Hot and spicy. I hear that so frequently. People ask, “Is that hot and spicy?” My first reaction is that they’re not the same.
Hot is hot, and spicy is spicy. You can have one or the other or both. I also hear, “I’m afraid that will be spicy.” I think, I sure hope so. Otherwise, it will be like baby food. No spices.
Maybe we ought to look at what those terms mean and others that are used. How do we describe food?
Hot can mean the temperature or the amount of pepper and the like in the dish. I often say, “hot from the stove” to distinguish hot from flavor. It can be both. A hot dish at a restaurant may simply be one that sells well. A third use of hot.
Spices are usually considered seasoning. These often come from a seed. They provide spice to a food. But in excess, some can also provide heat. Cinnamon and ginger are both good examples, yet neither come from seeds.
It’s interesting that black pepper falls into both the hot and the spice category.
To me, herbs fall into the spice category. They are usually leaves from plants from which we also may use the seeds and other parts.
Cilantro and coriander, coming from the same plant, are good examples. Herbs less frequently bring heat to a dish. But they sure pack lots of spice and flavor. Somewhere in there resides the vanilla bean.
Condiments, sauces, spice blends
Condiments and sauces have a place here. Some are sweet. Others pack a punch.
Popular ketchup and mustard are candidates. So are hot sauce and pepper sauce. And how about barbecue sauce? Pasta sauces? Steak sauces? Soy and other Asian sauces and flavor additives? Salsa? Spreads? Even things like horseradish and wasabi? The list is pretty long. All of these add flavor to a dish. Some can pack a wallop.
There are spice blends. Tony’s is popular. How about Mrs. Dash? These days za’atar is on the list.
My friend Tommy Palmer and I are fond of sazón. There’s a long list of rubs. All of these boost flavor, but few bring heat.
Let’s not forget our friend salt (It’s a mineral.). There’s that phrase, “Without salt, food has no savor.” The dictionary says savor means “a characteristic taste, flavor or smell, especially a pleasant one.”
Ah, there’s that flavor word again. Maybe that’s the one we’re really looking for. We’re trying to add flavor to a dish. Sometimes hot. Sometimes spicy. Sometimes both. Looks like it might be the amount of flavor that we are trying to identify. And, of course, how it’s delivered.
Recently, I made olive salad. The one that gives the muffuletta sandwich its characteristic taste. It was spicy from herbs, plus garlic and our friends salt and pepper. It was very flavorful, but not hot in any way. But I could have changed that with the addition of chopped jalapeno peppers.
Why do we sometimes perceive spicy flavor as hot? A chili pepper seems to burn our tongue. It’s hot to us. Capsaicin is the culprit. The same receptors that detect heat, to protect us, are activated by it too. Science says the heat in food is an illusion. My mouth doesn’t always agree. More water please!
To me, hot means hot. I taste the heat. If it’s too hot, it covers up everything. There’s the burning. Spicy means flavor. If it comes with a dose of heat, then maybe all the better.
Now we have actual hot and spicy.
Another time we will look at why any folks like it hot and many of the options they have to satisfy that craving.
Jim Sikes is an Opelika resident; a food, wine and restaurant consultant; and a columnist for the Opelika-Auburn News. Contact him on Facebook at In the Kitchen with Chef Jim.