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Peppers are the spice of life – if you dare!

February 22, 2019

Y’never know when you’ll hit a nerve. Good, bad or indifferent, it’s nice to know that somebody’s on the other end of this keyboard wire. Last week’s column about the Fire & Ice competition for Polar Plunge generated an unusual number of emails about hot stuff. Yes, some like it hot, and some don’t, but in this business of eating, nobody ever died from eating a hot pepper – though they might have wanted to at the time.

The food industry is experiencing a trend where diners and grocery shoppers are craving an increase in spiciness. I suspect that one of the reasons for this phenomenon is that people have become more aware of the wide variety of foods available to them (thank you, Food Network, etc., etc.), so they are more willing to experiment with new tastes. My friend Raghu Kumar who owns Indigo Indian restaurant downtown told me that he is surprised at how many people ask for his already brightly spiced Lamb Vindaloo to be served “extra hot.” I’ve done that, and it certainly gets your attention.

Kim Jeong Hoon of Miyagi Ramen Bar sells quite a bit of the Spicy Miso Ramen. It’s certainly high-octane, and I handle it just fine. Not all the dishes there will sting - the Miso Bowl is the exception. In fact, I add Sriracha! Speaking of that chili-pepper/garlic sauce, you can always kick things up a notch at Minh’s Bistro Vietnamese restaurant on Coastal Highway at Route 24. Owner Thinh Pham honors chiliheads by positioning bright-red bottles of Sriracha on every table and along the bar. It’s optional, of course, but if you choose to take the plunge, you’ll want to make sure your affairs are in order.

Last week I explained that the intensity of a pepper can be attributed to the presence of a chemical called capsaicin. All sorts of health benefits are attributed to capsaicin: It’s a powerful antioxidant, and has been proven to reduce the severity of migraine headaches. It relieves arthritis pain when applied topically and has strong antibacterial properties that help prevent sinus infections. And whatever sweat it might generate can cool you off on hot days. This explains the tradition of hot-pepper dishes in warm climates.

There’s no shortage of places here in Rehoboth that will happily spice up your mealtimes. Of course there’s Indigo (if you ask!). Chef Shawn Xiong at Confucius has a secret stash of cruel little peppers from Hunan Province in China (you have to ask for them). Dale and John at Cooter Brown’s Twisted Southern Kitchen and Bourbon Bar will happily provide you with fresh jalapenos to sprinkle atop your Texas Frito Pie. Iron Hill Brewery’s Korean Barbeque Chicken Wings sound innocent enough, but they also pack a punch.

Capsaicin is oil-based, so any attempt to rinse away the pain with water, beer or soft drinks does nothing more than spread the stuff around in your mouth. The more concentrated the capsaicin, the longer it lasts. I’ve written before that there is a measurement of relative hotness - other than how loud your screams are - quantified by the Scoville Organoleptic Test. The rating is based on how much water is required to dilute the pepper essence until it can no longer be tasted. For example, the Carolina Reaper, the hottest pepper known to man (at least at the moment) comes in at a whopping 2,200,000 Scoville Heat Units, meaning that it requires 2 million units (drops) of water to render the Carolina Reaper tasteless.

Wasabi is also hot, but quite different from peppers. The pain-producing compound, Allyl isothyocyanate, is similar to horseradish, but different from capsaicin in that it’s water-based. So though you might initially long for a swift and merciful demise, a couple of gulps of a frosty Kirin or Tsingtao brew will change your mind sooner than if you’d popped a habanero (a paltry 350,000 SHUs).

The green “wasabi” paste slathered on your plate of sushi or sashimi is, in fact, not wasabi at all. Pure wasabi is made by crushing the rhizomes of Japanese horseradish. It is difficult to keep fresh, so many sushi/sashimi joints serve a green-tinted paste of horseradish, starch and mustard. Some Rehoboth restaurants do offer the real thing; grating it fresh to order for perhaps a small upcharge. All you have to do is ask.

Cape Region eateries are brimming with all sorts of tastes just waiting for you to try. What’s the worst that can happen!? Order another Kirin Ichiban and enjoy.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.