At Chintan Pandya’s fast-casual restaurant, Rowdy Rooster, which opened in New York’s East Village in February, fried chicken is offered at five spice levels, each an escalation on its predecessor. The penultimate, No. 4, is ravaging. Conversation ceases; gulps of Limca, the Indian-made lemon-lime soda, are required. No. 5, in comparison, is more rounded, with deep, earthy flavours that muffle the heat — or so it seems: Give it half an hour and your mouth goes up in flames.
Pandya, 42, only put three spice levels on the menu at first: Rebel (Hot), Rogue (Extra Hot) and Rowdy (Crazy Hot). But the majority of his customers insisted on ordering Rogue, to their regret. “One guy said, ‘It hurts my ego if I have to eat at the lowest level,’ ” Pandya recalls. So he added Rascal (Mild) and Ruffian (Medium), to frame Rebel as a reasonable but still daring option. It’s also the level he chooses for himself: “If I eat a 4 or 5, I find it difficult to taste anything else.”
The machismo of wanting to eat the hottest food possible — and to breed ever-hotter chillies to sate that desire (the Carolina Reaper entered the market in 2012) without necessarily caring about how they taste — is a fairly recent development, spurred in part by the YouTube phenomenon “Hot Ones,” which premiered in 2015 and earns millions of views per episode. The show is structured as a celebrity interview, but the real mission is to test, torment and humiliate the guest stars by making them eat chicken wings doused with a series of increasingly traumatising hot sauces. You can hear the gleeful cackle in the episode titles: The victim of the day “Has a Tongue Seizure While Eating Spicy Wings,” “Sets His Face on Fire,” “Cries for Her Mom,” “Fears for Her Life.”
Gao credits the belated American passion for chillies to “the effect of globalisation and all the heat in food coming from immigrant cultures.” Chillies landed in Virginia in 1621, courtesy of a British ship from Bermuda and identified only as “red pepper.” Eventually they wound up in some recipes for barbecue, a tradition that emerged from enslaved people. Mexican salsa made its way to supermarket shelves nationwide in the approximate form of Pace Picante sauce, created after the Second World War by David Pace, who, although not of Mexican descent, wanted to replicate the kind of hot sauce he found at taco shops in San Antonio, using locally harvested jalapeños (and even trying to grow them himself), as recounted by the architectural historian Mary Carolyn Hollers George in “Pearl Sets the Pace” (2020). In 1965, in the midst of a countercultural uprising that was questioning dominant narratives and seeking to expand consciousness of other cultures and cuisines, Pace decided Americans were ready to see Picante sauce not as a specialty ethnic product but as simply a condiment. It was a long bet that paid off: Campbell Soup bought Pace in 1995 for more than $1 billion.
By 1991, salsa was outselling ketchup in the United States, although the mass-produced jars still tended toward the affable and unthreatening. Today, corporations are looking for more febrile investments: McCormick & Company, the world’s industry leader in spice production, headquartered north of Baltimore, bought Frank’s RedHot Louisiana-style sauce (a cayenne-spiked collaboration between a Cincinnati spice merchant and a Cajun pepper farmer from the end of the First World War) in 2017 and Cholula (a hot sauce of arbol and piquín chillies, made in Jalisco, Mexico, from a recipe passed down through generations) in 2020.
But Gao suggests that America learned to tolerate heat thanks to the tempering sweetness of a different hot sauce, this one dating back to 1983: Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha, a concoction of red chillies, vinegar, sugar and garlic that is the colour of a dying sun and sold in a now-iconic green-nozzled bottle. Its maker, David Tran, named his California-based company after a run-down freighter that in 1978 rescued more than 3,000 refugees — twice its passenger capacity, with Tran among them — from Vietnam. Two decades after its quiet, unadvertised launch, Sriracha became a household name, popularised by Asian American chefs, including David Chang in New York and Roy Choi in Los Angeles, the latter of whom squeezed the sauce over his kimchi-topped hot dogs, part of a brash new idiom of Asian cooking that simultaneously celebrated and flaunted tradition.
