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My dad always says that you should be sweating after a good meal. Interpret it as you like, but for me it’s all about spice. Chilli should add heat that doesn’t overpower taste – that’s key. You can keep your ghost peppers and Carolina Reaper.
Maximising heat may be good for frat party pranks and tests of manliness, but not for quality cooking. Heat should involve all the complexities of the other slices of the taste pie chart (umami, salty, sweet, bitter, sour). Smokiness, garlic-y-ness (which is always a favourite of mine), acid – the best hot sauces are complex, and you can taste the complexity. The core of any hot sauce is a selection of chilies (packed with a range of levels of the chemical, capsaicin, which is what makes for spicy hotness), which are liquefied, pureed and combined with vinegar, fat, water or other liquid. After that, you can go wild. Hot sauce is like a pack of sled dogs. Rein in and harness their power, but don’t let them pull you into the snow. Well, there goes my analogy, but you get the picture.
Here is a lineup of selected excellent hot sauces from around the world.
Chilli Oil (Asian): the simplest of all hot sauces, which requires no preparation to speak of and is found throughout Asia, is simply heated vegetable oil into which dried red chillies are poured. As the mixture cools, the spice infuses the oil, and the oil can then be used for cooking or for dressing, with or without the chilies themselves.
Cholula (Mexico): Mexico is full of hot sauces, and it’s perhaps unfair to single out this brand above others, but it tends to be better known than others outside of Mexico, and is in the ring with Tabasco and Sriracha as synonymous with hot sauce, the way Kleenex and Xerox brand names became interchangeable with the products they produce.
Sambal (Indonesia): this is something of a catch-all term for a variety of Indonesian hot sauces, from sambal oelek (the most basic, just fresh red chili with salt, vinegar and some sugar) to sambal bajak (my favourite, which fleshes out the sauce by including onions, cherry tomatoes, shrimp paste and, if you’ve got them lying around the cupboard, candlenuts).
Sriracha (Thailand): Jalapenos, garlic and a bit of sugar. That’s all it takes to make the world’s most beloved hot sauce. While the original hails from Thailand, the famous one, with the rooster on the label is the fruit of a single immigrant who worked his way up from a one-man operation to a multi-million dollar international monster business that has become a big part of pop culture.
Tabasco (Louisiana, USA): to learn that Tabasco sauce is 95% water might make you think that it is weak. No way, Jose. This style of sauce has a relatively small percentage of chili peppers, so as not to blow our ears off. It is firmly in the liquid category, whereas most of the others on this list are more of a paste. But this is probably America’s most ubiquitous hot sauce. And if you think it’s simple, think again – there’s a three-year aging process to bring out just the right flavours.
Gochujang (Korea): For a good three centuries, this has been Korea’s preferred spicy injection, with a flavour drawn from fermented soy beans and sticky rice (it tastes better than it sounds), and is best known as the topping for bibimbap.
Achaar (India): a tomato relish made of a variety of pickled fruit and vegetables (mango, tomato, onion, cucumber, lime, cauliflower, and more) mixed with chilli for a sort of fire-y chutney.
Acuka (Turkey): also known as muhammara (in its Syrian variant), this sauce features Aleppo peppers, as well as some wonderfully exotic ingredients, including pomegranate molasses, breadcrumbs and walnuts, giving it a strong texture, as well as flavour.
Nam Phrik (Malaysia): “chili water,” as the name connotes, consists of bird’s eye chilli, shrimp or fish paste, garlic and shallots, which form the core of this and many hot sauces from Southeast-Asia, particularly northern Thailand and Malaysia. There are of course many variants, but my favourite is nam phrik ong, which also contains tomatoes and ... wait for it … pork! This is especially exciting when served as a dip, with a side of pork skin for dipping!
Harissa (North Africa): the ubiquitous red sauce across North Africa and now in the Levant, draws its distinctive flavour from cumin and coriander.
Aji (South America): you can find variations on this sauce made of aji amarillo peppers throughout South America. It is a lovely pale green, thanks to fresh green peppers and coriander and lime juice.
Ti-Malice (Haiti): if you like onions (and who doesn’t), then this is a sauce for you. Lots of shallots, tomato, garlic and scotch bonnets. It’s named after a Haitian folklore Loki-like trickster who defended his food against hungry friends by smothering it in hot sauce. That wouldn’t stop me, and it didn’t stop Ti-Malice’s friends, as the whole village became addicted to the sauce. Can’t blame ’em.
Buffalo Sauce (Buffalo, New York, USA): Buffalo Sauce smothers chicken wings so nicely because the cayenne, vinegar and garlic is smoothed and bound with butter.
Scotch Bonnet Pepper Sauce (Jamaica): the most prevalent pepper in the Caribbean is best-known for this Jamaican staple, found on plastic tabletops all over the island and a key component of any jerk dishes.
Shatta (Egypt): red chilli, olive oil, parsley and tomato. It’s basically spicy tomato sauce, not far off from Italian arrabiata, most famously topping Egypt’s national dish, koshari.
Peri Peri (Portugal): a true hybrid of South American, Portuguese and African cultures (with ingredients brought by the colonial Portuguese originally from South America to the African coast), this can be a dry rub or a sauce, with serrano chilies, vinegar and lemon.
Molho de Pimenta (Brazil): tomato, chilli and some vinegar, plus anything else you can imagine, can be found throughout South and Central America. The Brazilian version uses malagueta peppers, and is a popular mix-in for fejoida black bean stew.
Shito (Ghana): the fishy variant on hot sauces, it is made with fish oil, ground dried fish or shrimp, ginger and chilies (usually cayenne). It features in kenkey, a dumpling steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf), and best compliments fish dishes.
Zhug (Yemen): invented in Yemen, but now best-known as a feature of Israeli food, this bright green hot sauce includes loads of coriander to set off fresh green chillies.
Awaze (Ethiopia): on the list of things impossible to get in Slovenia, this is right up there. It’s a shame, because it sounds amazing. Berbere spice mix (covered in a previous article) plus Tej (a sweet honey wine popular in Eritrea and Ethiopia) plus garlic and black pepper. The berbere spice mix has red chilli, but not a lot, so this is less about heat and more about deep flavour. I suppose you could swap in something for the missing Tej (Slovene medica, honey schnapps, perhaps) – or you could start your own Tej vineyard in the Julian Alps.