Some like it hot… sauce
Traveling the Caribbean and Central America has been a journey of diverse flavour combinations, ingredients remain the same but how they’re put together is quite different. Let’s talk about hot sauce for a moment; from the intense heat and flavours of Mexico to the milder side of spice in Cuba, to the amplified heat of Belize and finally the sweet, tangy chili of Honduras; a little tour of chili-sauce from one who LOVES it hot.
When I say hot, I mean hot. Not burn-your-face-off hot – that’s too macho for me. When at home my standard chilli sauce is Frank’s Red Hot. My favourite way to get the burn going first thing in the morning on eggs, or to bring some heat to a wing is Frank’s Hot Sauce. Also in the pantry – as a staple – Tabasco. (Come on, you have to have Tabasco, how else do you make a good Bloody Mary?!)
A couple of Asian chili sauces I just can’t live without: Sriracha hot sauce ( a true chef’s hot sauce, some have created recipes around this one ingredient), Sambal Oelek with it’s tangy lime taste and bright red colour, a great way to kick up a BBQ sauce or pork dish, and ‘hot oil’ or ‘chili oil’, which is simply dried chili infused oil… a key ingredient in Szechwan cooking and my favourite dipping sauce for a pork dumpling.
So it was natural for me to pick up every single hot sauce along the way and give it a go. I attribute the natural heat of the capsaicin (the chemical in chilis which give them that ‘burn’) to helping me adjust to more tropical weather. If I’m hot on the inside, I’m cooler on the outside.
Also a great way to chase away anything that should not be living in your guts… kill it with hot sauce. The one time I got sick, in Honduras, I am making the wild (unscientifically based) claim that it was due to insufficient burn in their local chili-sauce which is altogether too mild in my opinion.
First, let’s lay down some guidelines on hot sauce and what’s in them so we can better qualify the assessment of sauces which have been delighting my palate. There are thousands of hot sauces all with their own recipe.
A chili sauce is very easy to make – the basic ingredients are chilies, vinegar/citrus, sugar and water. It’s the additional ingredients – tomatoes, carrots, onions, garlic and various other vegetables and seasonings – that give a chilli sauce its flavour, it’s not just about heat. In fact, the true value if a great hot sauce is that… it tastes good.
It should accentuate and enhance, not remove your nose hairs.
That heat we talk about in chili sauce is measured by the Scoville Scale. The Scoville Scale number indicates how many times something must be diluted with an equal volume of water until people can no longer feel any sensation from the capsaicin. The hottest hot sauce scientifically possible is one rated at 16,000,000 SHU (Scoville Heat Units), which is pure capsaicin and frankly dangerous. By comparison, pepper spray used in law enforcement is 5,000,000 SHU.
The lowest pepper on the scale is the sweet bell pepper with no capsaicin, all the way up to Naga Jolokia which is measured at 860,000 SHU.
|Scoville rating||Scoville scale – Type of pepper|
|5,000,000–5,300,000||Law Enforcement Grade Pepper Spray,FN 303 irritant ammunition|
|855,000–1,075,000||Bhut Jolokia (Naga Jolokia)|
|350,000–580,000||Red Savina Habanero|
|100,000–350,000||Guntur Chilli, Habanero Chili, Scotch Bonnet Pepper,Datil Pepper, Rocoto, African Birdseye, Madame Jeanette, Jamaican Hot Pepper|
|50,000–100,000||Bird’s Eye Chili/Thai Pepper/Indian Pepper,Malagueta Pepper,Chiltepin Pepper, Pequin Pepper|
|30,000–50,000||Cayenne Pepper, Ají Pepper,Tabasco Pepper, Cumari Pepper (Capsicum Chinese)|
|2,500–8,000||Jalapeño Pepper, Guajillo Pepper, New Mexican varieties of Anaheim Pepper, Paprika (Hungarian Wax Pepper), and Chipotle (smoked Jalapeño Pepper)|
|500–2,500||Anaheim Pepper, Poblano Pepper, Rocotillo Pepper, Peppadew|
|0||No significant heat, Bell Pepper|
Caveat: Missing from this list are other sources of heat, like ginger or horseradish and piperine (black pepper).
Most of my favourite sauces rate around the 2,500 SHU mark (Tabasco, Sriracha) and Frank’s Red Hot, Original is quite low at 450 SHU… and that’s the point. They have flavour and diversity. They add to, as opposed to distract from, the food itself.
In Mexico I became a big fan of the habanero pepper. All sauces habanero had to be tried. My favourites were the homemade stinking-hot but packed with flavour sauces at the little roadside taco stands in the Yucatan. I’d be over the moon asking what brand and they say “oh, no, my mama she make this.” Impossible to get a recipe and each batch is different, so you enjoy it while you can. (Hot tip: If you eat enough of it they will put some in a container for you to-go! And they think it’s pretty funny when you squirt it straight in your mouth.)
From the bottle in Mexico (when not scamming grandma’s-fiery-roadside-habanero-sauce) I like either El Diablo’s Habanero or Melinda’s Chili Habanero (double XX). Both have great heat without requiring fire extinguishers and accent a plate of enchiladas without killing the flavor of a warm, soft tortilla. Even MacDonald’s has their own Jalapeño sauce in Mexico.
In Belize I fell in love with Marie Sharp. Not because she has her own island off the coast of Dangriga, but because her extensive selection of hot sauces (and preserves) made the most bland rice and beans more fun.
Among them… Marie Sharp’s Mild Habanero Hot Sauce a sweet carrot-based blend with key lime juice, achieves the perfect balance between flavour and heat. And Marie Sharp’s Hot Nopal/Prickly Pear Green Habanero Hot Sauce a source of… fibre (what?! who knew?!) the first of its kind with a sharp green undertone.
Several bottles of Marie Sharp’s found their way home with me… and more followed by mail. The Mild Habanero is a favourite with chicken, brush it on at the final stages of BBQ or just dip it in a little tub of the stuff!
Marie Sharp’s Hot Nopal Prickly Green Pear is amazing with eggs. Love it with tacos and tamales. High in heat, high in flavour and high in fibre (who knew!)… the perfect `wake you up’ pepper sauce.
Cuba had nothing to offer in the way of indigenous hot sauces, instead there was Tabasco on every table. When politics shift and Cuba opens up, it will be interesting to see what wonderful chili sauces might emerge with a European and African influence. The prefect Cuban chili sauce no doubt exists, bubbling away on someone’s back burner.
Honduras is yet to be completely explored, but so far…
My friend, Texas, a lover of fiery foods takes one taste of Schilos Chili Picante at a little restaurant in West End Village, Roatan and says “I don’t think they know who they’re dealing with, I could use this as eye drops.” His way of saying… not so hot. So true, I’ve chewed cinnamon gum with more zing.
Where I could see this sauce in the kitchen is near the grill, particular with a soft, fleshy fish or as a glaze when grilling fruit – cantaloupe or peaches – served with ice cream. Sweet, but lower on the scale than Frank’s, it makes me want hot sauce, on my hot sauce. But then, I like it hot.