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Fire and SpiceFire and Spice

May 1, 1996

22 Min Read
Fire and Spice

 Fire and Spice
May 1996 -- Design Elements

By: Susheela Uhl
Contributing Editor

  U.S. consumers want more zip in their foods. Spicy foods and chili peppers, or chilies, are becoming popular in mainstream diets. New products, cookbooks, food magazines and trade shows with a hot and fiery theme have increased in number. Restaurants that serve strongly flavored ethnic and fusion foods use spices and chili peppers from Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. Tracking foods with a "kick"  Why is there such a demand for more "picante" taste profiles and spicier foods? Demographic changes in the U.S. population are influencing our tastes. The Asian and Hispanic populations, which traditionally consume hot and spicy foods, are becoming a greater part of our social fabric. Additionally, increased world travel has created a desire for variety and strong flavors.  Where will this trend toward increased consumption of hot spices lead? Although much of the marketing and publicity efforts have concentrated on the "fiery" aspect of chilies and spices, American palettes will inevitably grow more sophisticated, recognizing the many complex aspects of chilies and spices. Consumers will expect the food industry to develop products that fully utilize these multifaceted ingredients. Accordingly, we can expect the use of spices and chilies to evolve in several ways.  First, spices and chilies will be used increasingly as flavor enhancers. Various spices and chilies will be combined effectively for desired, appealing results. Foods will be created that incorporate the hot, sweet, sour, salty and aromatic sensations all in one bite. Cooking techniques of spices, ingredients and spice blends will be used to create a unique balance of pungency with sweetness, tartness or spiciness. Consumers will become more aware of these "flavor contributors," and this will challenge the flavorists and technologists who formulate new products.  Second, U.S. consumers who have traditionally used red cayenne pepper for heat are slowly beginning to use a variety of chilies for flavor, texture and color, as well. This has created a growing trend in "discovering" the unique spicy flavors of regional ethnic foods such as Tex-Mex, Cajun and Mexican, which have been traditionally popular for their festive flair and heat.  Third, spices and chilies will be valued for their nutrition and medicinal properties, in addition to meeting consumer desire for strong "natural" flavors and variety. They are a good source of vitamins and minerals, and contain negligible amounts of fat and salt. Hence, they will increasingly be used to season foods that have reduced or no salt or fat.  To help food product designers meet these anticipated trends, this article will explore some of the sources of spice flavors; the types and uses of chilies, the most important source of spicy heat; balancing complex flavors with spicy beat; nutritional implications of spices and chilies; and formulating foods with heat. Sources of spicy heat  "Spicy" heat comes from many different sources. Technically, the food and flavor industries refer to spicy heat as "pungency," a warming effect in the mouth, including the lips. Pungency varies in intensity and duration, resulting from the different release responses of the ingredients when they are in the mouth. Each source of pungency contains substances that stimulate the nasal and pharyngeal areas and give different warming effects.  In addition to chilies, there are many spices and ingredients that can create pungent sensations in foods. For example, spices have been used in India to increase the palatability of foods and for healing purposes. Traditionally, Indians believed that different spices stimulated different parts of the mouth and body, and that is why the right combination of spices and herbs is so important in their cooking. Some of the spices and herbs that give spicy, warm, pungent aroma and taste mixed with sweet, bitter, biting or astringent sensations are cinnamon, clove, mustard, coriander, cumin, ajowan and fenugreek.  Varietal differences of onions, garlic, ginger or galangal create differences in pungency. Yellow onions have more pungency than white onions, and the pungency of ginger varies depending on whether it is Jamaican, Indian or Chinese.  Pungency is also derived from the roots, stems and leaves of radishes, culantro and turmeric. Culantro stems and roots are used in Puerto Rican sofritos and Thai red curries to create more pungency. Horseradish, used mainly in cocktail sauces and salsas, has an earthy sharp bite with an underlying sweetness. According to Barry Johnston, group leader, Nabisco Foods Group, East Hanover, NJ, wasabi, sometimes called Japanese horseradish, has fresh, green and biting aromatic notes. It contains high levels of allylisothiocyanate (AITC), the pungency-causing chemical in mustards and radishes.  "Even some members of the cruciferous family, such as cabbage and cauliflower, have slight amounts of AITC," Johnston says.  Black pepper -- whether Malabar, Lampong or Chinese -- is used for its pungent biting taste, as well as flavor.  "White pepper, which is used commonly in European cooking and in low-fat or no-fat salad dressings, has a different flavor than black pepper," says Karen Manheimer, marketing manager, J. Manheimer Inc., Long Island City, NY. "Piperine, which is responsible for their bites, gives a release that is in front of the mouth." White pepper cannot substitute for black pepper, which is prized for its bouquet as well as its heat.  Fagara, called Chinese pepper or Szechwan pepper, is an essential ingredient in Chinese five-spice blend and is normally dry-roasted to intensify its flavor for use in poultry and meat.  Pungency varies in different mustards -- white, yellow, brown, Oriental or black. When buying ground mustard, mustard flour or oleoresins, it is important to consider flavor, color and pungency levels.  "The yellow prepared mustards have sharp tongue tastes but not pungent aromas," says Johnston. "Dijon mustards, typically containing brown mustard seeds, have pungent aromas. The German, English and Chinese prepared mustards, which have brown or Oriental ground mustard, have a very pungent aroma and bite.  "The release of sensation in mustard differs from Japanese wasabi," continues Johnston. "In wasabi, the release is immediate and in front of the mouth; with mustard and similarly with horseradish, the response is delayed and at the back of the mouth, with a shooting sensation to the sinuses." A look at chilies  Although the popularity of chilies has increased dramatically in recent years, they have been eaten since 7000 B.C., when they were consumed by the ancient Mayans, Aztecs and Incas. Chilies, which are technically fruits, have been used traditionally in Asia and Latin America as a vegetable (when fresh) or as a spice (when dried) to flavor the bland tortilla, or chappati, diets of indigenous populations.  When eaten with starchy foods, the chili pepper increases their palatability by stimulating saliva and at the same time creating a pleasure sensation. When people eat hot food, endorphins are secreted, which creates a sensation of pleasure. Chili heightens the mouth's sensitivity and, as a result, the mouth perceives the food to be more flavorful and tasty than it actually is. This could be why chilies have played a major role in the diets of the lower socioeconomic classes in Asia, Mexico and South America.  Even though chilies may belong to the same variety, they come under different names because of regional differences in color, size or heat. Dried or smoked versions have different names. For example, the black, more pungent mulato and the dark mahogany ancho are dried versions of the poblano chili. Most chilies change color from green to red, yellow, orange, purple and even brown. Dried chilies are used whole or ground, alone or added to spice blends. Dried chili powder is primarily red chilies.  Chilies give taste and aroma, not just bum. "Aromatic pigments and sugar content contribute to flavor; hence, red chilies tend to be more flavorful since pigment development progresses in the ripening process," says Paul Bosland of New Mexico State University, Las Cruces.  Certain cultures have mastered the selection of chilies to suit their products. Cooked, pureed, pickled, uncooked, and chopped chilies are used in salsas, sambals, prepared foods, salads, or as garnishes. Chilies are often stuffed with spices and other ingredients as entrees. They are also used merely for presentation styles, such as in some Sichuan, Thai or Caribbean dishes.  Within the genus Capsicum, there are over 200 different chili peppers around the world. They differ in shape, color, size, flavor and degree of pungency.  At least 150 types occur in Mexico and 79 in Thailand. Most of these belong to the C. annum variety. Examples include New Mexican, jalapeño, Anaheim and the red and green cayennes, ranging from mild and sweet to very hot. The other varieties are C. frutescens, C. chinense, C. pubescens, and C. baccatum.  