofu, wakame, scallion, mitsuba, and sansho pepper. Serves 2 to 3.
—Chef Yoshihiko Kosaka of Kosaka
Spicy Curry Lobster (Scotch Bonnet Pepper)
1 2-lb fresh lobster — 1 tbsp kosher salt — 2 tbsp curry powder — 8 cloves garlic, diced; divided 1⁄4 cup coconut oil — 1⁄2 cup onion, diced — 1 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and minced — 2 tsp scotch bonnet pepper, chopped — 3⁄4 cup white scallion, chopped 1 tsp ground pimenta seed or allspice — 1⁄2 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped 2 cups vegetable stock — 1⁄4 cup coconut milk — 2 tbsp butter, cold — 2 tsp lime juice — 1 tbsp basil, chopped — Salt and pepper to taste.
Step 1) Cook the lobster in boiling salted water for 10 minutes. Cool down in ice water, then remove meat from shell and cut into large chunks. Step 2) For the sauce, combine the curry powder and 3 garlic cloves over medium heat. Use a wooden spoon to stir for 10 seconds while it chars. Step 3) Immediately add the coconut oil, and sauté the onions, ginger, scotch bonnets, scallion, pimenta or allspice, and fresh thyme. Add the remaining garlic and the vegetable stock, then simmer for 12 minutes. Step 4) Remove from heat and blend sauce until smooth. Step 5) Return to flame. Whisk in coconut milk and cubed cold butter. Step 6) Add the lobster into the sauce and cook on low for 5 minutes, until tender, not rubbery. Stir in the lime juice and chopped basil. Season to taste and serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.
—Chef Andre Fowles of Miss Lily's
Watermelon Salad (with Fresh Cayenne)
2 limes — 1 tsp fresh ginger, peeled and minced — 1 fresh cayenne pepper, seeded and sliced — 3⁄4 tsp chaat masala (MDH brand recommended) — 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil — 8 generous cups watermelon, diced — 1⁄2 cup packed mint leaves, chopped — 1⁄4 cup packed cilantro, chopped — Salt to taste.
Step 1) Juice and zest the limes. Reserve the juice and cut the zest into thin strips. Step 2) For dressing, combine zest, juice, ginger, cayenne pepper, chaat masala, and olive oil in a bowl. Step 3) In another bowl, combine watermelon, mint, and cilantro. Step 4) Just before serving, slowly pour dressing over watermelon mixture, season with salt, and combine gently. Serve immediately. Serves 6.
—Chef Floyd Cardoz of Bombay Bread Bar
Laab Chili Mix (Thai Red Chili)
4 dried red Thai chilis, or to taste — 1 tsp whole black peppercorns — 1 tsp coriander seeds — 2 pieces star anise — 1 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns — 1 tsp whole cloves — 2 cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces — 5 dried dee plee peppers 1 whole nutmeg — 1 tsp cardamom pods — 1 tsp salt.
Step 1) Toast all the ingredients except for the salt in a medium sauté pan over medium-low heat until aromatic, 2 to 3 minutes. Step 2) Transfer to a mortar and pestle and let cool completely. Step 3) Add the salt and pound with a pestle into a fine powder. The laab chili will keep in an airtight container for up to 1 month. Makes 1⁄2 cup.
—Chef Hong Thaimee of Thaimee Table
Tomato Broth for Kurobuta Pork Ribs (Guajillo Chili)
3 tomatoes — 1 small onion — 4 cloves garlic — 2 whole cloves — 1⁄2 tsp black pepper 1⁄2 tsp salt — 1 tbsp raspberry vinegar — 1 tbsp sugar — 2 dried guajillo chilis, stemmed — 1 tostada (toasted tortilla).
Step 1) Cover the guajillo chilis with boiling water and leave to rehydrate. Meanwhile, in a preheated pan over medium-high heat, add onion, tomatoes, garlic, and cloves, and sauté for 5 minutes. Step 2) Add vinegar, sugar, and the rehydrated chilis. Discard chili water. Simmer and let the mixture reduce for 10 minutes. Step 3) Remove from heat and blend until smooth. Makes 2 cups.
—Chef Poncho Cadena of Hueso Restaurante
Vegetarian Ceviche (Habenero Pepper)
1 lb assorted mushrooms — 10 limes — 10 lemons — 1⁄4 cup onion, minced — 3 tbsp habanero, minced — 1⁄2 cup green tomatoes, diced — 1 cucumber, diced small — 1 bunch cilantro, minced — 2 sprigs mint — 1⁄2 cup sunflower seeds, toasted and salted — Salt to taste — Marigold leaves, for garnish — Young coconut, for serving.
Step 1) Juice and zest all citrus and set aside. Step 2) Clean and dice mushrooms and set aside. Step 3) Combine onions, habaneros, tomatoes, cucumbers, mint, and cilantro in a bowl, then mix together with mushrooms, juice, and zest. Step 4) Add sunflower seeds and check seasoning. Add salt if needed. Garnish with marigold leaves.
→ To Serve
Serve, alongside tostadas, in a young coconut split in half if you want to impress. Serves 6.
—Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins of El Jardín
Ghost Chicken (Ghost Pepper)
5 chicken thighs (fat trimmed, cut into 2-inch cubes).
For the marinade: 1 pint hung yogurt — 1 tsp ginger paste — 1 tsp garlic paste — 1 tsp black salt — 21⁄2 tsp ground fenugreek — 1 tsp lemon juice — 11⁄2 tsp ground cumin — 1 tsp garam masala — 2 tsp ghost pepper paste (see instructions below).
For the ghost pepper paste: Rehydrate 10–15 whole ghost peppers in 4 quarts of boiling water for 8–10 minutes (until the peppers are fully soft). Strain out most of the water, but keep some to blend the peppers into a smooth consistency.
Step 1) Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl, and stir to combine. Step 2) Add chicken and marinate in the refrigerator for 24–36 hours. Step 3) Cook in oven at 350°F for 12 minutes, or until done. Serve immediately. Serves 4 to 5.
—Chef Akshay Bhardwaj of Junoon
8 oz Prime beef — 1 tsp berbere — 1⁄2 tsp ground korarima (Ethiopian cardamom) — 3 tbsp kibbeh butter — Salt to taste.
Step 1) Remove all fat from the meat and chop it finely by hand, or grind using a food processor. Step 2) In a bowl, mix meat, berbere, and korarima. Step 3) On low heat, melt kibbeh in a small pan. Remove the pan from the heat and add the spiced ground meat. Marinate it completely.
→ To Serve
Kitfo is usually served on injera (flatbread), with collard greens and ayeb (Ethiopian cottage cheese). Serves 1.
—Chef Helina Girma of Benyam