Spicy foods are delicious for some and painful for others, but their historic role in culinary traditions has an evolutionary explanation.
According to studies by Harvard University and Cornell, the production of capsaicin, the key chemical compound behind spice, evolved for the benefit of humans and plants alike.
Peppers are the main source of spice in cuisines worldwide. And it’s no coincidence that peppers grow in abundance in tropical countries close to the equator, where biodiversity is the most abundant. The pepper plants produce capsaicin to keep their fruits from being eaten by rodents.
Humans in tropical climates also contend with the immense population of bacteria that threatens their health. Spicy foods kill bacteria and also increase a dish’s shelf-life.
Humans in tropical countries have thus found creative and delicious ways to incorporate spice into their diets.
Below, I’ll go over a list of the spiciest foods from around the world.
Thought of by some as the hottest chili in the world, the Ghost Pepper originated in Northern India and has been used as a weapon and a food ingredient.
The Scoville rating for Ghost Peppers is a whooping 1,041,427 units!
While capsaicin is usually only found in the placenta of peppers, Ghost Peppers produce capsaicin in their seeds and placenta. Just cutting one open requires goggles, gloves, and a surgical mask.
Still, Indian cuisine features finely diced ghost peppers in pickles, curries, and chutneys.
They also use them as a weapon to create “tear gas” grenades and to smear on fences as insect and rodent repellant. I love spice, but I’m not brave enough to even slice one open!
Sichuan Hot Pot
The Hot Pot has been a beloved Chinese culinary tradition for thousands of years, each region developing its distinct recipes using local ingredients.
A hot pot is not just a dish but a manner of eating. Raw ingredients get served around a boiling pot of broth, and families dip the ingredients in the broth to cook each bite.
The Sichuan Hot Pot utilizes China’s spiciest chili oils along with:
- Beef fat
- Bay leaves
- Beef tallow
- Bean paste
- Fresh chili
I enjoy having pork, chicken, and duck as dipping ingredients to soak up the spice while they cook.
Kimchi is a fermented cabbage dish that comes from South Korean cuisine.
It has gained popularity worldwide as a delicious garnish and ingredient incorporated in fried rice, tacos, and even grilled cheese sandwiches.
South Koreans have a few recipes of their own to showcase kimchi, one of which is Kimchi Jjigae, a kimchi stew.
Kimchi is spicy on its own due to the fermentation of:
- Pepper paste
Kimchi Jjigae augments the spiciness by adding kimchi to a spicy concoction of anchovy, bean paste, and fermented red pepper paste.
Kimchi Jjigae usually contains pork, beef, or chicken. I prefer pork Kimchi Jjigae, garnishing it with fresh radish, scallions, and cilantro.
Jerk is a Jamaican cooking method that involves dry-rubbing or marinating meat in a Jerk spice mixture containing two key ingredients: Scotch bonnet peppers and allspice.
The Jerk Spice usually contains a myriad of other spices and aromatics, including:
- Ginger and garlic
- Cloves and nutmeg
- Brown sugar
Jerk Chicken can be bone-in, or deboned chicken breast marinated or dry-rubbed with the Jerk spice mix.
If it’s wet-marinated, the spice mixture usually omits the brown sugar and combines the dry spices and aromatics with orange juice.
Scotch Bonnet Peppers have a Scoville rating of 100,000-350,000 units, nearly 100-times hotter than a jalapeno. I love jerk chicken in a wet marinade as it diffuses the heat with citrusy sweetness.
Phaal Curry is a unique fusion of traditional culinary practices in a colonizing country.
Curry is a well-known South Asian dish, but Phaal Curry was created in authentic Bangladeshi restaurants in England. It’s also the hottest form of curry at any restaurant in the UK or the U.S.
It contains a mixture of ground chili peppers, including the scotch bonnet, Carolina reaper peppers, and habaneros blended into a tomato and ginger broth over a protein like lamb or chicken.
I would leave this dish to the professionals to avoid having to grind three insanely hot peppers myself.
If you order Phaal Curry, be sure to have a creamy, cooling mango lassi on hand!
Vindaloo Pork is a dish from Goa, the southern coastal state in India that was colonized by the Portuguese.
Vindaloo Pork is the Indian adaptation of Carne de vinha d’alhos, a vinegar and garlic marinated pork dish.
Vinegar, garlic, and pork remain the foundational ingredients, but India’s complex spice profile requires a few spicy additions.
Vindaloo Pork thus contains a myriad of ground spices and peppers mixed in with palm vinegar and garlic, creating a curry-like meat stew.
I’d say the Goan adaptation has long since surpassed the Portuguese recipe.
Papa a la Huancaina
Papa a la Huancaina is a Peruvian potato dish that’s become a nationally treasured dish to serve during the holidays.
Thought to have originated in the central Peruvian Andean town of Huancayo, Papa a la Huancaina is a cold potato salad that uses the local aji yellow pepper for spice.
Boiled potatoes receive a hearty dressing of Huancaina sauce consisting of:
- Queso fresco
- Sauteed aji
- Onions and garlic
- Evaporated milk
The potato salad is served over a bed of lettuce with white corn kernels, olives, and chopped boiled egg.
It’s a step up from the mayonnaise-based potato salad because of its trifecta of spice, creaminess, and cheesiness.
The Widower Curry is yet another UK-born Indian curry, featuring a hybrid chili known as the infinity chili pepper created by British chili breeder Nicholas Woods.