The tremendous variety of chilies can be overwhelming. The best way to learn their proper use is to study their use in authentic ethnic cuisines, where they are used not only for heat, but also for color, flavor and texture. The North American foods that have often used chilies for heat are Tex-Mex, Mexican, Cajun and Creole. Tex-Mex cooking, influenced by the Norteno style of Mexican cooking, uses jalapeños, poblanos and serranos for heat in rellenos, soups, stews and salsas. Louisiana cooking such as Cajun and Creole uses red pepper and cayenne sauces to spice up seafood gumbo or shrimp creole. Southwestern -- a newer, fusion-style cuisine that uses a variety of chilies such as ancho, serrano, jalapeño or chili de arbol -- is continuing to ignite the palate.  Chilies are important in the flavor and heat of salsas. They tend to enhance and provide a background note for spices and other flavorings. Selection of chilies for salsas is based on the region and type of dish being prepared. Mexicans have mastered their knowledge of different types of chilies to achieve that certain flavor, aroma, mouthfeel, color or bite. For example, fresh, green poblanos provide color and mouthfeel; the anchos, flavor and heat; jalapeños, mainly heat; and chipotles, smoke.  The sophisticated use of different chilies for specific dishes began with the ancient Mayans and Aztecs and continues today, varying by region. Jalapeños and serranos are commonly used for uncooked salsas, while the pasilla, mirasol and chili de arbol are used for cooked sauces.  Habanero, the hottest pepper in the world, comes green, yellow, orange or red, and is used extensively throughout the Yucatan, Central America and the Caribbean. It provides smooth-tasting and fruity notes with no lingering pungency. Congo peppers, piment or Scotch bonnets found in the Caribbean islands are types of habaneros. They are combined with fresh fruits, vegetables, onions, mustard, spices and tomatoes to create unique sauces and marinades, each specific to an island's flavor. Pickapeppa sauce from Jamaica, sauce chien from Guadeloupe, jerk marinade from Jamaica, curry sauces from Trinidad or Martinique, and bajan sauce from Barbados all use habaneros.  Ajis, the banana-shaped yellow or red chilies with their unique flavors and aromas, and the highly aromatic red, green or yellow, apple-shaped rocotos are commonly used in South American cooking to give color, flavor and texture to dishes. In Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, many varieties of ajis such as aji amarillo, aji colorada, puca uchu and rocotos are often used fresh in condiments, garnishes, marinades and spreads or are cooked with beans and stews.  Bahia cooking from Brazil -- influenced by the Native Indians, Africans, Portuguese, Chinese and Lebanese -- incorporates malagueta peppers, habaneros, and bird peppers. Salsa carioca with avocado, farofa de malagueta with toasted manioc flour, and vatapa, a seafood and chicken stew with dried shrimp, all use malagueta peppers.  The churrascos (marinated grilled meats) of Argentina and Central-America are usually served with fresh spicy condiments called chimmichuris. Guatemala has fiery flavors, influenced by the country's Mayan heritage. Jocon -- a popular dish made with chicken, garlic and tomatillas -- uses a smoked, dried variety of piquin.  In South Asian cooking, cayennes, birds-eye chilies and New Mexican varieties are typically used for color, flavor and heat in condiments, curries, snacks, rice dishes, and noodles. In India, they are used whole (fresh or dried), or ground and added to masalas with other spices and herbs for chutneys, sambhars, vindaloos, and bhel poris. The pungent white and black curries of Sri Lanka use specially treated chilies with spices to attain the desired color and flavor.  The red, yellow and green curries of Thailand use different chilies and cooking techniques to attain the desired color and flavor. Thai cooking uses New Mexican types, bird chilies, Thai chilies and siracha chilies. The sweet, sour, fiery and aromatic hot sambals of Southeast Asia effectively combine the tumised, cili padi, cayennes or lombok with onions, tamarind, nuts and/or fermented fish paste. Sambals are used as table condiments or are cooked with seafood, meat, rice or noodle dishes such as nasi goreng, laksas, satay sauce, and rendangs of Indonesia and Malaysia.  Ginger, fermented fish, and red and green New Mexican-type chilies lend pungency in Korean condiments such as kimchis and kochujang. Kochujang -- made with red chili paste, soy-bean paste and rice flour -- is an essential seasoning in stews, dips or dressings. Sichuan peppercorns are made into hot oils, chili vinegars and chili pastes, which are important ingredients in Sichuan and Hunan-style cooking of China. Fresh and dried hot peppers such as New Mexican types and santakas are used in stir-fries, sauces, soups and noodle dishes. Sichuan cooking, influenced by Indian spicing, uses the pungent black bean paste, five-spice blend, ginger, black peppercorns, and chili paste or oil in hot-and-sour soups, "double cooked" pork, and kung pao chicken.  