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If you're feeling hot, turn up the heat instead of the air conditioning — the heat in your food. Capsaicin, the chemical compound found in chile peppers, brings on the burning sensation that kicks our bodies into cooling mode. Start indulging on an order of hot wings and your mouth and esophagus will heat up — raising your internal body temperature in the process. Eager for equilibrium, the body will start producing sweat, which then evaporates. This evaporation lowers your body temperature. It might seem counterintuitive, but there’s a reason people who reside in tropical climates are obsessed with spicy foods. Check out these fiery foods from around the globe to challenge your taste buds.
Chilate de Pollo, Mexico
Capsicum originated in central Mexico and has been cultivated for over 5,000 years, according to pottery remains found in Puebla and Oaxaca. In a cuisine famous for its spicy foods, chilate de pollo stands above the rest. The heat of this chicken stew comes from a punishing amount of guajillos, chile de arbol, and pequin, which are then enhanced with epazote, cumin, and oregano. The deeper the red, the hotter your head.
Doro Wat, Ethiopia
A cross between a stew and a curry, doro wat is a crimson-hued bowl of heaven that’s traditionally served atop spongy injera bread and is perhaps Africa’s most famous dish. The blazing color is courtesy of berbere, a spice blend redolent with coriander, cumin, cardamom, fenugreek seeds, cloves, allspice, and plenty of black peppercorns, paprika, and dried red chili peppers. Every family has their own berbere blend and every family insists that theirs is the best.
Som Tam, Thailand
Not all Thai food is hot (some coconut milk curries in the south can be mild), but the northern Isaan region piles on prik — the Thai word for peppers. Som tam, a salad featuring shredded green papaya, is salty, sweet, and not shy about the heat. Lime juice and fish sauce balance out generous handfuls of bright red bird's eye chiles. You can ask for it “Thai hot,” but don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Jerk Chicken, Jamaica
Caribbean cuisine is no stranger to spice and jerk chicken is famous far beyond Montego Bay. Flame-kissed and fiery, jerk chicken (you can also jerk goat, shrimp, or even vegetables) is marinated overnight in a Scotch bonnet or habanero-heavy, sweet spice blend before being grilled and charred. Beans and rice are mandatory accompaniments. Red Stripe and reggae are optional, but recommended.
Calabrian Chiles, Italy
The farther south you travel down the boot of Italy, the hotter things get and food is no exception. Calabria is located right at the toe, and Calabrian chiles (which are nicknamed “Devil’s Kiss”) are beloved by locals and believed to bring good luck. Crushed and packed in oil, they’re perfect on pizza or for simmering in a mouth-burning marinara. Trying one will have your tastebuds crying, “Mamma Mia!”
Sambal, Southeast Asia
In Southeast Asia, it’s all about sambal. There are infinite variations of this fire-forward condiment and every one of them involves chiles — plenty of them. There’s the classic sambal oelek, which in its purest form is simply peppers, salt, and vinegar. Sambal belacan, on the other hand, features shrimp paste or ikan bilis with tiny dried anchovies, while sambal petai includes bitter beans. There’s even refreshing coconut sambal (don’t skimp on the cilantro). Whether accompanying beef rendang or livening up a bowl of plain Basmati rice, sambal provides a fiery flavor to make any dish more exciting.
For chileheads, phaal is where it’s at. This tomato and ginger curry employs plenty of habaneros and some versions rely on the bhut jolokia or “ghost chile.” Originating in British Indian restaurants, the hottest curry in the world packs a heat so intense some restaurants require you to sign a waiver in order to try it. Want the perfect meal for masochists? If you’re brave enough to take the phaal, bon appetit!