Spicy food can help you live longer. Capsaicin, the substance that gives chillies and peppers their heat, has antioxidant and analgesic properties. Spicy food has its addicts, though it can scare the rest of us who are not so accustomed.
Pharmacist Wilbur Scoville invented a scale in 1912 to measure spiciness. The units represent the millilitres of water needed to dilute one millilitre of pepper extract. The spiciness scale begins with the common red pepper or the ‘guajillo’ – mild stuff (between 100 – 5,000). Exercise caution with cayenne peppers (250,000), as anyone who’s accidentally overdosed can testify. In the upper range, we can only greet you with a scorching welcome to hell. The Indian ‘bhut jolokia’ pepper is so hot it can only be handled with gloves (50,000 – 1 million). Finally there’s the Trinidad moruga scorpion chilli (2 million) – as you eat it, it causes blisters in the mouth and throat.
But don’t worry; the dishes we’ve chosen for you won’t give you anything more than a fiery sensation in your mouth. One of the finest pleasures of good cuisine.
’Huoguo’, the Chinese fondue
When you get that slow-building advance warning of the spiciness to come, you know things are about to get seriously hot. The Chinese hot pot, or huoguo, a dish that should be enjoyed with absolute calm, is the ideal way to embark on the fiery roller-coaster ride you sense on the horizon. You can choose your heat level, but you’re not here to waste time: order the spicy broth – served so hot it cooks the ingredients you dip into it in seconds – and combine it with duck, chicken, beef, lamb or fish. Dunk sliced vegetables, prawns, lobster claws, baby octopuses – you’ll feel like a miniature demon in charge of your own private inferno.
Tacos with ‘molcajete’ sauce
Spicy food might appear to be a gastronomic faux pas, but if you’re eating quality chillies and not mass-produced sauces designed to burn off the roof of your mouth, that spiciness can help digest your meal. A case in point is the spectacular molcajete salsa trolley at Oaxaca, a temple of traditional Mexican cuisine. They prepare the sauce at the table, and you can specify the level of spiciness as they grind six dry chillies, imported from Mexico, in a Mayan mortar. Each one contributes a subtly different flavour, whether smoky, sweet or extra hot. The perfect match for this salsa are their 'carnitas michoacanas', tacos filled with pork slow-cooked in its own juices.
Knowing that Thai cuisine is one of the spiciest in the world, you’ll agree that its hottest dish must be pretty darn hot. At Thai Barcelona they make a mean kaproaw mu, a pork and chilli pepper stir-fry that’s a popular classic. I watch in awe as it’s prepared in the kitchen: meat and vegetables scalded in broth for a minute, then stir-fried with a sauce of dry chillies, garlic, sunflower oil and oyster sauce. I order it extra spicy – 'pet pet' in Thai – and it’s devastating, but when cooked properly the chillies burn without overwhelming. The contrast between the spiciness and the fresh green pepper and Thai basil is addictively soothing.