Some like it hot

July 18, 2000

Click here for Today's Recipes!Some like it hot


photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

Spicy cookingAs a newlywed 19 years ago, Shawn Sprenkle learned to cook Louisiana cuisine from her mother-in-law in Denham Springs, La., near Baton Rouge.


"I didn't know how to cook when I got married," said the Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., native, who every day would take a pot over to her mother-in-law's house and follow her in whatever recipe she was cooking.

She learned tongue-tantalizing recipes flavored with lots of onions and garlic and made fiery with red pepper, white pepper, Tabasco sauce and Habanero pepper sauce.


SpicesAfter a decade of living in Louisiana, Sprenkle developed a taste for spicy, hot foods by the time she and husband, Clarence Sprenkle, opened their restaurant, Cajun Cookin, in Greencastle, Pa., nine years ago.

They soon found they had to tone down the authentic recipes to suit local tastes.

"We had too many people who didn't want it real hot," said Shawn Sprenkle, who shares the cooking duties at the restaurant with her husband.

Daily specials - including red beans and rice, Cajun stew, jambalaya and gumbo - come moderately spicy unless the customer requests more punch, which the Sprenkles will gladly add.

"Generally, it's got a little bit of a bite to it, but it's not really hot," said Shawn Sprenkle, who said the restaurant has a lot of patrons who opt for the greater spiciness and heat.

Spicy doesn't necessarily mean hot, but the two characteristics often go together in people's minds and tastes. They are found together in many ethnic and regional cuisines, said Frank Terranova, a chef/instructor at Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts in Providence, R.I.

From the growing popularity of highly flavored ethnic cuisines, like Indian, Asian, Cuban, African, Argentinean and Brazilian, to the appearance of spicy foods on American menus to the wide array of spice blends now available in supermarkets, it's apparent more Americans are developing a taste for spicy, hot foods, Terranova said.

There's a fusion of cultures in food, with spices typical of one cuisine crossing over into others, he said.

At the same time, Americans mindful of cutting fat are instead turning to spices to provide high flavor and texture in dishes, Terranova said.

"It's gone beyond fad status. It's a trend now," said Mary Donovan, cookbook editor for The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., who credits America's legion of well-trained chefs with educating a public ripe with a more global outlook.

"Now you'd be hard-pressed to go into a diner and not find something spicy on the menu," Donovan said.

Since The Grille at Park Circle opened in Hagerstown nearly six years ago, one of the more popular menu items is the hot and spicy Cajun Chicken and Shrimp, which includes cayenne pepper and garlic, said co-owner Bob Ginsberg.

Jerk Chicken, a spicy Jamaican dish, is a popular appetizer special, Ginsberg said.

Shu Chen, owner of Shu Chen Restaurant in Charles Town, W.Va., said more customers are willing to try hot and spicy dishes than when the restaurant opened 15 years ago.

Popular spicy dishes include General Tso's Chicken, Cheng Tu Chicken and Crispy Prawns with Walnuts, said Chen and her husband, co-owner/chef Robert Chen.

Freshly ground red pepper is the main heating ingredient in Chinese dishes, according to Robert Chen.

Fresh gingerroot and garlic, black and white peppers, and the classical Chinese Five Spice blend are also commonly used to spice up Chinese dishes, he said. Which spices are used depends on the dish.

For example, hot and sour soup gets its zip from white pepper and sour vinegar, Chen said.

Chinese Five Spice and ginger are two components of General Tso's Chicken, he said.

There's an art to cooking spicy hot dishes so the flavor of the food can be tasted, Terranova said.

The flavors are blended in stages, proportionally, not in equal parts, he said.

Generally a balancing taste, like honey, sugar or chocolate in Mexican moles, vinegar in many Chinese and Cajun dishes, and coconut milk in Thai and Cambodian foods, is used to "control the heat," Terranova said.

"The true test is when you can catch the heat on the back of your tongue," he said.

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