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Two impulses that are common to human beings are that we like to pursue things that give us pleasure, and we generally like to avoid pain and discomfort. So why do so many people love spicy, hot food that causes pain and sometimes hurts us quite seriously?
When you think about it, something that you eat that is hot or spicy doesn’t really even have a flavour; rather, it’s a sensation. Biologically, molecules from, say, a Szechuan pepper or a demonically hot ghost pepper latch on to sensory nerve receptors in the mouth and wreak havoc causing irritation and outright pain.
There are, of course, degrees of response along a wide spectrum: for some people, the sensation is an agony that induces dizziness and nausea; for others, it is an ecstasy akin to the physical rush of bungee jumping. Following the intense sweating, spice acolytes seek the pleasant relief of the body’s release of pain-killing chemicals that transit to the heat epicentre to quell the irritation.
Mild or volcanic, that heat is measured by what is called the Scoville scale, a subjective measurement of the spicy-heat of capsaicin that ranges from under 1,000 Scoville units for banana peppers and paprika to over two 2 million units for the Carolina Reaper and the Komodo Dragon chili pepper.
Many restaurants in Waterloo Region highlight heat readings on their menus, usually with a little red chili pepper beside the item. Here, we’ve created a short list of dishes and restaurants that feature such spicy foods – they may just provide the kick of heat and excitement to warm up a frosty January night.
(A few notes – Individual responses to hot spices can vary greatly: one person’s mild chicken wing sauce might be another’s five-alarm blaze. As well, please check with the venues listed for hours of opening and availability of dishes. )
Grain of Salt
Any dish called vindaloo – mouth-searing beef, chicken or lamb curries – is pretty hot. This Cambridge restaurant ominously calls their spiciest version “X-hot.”
As with Grain of Salt, Bombay Sizzler sizzles with a hot vindaloo: it starts off with a burn, but you can add heat to the limit of your pain threshold. It’s the same with the dhansak sweet and sour – but hot – curry.
Ask for “top of line” spicing in a dish, and you’ll get three times the heat from the ground Thai chili peppers that the kitchen uses in this long-standing Thai favourite restaurant in the Centreville-Chicopee neighbourhood.
This relatively new Indian restaurant on Lorraine Avenue in the Heritage Park neighbourhood has several dishes that warrant the spicy warning on the menu. However, they can add spice to your liking – or peril – for any dish. The “Chicken 65” is one of their most popular hot dishes.
Of this Bridgeport Village neighbourhood restaurant, some will say the Nashville-Style Chikan Shak chicken is “burn-your-face-off-hot.” It’s simple but searing, says chef and co-owner Tim Borys. “We use tons of cayenne and a good paprika. You’re supposed to cry.” Cayenne, by the way, registers about 190,000 Scoville units.
Bao Sandwich Bar
Tucked in behind Wilfrid Laurier and off University Avenue, Bao puts the spicy Korean condiment kimchi as well as bulgogi beef on their French fries making it a sort of fusion dish of milder heat.
A salad can be hot if it is Bhima’s south-east Asian som tum. “It’s not quite as hot as a Bangkok street stall, but it comes close,” says Jonathan Rennie, a chef at the restaurant.
Near the University of Waterloo, Kismet prepares a very hot lamb samba and chicken Bangalore, the latter described on the menu as an “extra extra hot, highly flavoured curry only for the daring.”