The Widower Curry is a dish created for daring diners at an Indian restaurant called Bindi in Woods’ hometown of Grantham.
It’s made with 20 ground infinity chilies in a tomato-based sauce with your choice of protein.
Only one person out of 300 could finish the entire dish. I doubt that winning the food challenge was worth the pain they must have felt during and after it!
A classic Thai specialty, Tom Yum is a hot and sour soup consisting of a water and spice paste base.
The spice paste is called Nam prik pao and includes crushed roasted chilies, garlic, and shallots.
Tom Yum soup adds water to Nam prik pao, then fresh lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lime juice, fish sauce, and chopped fresh chili peppers. It also contains a protein like chicken, shellfish, or tofu.
Tom Yum is one of the most popular soups in Thailand, and you can find it at any Thai restaurant in or out of Thailand. It’s my go-to order for a starter before a plate of Pad Thai.
Paqui Carolina Reaper Potato Chip
The Carolina Reaper pepper is a human-engineered pepper that is the hottest in the world to date.
It’s a hybrid of the ghost pepper and habanero pepper with a Scoville rating of 1.6 million units.
Naturally, the Paqui chip company challenged the adrenaline junkies and created the Carolina Reaper potato chip challenge.
They offer a single packaged potato chip covered in a dusting of ground Carolina Reaper pepper and Scorpion pepper.
I think that the simple act of opening the packaging would be akin to unleashing a bottle of pepper spray. I wouldn’t be a willing participant in the Paqui chip challenge.
Named for the Caribbean Island nation from which it originates, the Trinidad Scorpion pepper is the second hottest pepper on earth, with a Scoville rating of 1.2 million units.
It was also engineered by a chili breeder and looks like miniature red bell pepper.
According to those brave enough to try it, the Trinidad Scorpion pepper has a deceivingly-sweet initial taste that inevitably transforms into heat so extreme as to induce hallucinations.
I’ll take their word for it! The name alone is enough to make me steer clear of this spicy pepper.
Vat 19 The World’s Hottest Chocolate Bar
Vat 19 is a company that sells unconventional food and gag gifts, from silly putty to kool-aid flavored cotton candy.
Chili-spiced chocolate is nothing new, but The World’s Hottest Chocolate Bar isn’t your average decadent dessert.
Like any product deemed “the world’s hottest,” Vat 19 chocolate bar isn’t meant to be a snack or special treat, but a food challenge meant for only the bravest adrenaline seekers. It’s a tiny 4 oz bar divided into 12 squares.
Other than the typical cocoa-butter, milk, and sugar ingredients, this chocolate bar has a pepper extract with a 9 million-unit Scoville rating. I love chili-dusted chocolate bars, but I’ll have to pass on this one!
Culley’s “The World’s Hottest Ramen Noodles”
Culley’s is a New Zealand-based hot sauce company that puts spice lovers to the test with their products, the hottest of which is “The World’s Hottest Ramen Noodles,” made with New Zealand-grown Carolina Reaper peppers.
Each packet of Culley’s hottest ramen noodles comes with the standard cube of instant ramen noodles, a ground dried veggie packet, and a small packet of ground Carolina Reaper pepper powder to combine with boiling water.
As I’ve mentioned above, the Carolina Reaper is the hottest pepper on earth.
Plenty of daring souls have tried the challenge and posted videos of themselves trying to conquer a bowl. It hurt me just to watch them.
Sik Sik Wat
A Wat is an Ethiopian stew, and there are many types of wats in Ethiopian cuisine, served in small round tins to be eaten with sour injera bread.
Sik Sik Wat is the spiciest version of wat, containing two of Ethiopia’s most notable spice mixtures: berbere and niter kibbeh.
Sik Sik Wat is a beef stew, consisting of:
- Cubed beef sauteed with onions
- Garlic and ginger
- Cloves and nutmeg
- Tomato puree
- Red wine
- Niter kibbeh
Berbere is the spice mixture responsible for Sik Sik Wat’s kick, as it contains a paste of chili peppers, paprika, cayenne, ginger, coriander, cloves, fenugreek, cardamom, and more.
Wasabi is a type of horseradish ground into a bright green paste commonly used as a condiment or garnish in Japanese cuisine.
It’s the only food on my list of the spiciest foods that doesn’t come from pepper and has no capsaicin.
So it has a very different taste and spice-feel than a pepper mix or sauce. As a horseradish variety, it tastes like hot mustard.
Its spicy kick affects the nose more than the throat or tongue. If you’ve ever tasted wasabi, you’ll know what I mean!
When I put too much wasabi on my sushi, I feel a burn in my nostrils that often makes me sneeze. But I love the strong flavor and spicy kick.
- Ghost Peppers
- Sichuan Hot Pot
- Kimchi Jjigae
- Jerk Chicken
- Phaal Curry
- Vindaloo Pork
- Papa a la Huancaina
- Widower Curry
- Tom Yum
- Paqui Carolina Reaper Potato Chip
- Trinidad Scorpion
- Vat 19 The World’s Hottest Chocolate Bar
- Culley’s “The World’s Hottest Ramen Noodles”
- Sik Sik Wat
Spicy foods are a beloved aspect of most tropical cuisines, garnering worldwide popularity. Some of the hottest peppers and foods in the world were engineered by American and British chili breeders.
Whether you’re a spice enthusiast or a daredevil looking for the ultimate adrenaline-inducing food challenge, you’ll find the spiciest foods from around the globe on my tongue-numbing list of stews, snacks, and peppers.
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