Feel the burn: Chili sauce is hot -- on the palate and in the kitchen

Published: Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Hot chili sauce is the new ketchup -- Canadians are squeezing, sprinkling and stirring the fiery condiment on and in all sorts of foods, both internationally and locally inspired. Evidence of how "hot" hot chili sauce has become can be found at local supermarkets: Mine had more 30 different bottles for sale, which in turn is just a small sampling of the hundreds of hot chili sauces now available.

For spicy food lovers, this bounty of heat has been most welcomed, but it's also caused a problem. With so many types, how does one decide which hot chili sauce to buy and how to use it? To simplify things, I like to broadly break hot chili sauces into three categories.

Tabasco is the world's most popular hot chili sauce and has been made on Avery Island, La., since 1868. To make it, ripe Tabasco peppers are mashed and mixed with salt and allowed to age in wood for up to three years. The peppers are then blended with vinegar, aged a few weeks more, and then the liquid is strained and bottled. A number of other companies in the United States and Mexico make hot chili sauces similar in style, but different chili peppers and preparation techniques are used, giving each its own unique flavour. These types of hot sauces are quite fluid and usually considered mildly spicy -- particularly those made with milder tasting chili peppers, such as jalapenos and chipotle peppers. I consider them an all-purpose hot chili sauce, useful to sprinkle into a bowl of chili, mix into a meatloaf, stir into a Caesar salad dressing, drizzle on a chicken wing or just about any other food requiring a spicy kick.

My next grouping is Asian-style hot chili sauces, and although there are numerous brands, coming from a variety of countries, you can decide which one is for you by how it is made.

Probably the most popular type is the smooth, almost-thick-as-a-ketchup variety some companies sell in squeeze bottles. This is usually made with small, spicy red chilies, garlic, salt, vinegar and sometimes a touch of sugar. It's the type you see squeezed into small dishes when you go for dim sum and can be used to dip or spice up numerous Asian dishes, such as steamed dumplings, soups or noodles. Another popular Asian hot chili sauce is coarser in texture and the seeds and small bits of the pepper are still visible. Sambal oelek is a popular style.

These types of hot chili sauce are usually stirred into dishes, rather than being spooned beside them as a dip. Thai-style sweet chili sauce is a thick, sweet and medium spicy sauce with bits of hot chili peppers in it. It's great for dipping spring rolls in, glazing grilled or roasted foods such as chicken or salmon, and awesome to stir into stir-fries.

My last grouping includes what I like to call "designer" hot chili sauces, where their name and groovy packaging seems as important as what's in the bottle. I probably shouldn't lump them all together, because they are made in countless ways and frequently blended with other taste-altering ingredients, such as mango or other tropical fruit. But generally speaking, many of these types of hot chili sauce aim to be the "hottest of the hot" and use chili peppers such as habaneros, the hottest in the world, to attain that effect. These products are also labelled with names such as "sudden death" and "colon cleaner" to market the sauce as: "try me if you dare." For some hot chili sauce lovers, taking up this challenge is too hard to resist. If you do and your palate is not accustomed to them, go easy when you sprinkle these sauces onto a grilled prawn, or when you mix into salsa or any other food -- just a drop can cause you to "feel the burn" big time.

Eric Akis's columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday. The best-selling author can be reached at ericakis@shaw.ca.

CEDAR PLANK HOT CHILI CHICKEN WINGS

The cedar plank gives these chili-flavoured wings a pleasing, smoky flavour. I used Tabasco, but other types of hot chili sauce similar in style could be used. These wings are mildly spicy. If you like your wings extra spicy, increase the amount of hot chili sauce used, or set the bottle on the table so you can sprinkle extra on after they are cooked.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 25 to 30 minutes

Makes: 2 servings

1 Tbsp hot chili sauce

1 Tbsp honey

2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp chili powder

1/4 tsp paprika

12 to 16 chicken wingettes or drumettes, or a mix of both

* salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

* lime wedges for garnish

Soak a cedar plank (sold at many supermarkets) in cold water for 2 hours. Meanwhile, combine the chili sauce, honey, lime juice, cumin and chili powder and paprika in a bowl. Add the wings and toss to coat. Cover and marinate in the fridge 2 hours, turning occasionally.

Preheat your barbecue to high heat. Remove the board from the water and pat dry the side you will put the wings on. Arrange the wings on top of board; season with salt and pepper. Set the board on one side of the barbecue; turn the heat off underneath it and leave the other side of the barbecue on high. Close the barbecue's lid and cook the wings 25 to 30 minutes, or until cooked through. Set the plank on a platter, garnish with lime wedges and serve.

SWEET-CHILI PRAWN, PEA AND BELL PEPPER STIR-FRY

Thai-style sweet chili sauce -- sold at most supermarkets and Asian markets -- provides a deliciously sweet and mildly spicy base for this colourful stir-fry.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 6 to 7 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

24 medium or large prawns, peeled with the tail left intact

* salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced

1 medium yellow bell pepper, cut into small cubes

1 medium red bell pepper, cut into small cubes

24 snap or snow peas, trimmed

2 tsp chopped fresh ginger

1/2 cup Thai-style sweet chili sauce

2 Tbsp lime juice

2 Tbsp water

2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro

Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet set over medium-high. Season the prawns with salt and pepper, and then cook for 1 to 2 minutes per side, or until light pink and not quite cooked through. Remove the prawns and set aside. Add the onion, bell peppers, snow or snap peas and ginger to the skillet and stir-fry for 3 to 4 minutes, or until brightly coloured and crisp tender. Add the sweet chili sauce, lime juice and water and bring to a simmer.

Return the prawns to the wok or skillet and stir-fry for 2 minutes more, or until the prawns are bright pink and just cooked through. Transfer to a platter, sprinkle with cilantro and serve.

HOT AND SOUR SOUP WITH SCALLOP RIBBONS AND GINGER

This recipe, which is one of my favourites, is from my best-selling book: Everyone Can Cook Seafood (Whitecap Books). You can use either the smooth or coarser types of Asian-style hot chili sauce to flavour it.

Preparation time: 20-30 minutes

Cooking time: about 10 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

4 cups fish, chicken or vegetable stock

1/4 cup rice vinegar

3 Tbsp light soy sauce

1 Tbsp Asian-style hot chili sauce, or to taste

2 tsp sugar

4 medium fresh ****ake mushrooms, or 4 medium dried black Chinese mushrooms (soak in warm water for 20 minutes to soften), stems removed and thinly sliced

1 small carrot, cut into thin, 1-inch long strips

1 1-inch piece peeled fresh ginger, sliced and cut into thin strips

1 garlic clove, chopped

5 large sea scallops, very thinly sliced

1 10-oz. package soft tofu, cut into small cubes

2 Tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 3 Tbsp water

2 green onions, cut diagonally into thin strips

Place the stock, vinegar, soy sauce, chili sauce and sugar in a pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the mushrooms, carrot, ginger and garlic and adjust the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the mushrooms and carrots are just tender. Add the scallops and tofu. Slowly stir in the cornstarch mixture. Simmer until the soup is lightly thickened and the scallops are just cooked through, about 2-3 minutes. Ladle the soup into bowls, sprinkle with the green onions and serve.

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2006