Think there’s a lot of hot food in Houston? You can thank the many cultures that contribute sizzling recipes to our culinary tapestry. We dug a little deeper into the connections that six specific cultures—Mexican, West African, Thai, Indian, Chinese and Caribbean—have with heat to show just how important chiles are to our lives.
Chile peppers are native to Mexico, making the country the genesis of all the world’s spicy food. Pre-Mayan civilizations as far back as 7,500 BCE grew hot peppers as crops and ate them. Spanish conquistadors and colonists later dispersed those chiles to every corner of the world while also imparting their influence over Mexican cuisine.
Today, says James Beard award-winning chef and Mexico City native Hugo Ortega, “We don’t use chiles just to add heat. We use them to add depth of flavor … texture.”
At his eponymous Montrose flagship, Hugo’s, home to authentic Mexican fare, nearly every dish incorporates some mix of ancient indigenous and Spanish colonial influence, perhaps none quite as well as the lechon (braised suckling pig), a dish originally imported from Spain, but served in a tightly packed banana leaf alongside a bright red and sweat-inducing habanero salsa and house-made corn tortillas that harken back to early Mesoamerica.
“As a cooking style, jerk refers to the way in which meat is seasoned, smoked and grilled. It was developed during slavery on the island of Jamaica to preserve meat,” says Tony Davis, corporate chef for Museum District Caribbean restaurant Reggae Hut and Midtown’s ultra-popular The Breakfast Klub.
That seasoning includes allspice berries, thyme, wickedly hot Scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, and ginger—all of which speak to the civilizations (European settlers, African slaves, and Arab and Asian traders) that influenced Jamaica’s vibrant tradition of spice-fueled cuisine, from curries to roti flatbread to its signature jerk chicken.
The traditional version at Reggae Hut is grilled to blackened perfection and served with rice, peas, and your choice of vegetable medley or Caribbean potato salad. How hot is this bird?
“The intensity of the heat,” says Davis, “truly depends on how much the consumer is willing to handle.”
West Africa is perhaps the world’s most historically influential region when it comes to foodways and thus heat—at its trade ports, European colonialists introduced chile peppers and more New World crops that changed Asian, African, and European cuisine forever. The exportation of enslaved West Africans also led to the creation of Creole and Caribbean cuisine.
In Houston, Nigerians have the largest population of West Africans in the city, and, says Tiffaney Odewale, the biggest flavors too. “Nigerians feel spicy food is satisfaction. If it is not spicy, then they are not satisfied. They put spice in every meal.”
At Odewale’s restaurant Cafe Abuja, which she runs with her husband and Nigeria native, Avo, the must order is a traditional West African dish, egusi soup, a thick stew of dried and powdered melon seeds, powdered crayfish, and blended peppers (scorching-hot Scotch bonnets, popular in West African tribes, are typical), best served with yam fufu, a bouncy bun-like dough—a staple in most Nigerian homes.
“The cultural significance of spices in Indian food cannot be overstated,” says Anita Jaisinghani, chef-owner of Pondicheri. Even turmeric and cumin (likely traced to the Middle East) made their way in and out of the subcontinent through the world’s most ancient trade routes some 10,000 years ago, which as Jaisinghani so eloquently points out, “thrived for over a millennia, created and destroyed kingdoms and ultimately resulted in the accidental discovery of America.” Somewhere along the way—in the 16th century—three varieties of chile peppers were planted along the Malabar coast in Southwestern India, and today, Indian chile farms grow peppers like the skinny Guntur Sannam and plump Salem Gundu.
At Pondicheri, her Kirby restaurant, the James Beard award semifinalist has popularized Indian cuisine that melds ancient spice blends—“integral to every region of India and what really hold the country’s food together”— with contemporary creativity and Western influence, like her morning thali. The classic sampler plate, featuring a fried egg over carrot paratha flatbread, house-made saffron yogurt, potato curry, yellow-grits uppma, and keema, a hot Indian beef chile spiced with serranos and other green peppers, is a uniquely Indian take on American breakfast.
Chinese may be the oldest living cuisine (circa 15th century BCE) but chile peppers didn’t land in Sichuan, its province known for heat, until the 18th or 19th century AD. Yet in that time, its cooks have essentially rewritten the book on spicy food, combining the peppers with their native Sichuan peppercorn for an experience that’s anything like the typical capsaicin-fueled fire.
“Instead,” says Mala Sichuan Bistro owner Cori Xiong, “the combination of chile peppers and Sichuan peppercorns gives you a nice numbing and tingly sensation to the mouth and tongue, together making up the mala flavor or, translated into English, numbing and spicy.” With most Sichuan dishes, mala is followed by a tart, vinegary flavor that grows in complexity.
At Mala Sichuan, Xiong’s beloved restaurant named for the numbing sensation, order the spicy and crispy chicken to experience it yourself. Flash-fried pieces of dark meat are tossed in that quintessential mala seasoning, which includes red chiles—among them the moderately warming Facing Heaven pepper—whole Sichuan peppercorns, and fermented broad bean paste. It’s a profoundly spicy dish that conveys the spirit of Sichuan—and it’s okay to call it Szechuan too.
Thai cuisine was developed over centuries with influence from early Chinese settlers, Muslim, and Indian traders (who brought over curry and more spices) and even European colonialism—the Portuguese brought Thai chiles, also known as bird’s eye chiles, here during the Columbia Exchange—adding myriad flavors to what’s now considered one of the richest cuisines on earth, not to mention the one that rings the most alarm bells.
“If you have seen someone having a meal with tears in their eyes but a big smile on their face, that’s probably a Thai spicy dish,” says Lukkaew Srasrisuwan, co-owner of Kin Dee Thai Cuisine in the Heights. The eatery’s must order khao soi, Northern Style Curry —an egg-noodle-based curry dish with Thai chile-inflected curry paste and coconut milk served over chicken—represents Thailand’s diversity and love of spice. “Herbs like lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, coriander seed,” says Srasrisuwan. He could keep going.