By 2019, Tran’s brand of Sriracha, despite imitators, commanded nearly 10 percent of the estimated $1.5 billion hot sauce market, and his factory in Irwindale was producing 12,000 bottles an hour. Nevertheless, in 2013, in an echo of the London nam prik pao incident, neighbours complained of noxious fumes. A lawsuit was filed — leading to a brief, partial shutdown — but eventually dropped. Still, the incident revealed that suspicions of chillies linger; the battle has not been wholly won.
There is an irony to the misgivings that greeted chillies in Europe in the late 15th century. Europeans have clamoured for spice — for piquancy, something to enliven the dullness of their food — since at least the fifth century B.C., when the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of Arab traders bringing cinnamon from some unknown land, collected (or so the Greeks were told) from the nests of giant birds. The age of exploration, the first global corporations: Spice was the treasure on the far side of the map, a goad to invasion and domination. Christopher Columbus was hunting spice when he crossed
the Atlantic in 1492 and observed chillies in the Caribbean (to him, the West Indies). Eliding botanical differences, he determined that the chilli was not only a type of pepper but a worthy rival to black pepper (the unrelated Piper nigrum), “more abundant,” he wrote in his diary, adding, perhaps wishfully, “and more valuable.”
“Chilli” is a borrowing from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, but as the French sociologist Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat notes in “A History of Food” (1987), the name that first took hold in Europe, as a result of Columbus’s attempt at marketing, was “pimiento,” a stronger “and therefore grammatically masculine” version of “pimienta,” black pepper. It was reportedly the Dutch who, after rising to dominate the black pepper trade in the 17th century, promoted the Nahuatl “chilli,” wanting to protect the name and singularity of their product.
Seeds brought back from the Americas were soon bearing fruit in the monastery gardens of Spain. Still, while Europeans may have been intrigued by chillies, some found their potency vexing. The English herbalist John Gerard, author of the magisterial “The Herbal, or General History of Plants” (1597), detected in the pepper a “malicious quality, whereby it is an enemy to the liver and other of the entrails.” Some cooks tried to tame the peppers through a complex method of drying, chopping and mixing them with flour and yeast, then baking and finally crushing them, all in hopes of diminishing the heat, which was seen as an “inconvenience” when eating, in the words of the Italian friar Fra Gregorio da Reggio, the reigning chilli expert of the region, as cited by the Hungarian historian Ottó Gecser in “Some Like It Hot: Piquant Taste Between the Middle Ages and Modern Times” (2019).
One notable exception to chilli resistance was Hungary, where the peppers first appeared in the 16th century — gifts from Spain, according to written records, although some historians propose a secondary source: the invading Ottomans, who themselves are believed to have adopted chillies from India, introduced there by Portuguese explorers whose specimens were descendants of those grown in Spain from the first seeds taken from the Americas. In the 18th century, Hungarians created their own blend of chillies, named after the paprika peppers used to make it. The seasoning gained unexpected notoriety this past spring, when Dracula Daily, a Substack newsletter, began posting piecemeal (for the second year in a row) the entirety of the 1897 novel “Dracula,” by Bram Stoker. The book opens with Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor, en route to Transylvania — “leaving the West and entering the East,” he confides to his journal — to meet a new client, Count Dracula. After eating a paprika-suffused stew, he suffers a restless night of “queer dreams”: “It may have been the paprika, for I had to drink up all the water in my carafe, and was still thirsty.”
His turmoil confused some contemporary readers: Paprika as we know it today is harmless and sweet. The hashtag #paprika started trending on Tumblr as some mocked the hapless Englishman for quailing before such innocuous spice. But others argued that when the novel was written, there was no sweet paprika; only in the early 20th century did plant breeders in Hungary start taming and denaturing chillies through hybridisation. In fact, milling techniques introduced in 1859 that expedited removal of the hotter parts of the chilli had made sweeter blends widely available by the time innocent Harker would have encountered it. (More feverish versions persist, like one made with heirloom Szegedi 178 chillies from Hungary’s oldest paprika-producing region, sold in the United States by the spice company Burlap & Barrel.)
“Dracula” is fiction, but history intrudes. A plant that for thousands of years fed one people, in one part of the world, is now claimed by many, and not despite its heat but because of it. If the chilli’s fire was once disdained as immoderation and effrontery, violating the propriety of the table, now that response is revealed for what it always was: You’re not curious, brave or tough enough. You just can’t handle the heat.