Sometime in the late 1990s, I was in Albuquerque with a sweet tooth and a few extra minutes before my flight. Working my way through a busy retail area, I happened upon a hole-in-the-wall pie shop offering what were, at the time, some of the most unusual pastries I’d ever seen or heard of. Out of sheer curiosity, I ordered two specialties of the house: apple-jalapeño and peach-habanero. And what a memorable decision it turned out to be. In the former, the green vegetal notes of the jalapeño both accented and perfectly offset the sweetness of the apples, creating a truly unique flavor experience that even today, some 15 years later, I still can’t quite forget. Meanwhile, the latter pie, in which the pleasantly cloying, almond-like flavor of peaches met the sweeter perfume and more intense heat of habanero pepper, was no less sensational.
I remember asking myself at the time what might have happened if the pastry chef had elected to swap the peppers in each pie, but I quickly concluded that neither an apple-habanero or a peach-jalapeño hybrid would be a viable option. My palate instantly registered these combinations as bad ideas, as unwieldy fusions that would never marry up as harmoniously as the original selections.
I tell this story not to try to dissuade anyone from engaging in creative experimentation with peppers. I’m simply suggesting that when it comes to introducing heat and spice to any food, the key is to carefully assess each flavor component and take a holistic approach. Here are some examples of what I mean:
It’s about more than just heat. Whether the cuisine is East Asian or Cajun, North African or North Indian, Southwestern or Sonoran, spices are rarely, if ever, used simply to singe the palate. Most careful practitioners understand that spices are all about imparting a complex perfume and a unique set of flavor characteristics.
The difference between adding a single spice—a sliver of serrano, say, or a dash of black pepper—and a complex ethnic spice blend such as a curry or the North African staple ras el hanout is truly night and day. It’s the difference between the sound of a solo violinist and the lush, multilayered harmony generated by an entire string section. So when you contemplate adding heat to any dish, the decisions you make straight out of the gate should be based on the entire flavor experience you want to introduce to your customer.
Not all spices are created equal. The question of how to create that perfect flavor experience demands that menu-development professionals consider the synergies that exist between different ingredients and the kind of heat or spice that’s being sought. Not all heat is created equal, and balance is key. Do you want a quick, piercing heat that hits the front of the tongue hard and announces itself boldly? Or are you seeking a subtler, slightly insidious heat that creeps up the palate from the back of the throat? How do the acids, sweetness, bitterness, earthiness, or salty qualities of other ingredients interact with the spice you’re introducing? Achieving this perfect blend of flavors, with heat and spice as strong supporting players, is what I’ve taken to calling “right-spicing.” And it requires time, lots of tinkering, and a willingness to toy with convention—without straying too far.
For instance, while fusing different ethnic spices is possible and even desirable in some instances, simply adding sriracha or Tabasco to anything and everything isn’t a surefire recipe for success. At the recent Culinary Institute of America Worlds of Flavors conference, chef Mark Miller demonstrated a deceptively simple Italian-style tomato sauce spiked with Fresno chile peppers—a highly unusual and even counterintuitive choice that worked perfectly thanks to the Fresno’s relatively low heat, pleasing fruitiness, vegetal notes, and umami. (Umami, sometimes called “the fifth taste,” is best characterized as the satisfying, palate-coating mouthfeel you get from foods like mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, and steak.)
But while some unorthodox fusions will work, others would simply fall flat. Pizza chains have toyed with all kinds of variations on the traditional Neapolitan theme, but even the boldest tastemakers in this industry would probably hesitate to add, say, Korean kimchi to a pizza just because it’s spicy and unusual. Again, balance is key.
Millennials are an adventurous customer segment for hot and spicy. The great news for menu developers is that in Millennials—that burgeoning powerhouse consumer demographic with decades of purchasing power ahead of them—we have an entire generation whose heat-seeking palates are primed for, and even insistent upon, bigger, bolder flavors; lots of layering; and plenty of complexity. A single-note flavor system just doesn’t cut it with this crowd. They may choose safe, simple comfort staples like meatloaf or mashed potatoes, but you can bet they won’t want their grandmothers’ versions. They’ll want to enliven the mix by spicing up standard variations to make them more interesting. They also favor the use of heat and spice in atypical contexts—desserts and beverages, for example.
In other words, finding new and better ways to “right-spice” your menu items is an undertaking well worth taking on.