The Hot Frontier of Fine Cuisine

Die Mutter von Zhang Xiaohe, nicht die schlechteste Köchin. Wenn sie gut mit Chilli kochen kann, warum sollten grossartige Köche es nicht auch schaffen?

In recent years, avant-garde cooking went particularly (technologically) wild. Molecular gastronomy and the like created foams of just about everything, for example, to bring aromas to their fore and shape mouth feelings that are different from those of well-known food.

Meanwhile, in the world of chilli, things just seem to have gone on as before.

The majority of (white, Western,…) customers/eaters spurns it, chefs typically couldn’t agree more and keep it out of their classy creations – but at the same time, hot sauce continues to be an absolute growth market. Judging by what one hears about, it’s a market dominated by wannabe-macho men trying to surpass each other in the heat level of the sauces they produce or are able to tolerate.

There is, however, a whole wide world of aromas and pungencies that goes missing in the process, and a universe of flavor combinations utilizing the tastes, aromas and pungencies of herbs and other spices in combination with those of chilli awaiting the curious and discerning eater.

Of course, it is understandable that chile peppers’ use in the (especially, classy) kitchen should be considered problematic. The reactions people have to the same levels of pungency are widely divergent, after all. Some are highly sensitive and can’t stand it, some barely seem to feel the average chilli’s “bite.”

However, some are also more sensitive to bitter flavors, to the point where not only bitter melon, but even Brussel’s sprouts or broccoli present problems; others can eat grapefruit as if it were the sweetest orange.

It is all, always, a matter of a person’s physiology as well as upbringing and taste experiences – and probably influenced more than a little simply by what we consider normal and/or great-tasting. Truffles aren’t all that good, but considering their rarity, the prices they command, and the aura that surrounds them, they must be good. Great cheeses. Great wines and spirits. Even green tea…

What’s the problem, then?

The very focus on pungency alone is detrimental to any calls for a deeper understanding of the complex aromas the chilli has and can contribute. Historically, it does not seem to have helped that fine cooking, after the Middle Ages, went ever further away from heavy and spicy tastes – and chile peppers, in contrast even to pepper, but also the finer aromas like vanilla or nutmeg and mace, or even saffron, could be grown just about anywhere, contributing to their popularity in many a local, traditional, and “exotic” cuisine, but turning discerning chefs looking for the next great thing to come out of far-away regions and peculiar locales off chilli even further.

The same reasoning, however, can be applied for arguing just why chile peppers should grow in just about any kitchen garden, find their way into spice racks and (home) cooking still more: There is basically no other spice (or herb or often even vegetable) that grows so well and delivers so much flavor – and/or fire – for so little.

To the chefs, too, the challenge should be on: if you really know how to cook well, not just with fancy new methods of molecular cuisine, but with pure ingredients and strong natural flavors, get the chile peppers into your cuisine. As Robb Walsh argued in Zester Daily before, “Fine Dining Kitchens Should Pack More Heat“…

To all of us I say: Forget “the chilli,” remember and explore the diversity of chile peppers there is. It’s not just about searing pungency, there is a whole lot more to discover in the diversity of the chilli – and in looking towards other local cuisines and their typical culinary chilli combinations, there is yet more again.

Zhang Xiaohe's mom. Good (home) cook. If she can cook well with chilli, why shouldn't great chefs be able to do it?
Zhang Xiaohe’s mom. Good (home) cook. If she can cook well with chilli, why shouldn’t great chefs be able to do it?

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