Worth the Pain: Journey to Spicy Town

If you’re like me, you live for spicy food — the spicier the better! That Thai curry had better make me sweat! I’m not enjoying my wings unless my nose is running. It’s not good salsa if my eardrums don’t throb in time with my heartbeat. 

If you aren’t like me, you may be wondering why I do this to myself. 

Short answer: I sucked my thumb as a toddler. A remedy for “thumb-suckers” where I grew up was a drop of hot sauce on the offending thumb. I adapted. Now, I’m addicted.  

Therein lies the key: exposure. Scientific studies have shown that there may be a genetic link to spice tolerance, but don’t let that be your excuse to order everything mild. Spice tolerance is something that can be built over time through gradual, repeated exposure. 

Yes, I had a head start and questionable parenting — but I’m here for you! I’ll show you the way! This list is Easy Mode for the spice curious, those wanting to dip a toe in without feeling like you licked a cactus.

1. Start Off Sweet and Spicy

Hot Pepper Raspberry Preserves

We’ll begin nice and easy, okay? There are a few ways to dull the effects of capsaicin — the active component in chili peppers that tells your brain your mouth is on fire. Bread, fats, sugar and dairy are known to cut the burn. 

So, easy mode: A bagel with cream cheese, and a bit of this sweet/tart pepper preserve. It’ll also make a great vinaigrette: whisk together a splash of apple cider vinegar (acidic foods also help to neutralize the sting), a bit of olive oil (fat to cut the burn), a spoonful of this stuff and you’re golden!

2. Next, Sour & Spicy

Japan Hot Yuzu Sauce

Yuzu is a citrus fruit of East Asian origin. The flavor profile is a bit hard to describe, but some common notes are lemon, lime, mandarin orange…maybe grapefruit? This Japanese condiment is spicy, but also really sharp and flavorful. A little bit’ll do ya, and the flavor goes a long way. 

Try adding a splash to your guac. A few drops in a bowl of ramen adds a bright note. When used appropriately, it’s just spicy enough to tingle the taste buds. Because of ingredient settling, if you don’t shake the bottle before using it, it’s very mild. 

**Warning, if you don’t shake the bottle though, it’ll only get spicier the more you use!

3. Savory & Spicy

Lao Gan Ma

Moving west, Lao Gan Ma, or Old Godmother (her face is on the jar & she means business), is a chinese chili crisp oil. It’s essentially a blend of chili’s, onions, soybeans, and peanuts that have been lightly fried in oil. The process makes everything crispy and imparts a ton of flavor into the oil itself. The thing to remember here is that you are in complete control of your spice journey. Maybe you want a little drizzle of the oil on your lo mein (mild) or maybe you want to eat it by the Pringle-ful like Jesse here:

4. Creamy and Spicy

Kimchi Mayo Sauce

From the mind of chef Chris Oh (Cutthroat Kitchen champion) comes this Kimchi inspired mayo based spread. The squeeze bottle is handy because you’re going to want to put this on everything.  “The perfect combination of spiciness, tang, and savoriness while delightfully creamy.”  We like the sound of that.

Life hack: use this in place of buttering the bread to add a kick to grilled cheese sandwiches. Again, you’re in the driver seat here and I’m just along for the ride. Add a little, or a lot, it’s your trip to Spicy Town.

5. Simmered & Spicy

Mild Kashmiri Curry Sauce

Cookbook author Maya Kaimal — to know her is to love her. Any journey to Spicy Town wouldn’t be complete without Indian flavors.  What’s the secret to a good curry? No idea. Maya Kaimal knows though. Raised in Boston by her South Indian father and mother from New England, she has created a line of ready to eat curries and sauces that capture her family’s favorite recipes. 

From what I understand, making a great curry takes a lot of time…time I don’t have. It also takes a variety of spices (some curries have dozens) and I wouldn’t know what a fenugreek was if it hit me in the face.  This mild Kashmiri curry takes almost all of the work out of the equation. Just sautee a protein (plant based or otherwise) of your choice, or maybe some vegetables, add this and simmer for about 20 minutes. You could also just dump everything in a slow cooker and walk away like a boss.

