Fiery flavors are the latest foodie obsession, and chefs around the world are serving up some serious spice.
By Amber Lanier Nagle
For some, it’s the challenge of living on the edge and consuming something that feels dangerous. Others crave the rush of endorphins that follows—a spicy euphoria that many experience. Still others simply savor the exotic flavor. Whatever the reason, mankind has chased the intense, burning heat of hot peppers for thousands of years. From hot jalapeños to scorching serranos, these spicy peppers make our tongues sizzle while adding a kick of flavor.
“That mouth-of-fire sensation you feel when biting into a hot pepper comes directly from capsaicin, a chemical compound found primarily in the pepper’s ribs,” says Ed Currie, the founder and president of PuckerButt Pepper Co., who gained notoriety in 2013 when his super hot pepper—Smokin’ Ed’s Carolina Reaper—was awarded the prestigious title of “World’s Hottest Chili” by Guinness World Records. “Capsaicin levels vary among pepper varieties: The more capsaicin a pepper contains, the hotter it will seem to your mouth.”
That intensity is measured using the Scoville scale, which ranks the pungency, or spicy heat, of chili peppers based on a pepper’s average Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Mild, easy-to-eat bell peppers are at the bottom of the scale with zero SHU, jalapeños are lightweights coming in at 3,500 to 10,000 SHU, habaneros score around 300,000 units, and the Carolina Reaper registers over 1.5 million units.
“Business is booming,” Currie says of the trend toward spice. “Peppers are very popular these days, and so are the products made from them—salsas, sauces, purées and jerkies. Sales of hot pepper products have been climbing for years, and about 10 years ago, salsa and hot sauces overtook traditional condiments in sales.”
In 2015, the NPD Group, a leading global information company, reported that 56 percent of U.S. households had hot sauce on hand for seasoning food. Nine percent polled had Sriracha, a popular hot sauce made from a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt, in their kitchen’s inventory.
It seems the trend is still warming up. The National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot 2017 Culinary Forecast” listed ethnic spices as its 11th hottest food trend of the year, with 65 percent of its members voting that hot, spicy condiments are still very much in vogue. The pepper craze has also crossed over into other markets, with heat showing up in chocolates, jellies, jams, ice creams, desserts and even cocktails.
“They are everywhere,” Currie says of the trend. “Right now, the world has an appetite for really hot peppers.”
Breaking the Record
The origin of the Carolina Reaper can be traced back to research into healthy habits. Since he was a young man, Currie has known that cancer and heart disease run in his family.
“I didn’t want to die young, so when I got to college in the ’80s, I started looking for ways to fend off death,” he says. “I started reading about hot peppers. There’s a lot of research out there that suggests that capsaicin reduces the risk of cancer and heart disease. That was the beginning of my interest in peppers.”
Later on, Currie moved to South Carolina and began working in banking, only dabbling in peppers during his spare time. However, his hobby grew, and Currie found himself cultivating 8,000 hot pepper plants in every spare inch of his yard and the yards of family, friends and neighbors. He went on to convert the peppers to hot sauces, salsas, mustards, jellies and snacks.
There’s also a love component to Currie’s story. “I tried to get Linda’s attention for quite a while, but she really wasn’t interested in me,” he says of his now-wife, whom he met after moving to South Carolina. “Then someone told me that she liked salsa, so I whipped up some peach mango salsa and gave it to her. Nine months later, we got married.”
“Linda is the one who said, ‘I think we need to start a business,’ ” Currie adds.
In 2002, he crossed a pepper from Saint Vincent in the Caribbean with a Pakistani Naga, and something magical happened—the birth of his fiery Carolina Reaper. “I took a bite and dropped to my knees,” he says. “I knew instantly that I had something.”
But Currie had to be patient. He had to propagate the pepper for eight generations (which took years) to prove to the horticultural world that it was a stable variety. Only then did he take it to Winthrop University for testing. “And it measured, on average, 1,474,000 Scoville Heat Units, which was a pleasant surprise,” he says.
By 2013, Guinness had crowned his Carolina Reaper as “The World’s Hottest Chili,” and soon after, pepper growers and marketers across the globe began a full-force campaign to dethrone both Smokin’ Ed and his scorcher. Indeed, a grower in Wales has claimed that his Dragon’s Breath is a much hotter pepper, but Guinness World Records has not confirmed the claim yet.
“The Carolina Reaper is still the hottest,” Currie says. “… I already have a hotter pepper, but there’s no point in putting it on the market yet—not while we’re still number one. That’d be crazy.”
Food historians believe that the birthplace of the enigmatic chili pepper (belonging to the capsicum annuum species) is Mexico. The spicy pods remained unknown to most of the world until Portuguese explorers looking for trade routes discovered them and dispersed them throughout the globe during the Columbian Exchange.
“I’ve traveled all around the world and I’ve encountered peppers in almost every country and every culture,” notes food historian Dave DeWitt. “For example, they grow a lot of paprika in the middle of Europe, and so you find a lot of paprika in Spanish, Hungarian and Moroccan food. It can range in heat from no heat to very hot. In Hungary, there are at least 10 varieties of paprika.”
Paprika, the spice made from the fruits of the larger and sweeter varieties of the plant capsicum annuum, registers low on Scoville’s scale at between 100 and 1,000 units. Seldom seen in the U.S. beyond the velvety, red dusting sprinkled on the top surface of potato salad, macaroni and cheese and deviled eggs, paprika reigns supreme in Hungarian cuisine, adding flavorful richness and color to some of the country’s signature dishes—paprika chicken, paprika potatoes and goulash among them.
