Still hot and getting hotter


Blair's After Death SauceIt’s hard to believe it’s been more than a decade since I last updated my web page on hot sauces, and about 15 since I first wrote it.

My, how times flies. So many years, so many hot sauces since then.

I’ve been a hot sauce aficionado for much longer than that, though. Most of my life, and all my adult life. But only in the last two decades has there really been a significant choice available in product. I can remember when Tabasco was it; the only hot sauce ever found anywhere. Now there are stores that specialize in nothing but. And the choice of hot peppers is tremendously expanded, too, from the barely-warm jalapeno to the brutally hot bhut jolokia.

The little bottle above left – Blair’s After Death Sauce – is one I opened this past weekend. Hot, scorchingly hot, but tasty, too. I’ve always liked Blair’s sauces. This mix is much hotter than the original Death Sauce, but below his Sudden Death. I went through a bottle of the latter, late last year, but didn’t like it as much as the After Death or his “cooler” sauces. Sudden Death was not as tasty, but hotter and that makes it difficult to get just the right amount, since so little is needed.

Personally, I want flavour as well as heat. After Death has both heat and flavour, without quite tipping over to the inedibly hot level – assuming you’re sparing with it. Which I seldom am, of course. But likely next time I find a selection (we found the latest bunch in Orillia), I’ll move down a notch to a slightly cooler sauce, in exchange for the added flavour.

It’ll still be ten times hotter than most of my readers can bear. But keep in mind: hot sauces work by tricking you: they’re not really hot (as in temperature) no matter what your tongue tells you. You think your mouth is burning, but it really isn’t. And your body quickly adapts to the sensation:

…your nervous system isn’t going to just let you suffer with your mouth on fire. So it also launches a whole series of actions to help us deal with the pain. It releases endorphins — the morphine-like compounds that give you a natural high. And it makes the nerves on our tongue more tolerant to pain.
In other words, spicy peppers may hurt at first, but then they have an analgesic effect…
When (hot sauce) hits your tongue, capsaicin activates sensory neurons in a very specific way. They bind and open up a receptor on the nerve’s surface, called TRPV1.
This receptor also gets activated by high temperatures — anything above 109 degrees Fahrenheit. So your brain thinks the nerve is touching something hot when the hot sauce hits the receptor.
A similar mechanism happens with mints and cough drops that give your tongue a cooling, icy sensation. Cold temperatures are sensed by a receptor closely related to TRPV1 (called TRPM8).
And guess what molecule also activates this receptor? The menthol in peppermint and spearmint. So minty gums trick your mind into thinking you’re eating something cold.

It’s called an endorphin rush:

Despite the incredibly intense burning — which persists for about 20 minutes — Barrus says the 40-minute period of bliss that follows is worth the pain.

“There’s a massive endorphin rush, and I feel really good after all the pain and craziness,” he said. “My body starts tingling all over, my hands and arms start to go numb, and I sometimes get lightheaded and euphoric. It feels good.” Released in response to stress and pain, endorphins are brain chemicals that reduce the perception of pain.

Long-distance runners know the feeling, albeit without the initial pain.

Life without hot sauce – meals without at least a dab – is dull. Boring. Mundane. Hot sauce doesn’t have to be so hot it makes you weep (although that’s okay, too…), just hot enough to make your eyes widen and the endorphins to kick in.

Sampling the latest bottle got me thinking about hot sauces again (it seems as I age, my tolerance for heat is increasing – what I now consider mild I used to think of as hot….). And what has transpired since I first wrote about them; how the market has grown and gone mainstream. And to bemoan the lack of a good local selection of hot sauces (not a single local grocery store carries the Tabasco habanero, which is light years hotter and tastier than the standard Tabasco, much less anything exquisite like Blair’s sauces…).

Note to grocery store buyers: Frank’s RedHot Sauce isn’t. It’s too salty and bland, like watered down Tabasco. It’s presence on every grocery store shelf the victory of marketing over flavour. But then, I prefer habanero sauces to cayenne any day of the week – although the ghost and scorpion varieties often make a sauce that is simply too hot for day-to-day consumption. Not that I ever expect to find them locally.

So why can’t grocery stores offer some real choices in hot sauces? Okay, sometimes you can find a Mr. Gouda’s (modest heat), and Fresco has the odd Jamaican sauce tucked away in the “exotic” food section, but those are slim pickings out of the thousands of varieties available (yes: thousands, although in Canada it’s likely only hundreds, since as usual we’re a decade or two behind the US in any cultural trend).

And listen up, restaurant owners: when a customer asks for a hot sauce with their meals: DO NOT serve them Frank’s or drag an ancient bottle of Tabasco from behind the bar (you know: the one that’s oxidized into an unpalatable brown sludge). It’s a not-very-subtle way of saying you don’t care about their business and don’t want them to come back. Yes, you know who you are. A mere $20 investment in a couple of good quality sauces will create great rapport and customer loyalty. Bigger tips, too.

Well, okay, I never really stopped thinking about hot sauce, because I eat so much of it. I go through a bottle the size above in one to two weeks, depending on the heat and the food. This one might stretch to three, because it’s so damned hot only a small amount is needed to make the meal sparkle.