6. Green & Spicy

Herdez Guacamole Salsa (Mild)

On to Mexico with this unique blend of tomatillos, cilantro, onion, avocado and green chile peppers that hits all the right notes without packing too much heat. It’s quite a bit looser in consistency as far as guacamole goes, so it’s definitely more salsa than dip.

A spoonful on taco tuesday will really take it there, or use it to level up your next Taco Bell order. It’s ability to cut through fatty flavors makes it a great condiment for hot dogs, burgers and nachos. It’ll turn a plain baked potato into something…not boring.

7. Tangy & Spicy

Tajin Clasico

This Mexican staple has so many uses, it’s crazy. It’s a blend of dried, mild chilies, lime and sea salt. It sounds simple, and it is, making it super versatile.  Use it to salt the rim of a margarita or beer glass, add it to your bloody mary, sprinkle it on fresh (or frozen) mango, orange slices, cucumber, pineapple or watermelon, season fajitas or shrimp with it. 

Corn on the cob fresh off the grill? Tajín. 

Sweet potato fries hot out of the air fryer? Tajín

Movie night popcorn? Tajín!

Oreo cookies? Get some freakin milk, you animal.

8. Sticky and Spicy

Capital City Mild Mambo Sauce

We take it to the United States — Washington DC, specifically — with Capital City Mild Mambo Sauce. This sauce is a, “If you know, you know” kinda thing.  Started in 2011, by Charles and Arsha Jones, Capital City LLC is a minority & family-owned business based out of Maryland.

What began in Arsha’s kitchen has since amassed a cult following (you can get Capital City inspired New Balance sneakers) and this secret recipe has been featured on shows like Hot Ones, and First We Feast.  It’s target demographic — chicken wing connoisseurs. 

Don’t let that keep you from slathering it on anything and everything. Personally, I like it on fries, tots and onion rings. It’s like a blend of BBQ sauce and sweet and sour sauce.  Hear me out: pineapple pizza + mambo sauce = sweet/salty/cheesy/spicy/tangy It’s incredible.  Unless you hate pineapple on pizza (and that’s OK! I’m not here to fight that battle.)

9. Tex-Mex & Spicy

Spicy Whataburger Ketchup

Whataburger is a fast food burger joint that started in Corpus Christi, Texas in the 1950’s. Known for fresh ingredients and quick, simple burgers, Whaterburger has nearly 900 locations throughout the southern U.S. 

Whataburger ketchup was already a thing, even when I was a kid.  When Whataburger introduced it’s jalapeño infused ketchup in 2012, it was game over. It became so popular, it was sometimes hard to get. Whataburger locations had to ration them. You couldn’t even buy them if you wanted to. 

Now, you can get your spicy ketchup fix anytime. It’s not overly hot, but you can also mix it with regular ketchup to tame the heat. Use when and where you’d normally use ketchup. It’s great for topping meatloaf.  I call it, “Not your Momma’s meatloaf.” I get a kick out of that for some reason.

10. We’ve Arrived

Frank’s RedHot

We’re here.

Spicy Town.

You’ve made it.

Frank’s is a tried and true, classic flavor profile that’s pretty hot.  Many argue that Frank’s was actually the original buffalo wing sauce. 

Some may gloat that it’s not hot at all. Don’t listen to them.  When people usually think of this sauce, they think of it as a sauce for hot wings. What they may not know is that it’s standard to mix melted butter in with the sauce before coating the wings. Dairy and fat cuts the heat, remember. Then they dip it in bleu cheese dressing (more dairy and fat).

What I’m really trying to say is, don’t let anyone take this accomplishment away from you. If you’ve made it this far…it’s a big deal, and I salute you! When adding this sauce straight from the bottle, take care or your scalp will be sweating in no time at all!  — but that’s a good thing! 

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