Handling the heat: Spicy Chinese cuisine to turn it up
Can you handle the heat?
Spicy food is a topic of much intrigue around the food-o-sphere today, especially as people have broadened their culinary horizons in recent decades.
People from different countries, regions, or cultures often brag about their tolerance for piquancy, challenging folks from other areas to see who can handle the highest amount of spice. It's a point of pride for many that they can crank up the heat and handle it gracefully while others tap out.
Others, though, admit that it isn't for them, and will actively avoid any intake of spicy foods.
Joking aside, I, even as someone who fancies myself a spice-lover with an abnormally high tolerance – and preference – for foods with high heat levels, must admit that it's a bit of a strange phenomenon, at least on its face. The sensation that spicy food produces can hardly be categorized as anything other than pain, if you really think about it. The feeling produced is a negative reaction caused by the chemical capsaicin, which is present in spicy foods and triggers pain receptors in the mouth. It's a somatic defense mechanism meant to deter us from eating something that can, in some cases, harm us to a certain degree.
So why do some of us love it so much?
Well, there is a physiological reason for that, too, as the chemical's reaction with pain receptors also releases endorphins in the brain, compounds that serve as natural analgesics, to combat the sensation. Endorphins, of course, are also the feel-good compounds that produce feelings of euphoria, so hot foods do give us a rush behind simply the tingling tongue.
The thrill-seeking aspect certainly plays a role as well, taking on the challenge of eating notoriously spicy cuisine as a test of willpower. This can be observed at its extreme via trends on social media, with content creators challenging themselves to eat the most searing peppers and sauces on the planet, often with calamitous results. It also has the added benefit of not actually being truly dangerous. I'd never dream of going base-jumping or skydiving, but I might give the dreaded Carolina reaper – currently the hottest pepper in the world – a go someday.
Studies show that spicy foods can also have health benefits, contrary to popular opinion in some circles. Despite the fact that overconsumption can lead to gastrointestinal issues, studies suggest that the capsaicin in chili peppers has antioxidant and thus anti-inflammatory properties and can aid in boosting metabolism as well.
Capsaicin also has antibacterial and antifungal properties, which is a main reason why people in hotter, wetter climates tend to have a taste for spicier cuisine. It's also hypothesized that people in those areas tend to have developed taste buds over time that are less sensitive to pungency.
This is evident as many of the countries with the spiciest food are indeed located in those regions. Countries like India, Mexico, Jamaica, Ethiopia, and many Southeast Asian countries – and more, sorry to leave anyone out! – are widely known for turning up the heat at the dinner table.
As we all know, this is true in China as well, on a regional level that largely adheres to the same principle. The southerly areas of the country tend to prefer spicier food, whilst up north, the food is more hearty but lacks that peppery kick. Guangdong Province serves as a bit of an exception to this rule, but provinces like Hunan, Sichuan, Guizhou and Jiangxi are famous for their spice, as well as the formerly Sichuanese but now self-administered city of Chongqing.
Shanghainese food, locally referred to as benbangcai (本帮菜), very rarely includes any sort of spiciness at all. It instead is centered around more subtle and fresh tastes combined with the savory flavor of soy sauce and a bit of sweetness as well. But, of course, hotter cuisine from the more southerly regions is available here also.
But nothing food-related can ever be simple in China, can it? Of course not! Each of these southern provinces and regions pride themselves on their specific types of spice. Different types of peppers with varying methods of preparation produce results that differ greatly from place to place. Let's have a closer look at these regional spicy cuisines and, in simple terms, examine some basic differences.
Perhaps the most famous of anywhere in the country for its spicy food, the province of Sichuan (sometimes Anglicized as Szechuan or Szechwan) typically combines the heat of the red millet peppers, or xiaomi peppers, with the notorious prickly ash, or huajiao (花椒), which is responsible for the signature numbing sensation on the lips that food from this area is known for.
With standard classic dishes like mapo tofu and Sichuan spicy chicken, this is the most classic of the hot food areas. Skewers are also popular, where skewers of meat, vegetables, or other items are purchased individually and cooked in a broth deep red from an abundance of chili oil.
Bordering Sichuan to the east lies the city and municipality of Chongqing. The food there is also powerfully spicy and uses the prickly ash perhaps even more liberally than in its neighboring province. The star of the show here is jiugongge (九宫格) , or nine-square hotpot, in which the pot, covered entirely with a thick layer of chili oil, peppers and prickly ash, is divided into nine segments with a metal grid in order to help separate and keep better track of what's cooking underneath.
This is really best experienced most authentically by going to Chongqing itself – which is just under a three-hour flight from Shanghai – but, as this style of hotpot is famous nationwide, it can be found here as well. But be warned, it's not for the faint of heart.
Moving to the southeast, we reach Hunan, the province that rivals Sichuan both inside China and around the world in terms of its reputation for heat. The cuisine here involves the numbing prickly ash less and just loads in the fresh chopped chilies. When I traveled here, I was astonished to find that nearly every single dish, breakfast included, has some peppers cooked in. It's a serious matter.
Possibly their most famous dish, and my favorite from this style of cuisine, is the diced chili fish head. Don't recoil; it actually includes more of the fish's body than you'd think, not just the head, so there's plenty of good meat on the plate under the layer of red (and sometimes green) chopped chilies.
This province is most renowned for its famous alcoholic spirit, Maotai (or Moutai), but make no mistake, the food here packs a punch as well. Rather than using diced or dried peppers directly, in Guizhou, the peppers are usually pickled, reduced, mixed with other ingredients, or somehow otherwise processed to make sauces, chutneys, powders and all sorts of other spicy creations. So rather than simply heat and numbness, the peppers as used in Guizhou bring all sorts of complementary tastes in their wake.
The famous Lao Gan Ma (老干妈) savory hot sauce comes from Guizhou and serves as a prime example.
This southestern province lacks the same reputation for pungency in its food as the aforementioned locations, but I find that it is highly underrated in this category. Its fare is not as famous as the others on this list, but each time I've traveled there I was shocked by how much heat some of their dishes packed. Unlike Hunan, where chilies are present in essentially every single bowl and on every single plate, Jiangxi, I found, was more of a minefield of spice and I thought it necessary to include it here.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention at this point that I don't claim that any one place has objectively spicier food than any other or that people from one place can handle spice more than the rest. I like all of these cuisines and certainly don't want to ruffle any feathers, as this debate is a long-running and frenzied one. I'm taking no sides.
All of these regional styles of cooking are generally best enjoyed in their locations of origin. However, they are all available here in Shanghai as well, so just have a look around. But beware, and make sure to clarify how spicy you like it once you're there, or you might just find yourself in a world of hurt.
Here's my challenge to you.
How much heat can you handle?