Here’s a tip by the way: drink milk when you eat hot sauce. It helps calm the burn if it becomes too much. Indian meals often come with a dill-cucumber yogurt dish called raita: it works the same way. Water, beer, pop, wine – they don’t work because capsaicin is fat – not water – soluble. And besides, pop is just junk food – dangerous junk food at that – and should never be consumed (and especially NOT with a meal! That’s simply crass and tacky.)

Also, I have a few bottles of odds-and-ends (like Sriracha, which is really a mild sauce because it’s made from jalapeno peppers, which are very low on the Scoville scale) in the fridge I use on weekends and for cooking, so the bottle on the coffee table really only gets used for dinner. Sometimes for dessert, too.

And, yes, I add hot sauce to curries because they’re generally never hot enough for my taste (think: vindaloo). Most Indian restaurants can prepare a tasty, scorching vindaloo without prompting, so I don’t need the extra boost, but when you’re with a party that may not be familiar with Indian cuisine, they usually make it milder than I like (although we did have a great vindaloo at Haveli’s, in Ottawa, that needed nothing…).

I basically put a hot sauce on all meals, even in soup and sandwiches. I’ve tried it on pretty much everything from peanut butter to ice cream. And for the most part, it agrees with everything. But not all sauces agree with all foods. Sometimes they clash, and a different sauce is called for. An example is a wasabi hot sauce: great taste but clashes with curries. But goes well with vanilla ice cream (or better: green tea ice cream).

One of my favourite hot sauces is a local product: JD Boss. Not the hottest sauce I’ve had, but packed with flavour. It’s a Caribbean-style hot sauce, which means added ingredients to boost the taste sensation – depending on the maker and origin, these can include mango, carrot, mustard, onion and garlic. I hope JD Boss will be back at the local farmers’ market this year because I need to restock my supply.

Most of the new, popular sauces are American (some are made outside the USA for them), and tend to be expensive (running $10-$20 and even upwards for a small bottle, depending on brand). That doesn’t always guarantee quality, though. Some of the newcomers are distinctly underpowered in terms of quality, taste and heat, despite what the label says. Best to check online reviews before shopping. Others are way over-the-top macho heat bombs, which are basically tasteless and don’t appeal to me.

Too much salt or vinegar can ruin a sauce, too. They top the taste, and you lose the subtle pepper flavours. Some sauces use roasted peppers, but scorch them and the sauces taste burnt – unpleasant. As for added refined sugar: real hot sauce doesn’t need it, but it’s hard to avoid. Even some great sauces like Crazy Jerry’s Brain Damage have sugar. My advice: look for those that have none listed first.

For years, I’ve enjoyed Rick’s West Indian Sauce – and well as his Hot Fuh So sauce – hard to find unless you’re in Kensington Market (look for the Jamaican market store). Great gobs of flavour with a heat that’s nicely radiant without being excessive. And very reasonably priced for a bottle much larger than the average American brand size. And it’s packaged in Canada, although the peppers come from the Caribbean.

Uncle Chen's chile pasteThere are also some good Mexican hot sauces – most come from the Yucatan, made with habanero peppers. Lively and inexpensive. You can get them in Kensington too, at the spice store, or when you travel to Mexico (well, assuming you travel outside the tourist zones and don’t waste your vacation in an all-inclusive compound you never leave). El Yucatano is one to watch for: green, read and brown (it’s because it’s all-natural and tastes fabulous).

Hot sauces from Belize are also usually quite tasty and sharp. Melinda’s comes to mind (or is it Belinda’s?).

We used to go to Soon Lee’s, an Asian market in Scarborough, and get bags of great Caribbean sauces and some Asian sauces, whenever we visited my mother. Terrific place full of great, tempting foods, fish and fresh produce

Many Asian sauces tend to be saltier than I like, but there are some nice, not-too-hot varieties, especially those with garlic. It’s usually a bit of a guessing game since the labels are often in Chinese or Thai with little English, but fortunately the prices are generally reasonable ($2-$5) so it’s not as big an investment as the American brands. I got a bottle of Uncle Chen’s Extra Hot chile paste (like the bottle at the right, but the extra hot version) on my last trip – expect to open it in June.

Soon Lee’s closed and moved outside any area we normally travel to, so we haven’t been back. And they may have closed, too – it’s hard to be sure. However, we did find a good alternative on Danforth Road near the intersection of Danforth Ave, although it’s a bit of a trek to get to, and another one in Brampton, in a mall on Queen Street.

Neither have quite the broad selection we’ve been used to get at Soon Lee’s, though. Still looking, but we’ll make do.

We did find a restaurant and bakery in Orillia that has a food store and boutique downstairs that offers a nice selection of hot sauces – popular American brands, but worth the trip. We also found a hot sauce store in St. Jacob';, on the main street, that had some bottles of the good stuff. It’s a franchise, too, which really tempted me (would it fly up here? I’m not sure… but I think I had my fill of the franchise experience with more than a decade owning the local UPS store…).