jude’s culinary journey

Hot stuff

Posted 11/21/23

This coming fall will be our 10th visit to Mexico. My sister Janet and I have been to Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca; Oaxaca is our longest stay in one place. 

We eat out a lot. Not all …

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jude’s culinary journey

Hot stuff


This coming fall will be our 10th visit to Mexico. My sister Janet and I have been to Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca; Oaxaca is our longest stay in one place. 

We eat out a lot. Not all Oaxacan food is spicy, and it’s easy to find dishes on any menu that fall into the category of mild-with-no-heat-whatsoever. But invariably a ramekin or two of salsa will be placed on the table at breakfast, lunch and dinner if one chooses to spice up the meal.

Some salsas, at one glance, are obviously extremely hot. These are usually just a combination of olive oil heaped with chile flakes, the oil dyed a deep orange color from the chiles. But there are many varieties of salsas, each made with different chile peppers. Over 60 types of chiles are grown in Mexico. 

Sometimes, at the finer restaurants, the server might take a moment to describe the salsas set down on the table and explain what ingredients they contain besides chiles. More often, one is left to guess or taste, the latter being a possibly dangerous proposition. Eventually, I took to asking, “¿Es muy piquante?” (“Is it very spicy?”  “No más” (“Not much”) was the usual response. Well, I’m here to tell you that what is más to one person may turn out to be too más for the next. 

Spicy foods contain capsaicin, a chemical that activates a receptor found in the mouth and tongue. There are variations in the sensitivity and even the amount of these receptors from person to person. Studies have shown that repeated exposure to capsaicin raises the amount needed for a similar effect, so it may also be that the greater the amount of spicy food one eats, the more one can handle.

Regardless, some people can’t get enough heat in their food while others can’t tolerate even the slightest bit. 

I’ve found that there are also some factors regarding the amount of heat one can stand. For instance, smokers and drinkers often have developed dulled taste buds and need to use salt, pepper and hot spices to better taste what they’re eating. And too, people from countries such as India and Mexico have a naturally higher tolerance for spicy foods from being exposed to them from a very young age. 

I have on occasion cooked for the staff members of the hotel Las Mariposas, which is where we’ve been staying in Oaxaca for the past half-dozen years. No matter how much I jack up the heat, whether using fresh chile peppers or dried and ground, I am told that the food was “delicioso.” “But was it spicy?” I ask. “No, Juju, no piquante.” This leaves me to wonder, “Do they have asbestos mouths?”

As far as personal preferences go, I like full-flavored food and I can take a fair amount of spice. If all I can taste is heat and not the flavor of the dish I’m consuming, I don’t enjoy it. Janet, on the other hand, can tolerate just a touch of heat, so I cook accordingly, knowing I can always add spice to a dish with a variety of hot sauces I own. But even those are always fruity and mildly spicy. I’m not a fan of sauces that obliterate the taste of the food. 

Hot sauces made from the habanero pepper are the spiciest. Tabasco pepper sauce is hotter than sriracha, which is made from red jalapenos. 

You can leave them all in the pantry for me, thanks.

When we have friends over for hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, I always make an assortment of dishes to help soak up the alcohol and to ensure that no one has to return home to prepare dinner afterward. One of the offerings I concocted is spiced meatballs, which I serve with a cooling yogurt mint sauce for dipping. I’ve made the meatballs with ground lamb or with a combination of beef and pork. It doesn’t much matter, as the flavor of the spices and herbs is the dominant factor. 

I especially enjoy serving this hor d’oeuvre because depending on whom I’m preparing it for, I can make it flavorful, with just a touch of heat, or ramp it up for those I know will enjoy the burn.

Still, no smoke will ever be emanating from anyone’s ears in my house. And by the way, if you ever take a bite of something you find overwhelmingly spicy, grab a chunk of bread or a spoonful of rice if it’s on the table. Drinking water is like putting fuel on the fire. 

mexico, oaxaca, judes culinary journey, hot stuff


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