In Thai cuisine, chilies provide both unique flavor and heat, with Thai chilies being the main ingredient in both green and red curry paste, as well as spicy soups and traditional entrées designed to be eaten with rice.
“Thai chili is really a misnomer because there are so many varieties called Thai chilies,” DeWitt says. “For example, they use a small Thai chili called a mouse dropping chili, or a prik kee nu. It’s a small variety of a bird’s pepper that doesn’t have a lot of taste, but has a lot of heat. As a rule of thumb, the smaller varieties of Thai chilies are hotter than the larger ones. There are some exceptions, of course.” For reference, the bird’s eye chili scores around 100,000 SHU.
“In the Caribbean, you see lots of jalapeños and serranos around the Yucatán Peninsula, Scotch Bonnets in Jamaica, and Congo peppers in Trinidad,” DeWitt continues. The Scotch Bonnet, found in the Caribbean and named for its uncanny resemblance to a Scottish tam-o’-shanter (a type of cap), measures 100,000 to 350,000 SHU and offers a hint of sweetness and a lot of heat to dishes like jerk chicken and jerk pork. Trinidad’s 7-Pot pepper also hails as one of the world’s hottest peppers, ranking high with its blistering 1 million to 1.2 million SHU. Its name comes from the claim that one pepper can flavor seven pots of stew.
“And you’ll find spicy food all over Africa, where they are very sophisticated in their pepper use,” DeWitt says. For example, the Nando’s chain specializes in a sauce made with bird’s eye peppers and is exceptionally popular throughout South Africa.
Sizzling at Sea Island
Peppers and hot sauces have an important place in the American South, too. DeWitt notes that central Texas has an obsession with the jalapeño and Louisiana is madly in love with Tabasco sauce, used to add a punch to greens, scrambled eggs, Hoppin’ John, sandwiches and pretty much anything and everything on a Southerner’s plate. On the coast, it’s not uncommon to find locals feasting on fresh oysters plopped on saltine crackers doused with dashes of Tabasco.
“We prepare our shrimp and grits étouffée-style, and fresh red and green bell peppers are a component in that menu item along with Georgia white shrimp and tomatoes,” says Phillip Jackson, executive sous chef at The Lodge at Sea Island. “The peppers add a really nice balance to the dish.”
Like other chefs and culinary artists, Jackson has been experimenting with an array of peppers and sauces. He describes frying hot peppers from Eastern Asia then sprinkling them with a little salt and lemon juice.
“They have sweet, mild undertones that create a really nice flavor,” he says. “And we also developed a spectacular watermelon salad that we serve with a jalapeño vinaigrette that is a perfect balance between sweet and spicy. The jalapeños come from Canewater Farm in Darien, Georgia.”
In the last couple of years, Gregg Marsh, chef de cuisine at the Snack Shack at the Beach Club, has been cultivating his own pepper plants in a home garden. “It started with just three pepper plants that I transplanted into planter boxes, and expanded into a small pepper garden,” Marsh says.
He’s even concocted his own hot sauces and has tried his hand at pickling and fermenting peppers. “Making your own hot sauce is not that hard,” he says. “I roasted a big habanero in the oven with some garlic and onion, and then I puréed all ingredients with water and vinegar until it was the consistency of Sriracha.”
Marsh also made a custom green chili sauce by blending cayenne, green habaneros, water, vinegar and honey. “It’s a great condiment to add to rice,” he says. “But a little goes a long way.”
At the Beach Club, one popular spicy dish is the hot chicken sandwich. “People ask for the hot sauce on the side, and they use it like a dip,” Marsh says. “We also offer a great fried chicken plate with collard greens, dirty rice and hot sauce made from both jalapeños and habaneros.
“I really love growing the peppers and using them in different ways [at home],” he continues. “Used correctly, chilies can enhance the flavor and character of food.”
Whether you’re cultivating new pepper varieties, incorporating them in a creative meal or sampling a hot entrée for the first time, there are plenty of ways to turn up the heat. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.
In 2017, members of the National Restaurant Association voted that spicy cocktails were still a hot trend at restaurants and bars across the country. Daring mixologists have taken to adding jalapeño to their margaritas, or perhaps a dash of black pepper to their Gibsons, among other creative uses of spice.
At Sea Island, the chefs have discovered ways to balance spicy savoriness with more refreshing ingredients.
“I make a spicy watermelon elixir that I use to spike vodka,” says Gregg Marsh, chef de cuisine at the Snack Shack at the Beach Club, of how he has embraced the idea of the spicy cocktail. “I simply purée watermelon, fresh mint leaves and one or two jalapeños. I strain it through a fine mesh cheesecloth and let it sit for a day.” Afterward, Marsh adds it to vodka, noting that “the flavors marry together very well.”
The Scoville scale measures the hotness of peppers in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), which represent the average amount of capsaicin present in a sampling of peppers. Read on to find out where a few of your favorite peppers rank.
Carolina Reaper: more than 1.5 million SHU
Red Savina habanero: 350,000–580,000 SHU
Pequin pepper: 50,000–100,000 SHU
Poblano: 1,000–3,500 SHU
Bell pepper: 0 SHU