Are you the kind of guy who likes a little kick in his meals? We're not talking about that weak-ass “Fire” sauce from Taco Bell here either. If you like foods that attack your taste buds with the primary goal of making steam shoot out of your ears, you might find some new dishes here that can put up a fight. You probably won't be shocked to see that a number of items on this list hail from regions of Asia known for their spicy foods, but there are a few meals originating from locations that might surprise you.
Before we begin, here's a quick tip for those of you who want to experience some of the more exotic dishes but don't have the spare change to grab a flight to Thailand or India. When you go into your local ethnic restaurant, ask for your food to be prepared as authentically as possible in terms of spiciness levels. Most places have to “town down” their meals for the virginal taste buds of most westerners, so insist that you want your order to be just as spicy as it should be.
The main source of spiciness in most of these concoctions is some kind of chili pepper. Did you know that chili peppers are technically fruits? Fruits that have their own scale to determine just how hot they are, called theScoville scale. Apples don't have their own scale, because apples are for babies. But you're an adventurous eater, aren't you? Let's take a look at some dishes that are sure to make you feel the burn. On both ends.
Thai Pepper Steak
Ah, Thai food. It used to be something that only people who were too classy to eat at Panda Express were interested in, but nowadays you can find great Thai restaurants just about everywhere. Thai Pepper Steak is a pretty popular dish, so it should be pretty easy to find even if you're on the other side of the world. Called Neua Pad Prik in its native language, it's one of many foods with a name that makes the less mature English speakers giggle upon hearing it.
Thai pepper steak is essentially a seasoned beef, with ingredients usually including shallots, garlic, and basil. But where does the heat come from? The so-called Bird's Eye chili, found in a number of regions of Asia, where it's called phrik khi nu. The literal translation of that is “rat dropping chili,” no joke. Is your mouth watering yet?
Creole Cau Cau
Do you think that potatoes are generally bland, filler foods? Tired of chomping down on that plate of potato salad (which you can't stop eating, but you're not sure why)? Get your hands on some Creole Cau Cau, a potato-and-tripe stew that hails from Peru. The spice fix here comes from the yellow Peruvian chili called aji amarillo, which mostly serves to kick potato ass. If tripe (cow stomach) isn't your thing, most of the time you can also find this dish prepared with chicken or fish.
St. Elmo Steak House Shrimp Cocktail
“What?” you're thinking, “Shrimp cocktail? Those aren't spicy!” And in most cases you'd be right. Shrimp cocktails are usually served with some weak-ass marinara sauce – which, by the way, is essentially just ketchup and horseradish – but this shrimp cocktail is in a whole different class. This demure-looking meal is the sleeper cell of spicy foods, enough to make Jack Bauer come knocking down the door to the restaurant and insist to know who it's working for.
You'd think that a shrimp cocktail this spicy would come out of India, but it hails from The St. Elmo Steak House in Indiana (coincidence?!). The sauce is what gives these shrimp their kick, which consists of horseradish, chili sauce (and lots of it), lemon and lime juice, and cider vinegar. For those of us who don't live in Indiana and don't plan on visiting anytime soon, the recipe for this dish is readily available online. Fortunately the preparation is relatively simple, so while it may be true that the “real thing” would be superior to whatever you concoct in your home laboratory, you have the option to create a relatively similar experience anywhere in the world that has shrimp.
It's a shame that great Korean restaurants don't seem to be quite as numerous as the more popular Chinese or Thai places, because these folks know how to make a spicy meal. Even so, you're probably familiar with Kimchi, which is a fermented cabbage with a peculiar and often hot taste. Kimchi Jjigae is a soup that is served hot and has a lot of the usual suspects as ingredients: green onions, mushrooms, tofu, garlic and so on.
The spice culprit in this case is red chili peppers, and if the chef uses more than just a few, the soup can become absurdly hot. The ingredients all absorb that spicy flavor while the soup is being cooked, so a few spoonfuls can leave the uninitiated running for the closest stockpile of ice cubes.
This list wouldn't be complete without a selection from India, a region known for its extremely spicy dishes, many of which are bizarre by western taste bud standards. If you've explored India's famous curries, you're probably familiar with Vindaloo, a popular choice for spice-lovers. By comparison, Phaal would make Vindaloo taste as refreshing and quaint as a children's summer popsicle.
Phaal curry is often prepared with ten or more different types of chili peppers, usually including Habanero and the scorching Scotch Bonnet pepper (which is also the name of the hat they make you wear in rehab). The peppers and the preparation of this meal have prompted many Indian restaurants to offer their more adventurous patrons a reward for having the cojones to finish it, such as a certificate, a picture on the wall, or a free beer to quench the never ending fire. If you finish a bowl of Phaal, plan to spend the rest of your evening near a bathroom, and it wouldn't hurt to have your family doctor on speed dial.