The spicier notes of Mediterranean cooking are influenced by the hot spices and chilies of northern Africa. The New Mexican types and cayennes such as mombasa and pimiento are used in condiments, marinades, couscous, tagines, and soups. Condiments such as harissa and berbere contain ground dried red chilies with spices and herbs, and are used in Tunisian, Moroccan and Ethiopian stews.  Though Spanish cooking uses sweeter, milder peppers, hot peppers such as the New Mexican types are also used occasionally with tomatoes, garlic, onions and vegetables in sofritos, paellas and sauces. Rouille, a spicier version of the aioli which combines garlic, tomatoes and mildly hot chilies is popular in the Provence region of France. Preparation priorities  Preparation techniques of ingredients and spice blends -- such as roasting, drying, grilling or pickling -- create distinctive flavors, colors and textures. Crushed garlic and onions have more pungency than the cut or ground versions, for instance. In Indian cooking, whole or ground spices such as coriander, fenugreek or mustard seeds -- when dry-roasted, bhoonaed or tarkared -- remove rawness and bitterness, and intensify the desirable pungencies.  The Chinese and Southeast Asians salt and ferment fish, shrimp, soybeans or chilies to create varied pungencies for stews, stir-fries and soups. Savory flavorings such as salted and fermented fish and shrimp pastes (nam pla, trassi or nuoc mam) are used extensively in sauces in Southeast Asia to give strong pungency to foods. These are further tumised to remove their strong fishy tastes in order to evoke a fragrant aromatic profile. In Latin America, slow-roasting, grilling or smoking of chili removes rawness of heat and bitterness, and accentuates its flavor and sweetness. Aging chilies with vinegar and spices has created unique flavors with heat.  To perceive fully the different sensations of hot and spicy foods, it is important to observe not only how a food is prepared but how it is served and eaten in the traditional cultures. Mixing and combining dishes and side condiments with entrees, serving cooling yogurts along-side fiery snacks, and offering plain starches such as rice or noodles with spicy dishes are several examples of methods traditionally used to enhance overall flavor perception of hot and spicy foods. Another example: Chilies and herbs are used for garnishing and providing contrasting flavors, colors and textures to excite the presentation of Thai meals. Balancing flavor and heat  Demand for hot and spicy foods is growing, but because of our changing cultures and life-styles there will be an even greater demand for balanced hot and spicy food profiles that combine sweet, sour, savory and crunchy with heat and color. Development of successful hot and spicy foods is not just adding capsaicin but, most importantly, balancing beat profiles with other ingredients. Creating this complex blend will require an understanding of the flavor profiles of traditional regional ethnic foods, changing lifestyles, and the "newer" consumer.  Chilies enhance the existing flavors of meat, fish or poultry, and they can suppress undesirable flavors such as bitterness. Tasting chilies is like tasting wine; once the perception of heat is conquered, the aroma and taste predominate.  The importance of trigeminal perceptions such as burning, cooling and astringency within the flavor of foods (along with odor and taste) has not been fully researched, according to G. Matheis, Ph.D., Dragoco Inc., Germany. He says many ethnic ingredients such as chilies and ginger contain more trigeminal stimulants than traditional ingredients, indicating the growing importance of trigeminal impressions with the flavor of foods.  Since taste has been perceived as an individual component in traditional American meals, heat has been and still is experienced a separate entity. The association of taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter) with heat was developed with ethnic groups that lived on these hot and spicy diets which balanced a complex mixture of spices, herbs and chilies with cooking techniques and meal presentations. The ethnic groups have mastered the sensations of the different taste perceptions along with heat.  Sichuan cuisine combines various opposing tastes to create a successful flavor release that is hot, aromatic, sweet, sour and fresh. The heat is experienced as an initial flash, then you become aware of the other ingredients in the dish. Thai, Yucatan, Southwestern and Sichuan foods are growing in demand because their heat has been effectively combined with complementing spices and other ingredients to create variety, strong flavors, and pleasing textures.  Traditionally in ethnic groups around the world, hot and spicy foods were eaten with plain yogurt, breads or cooked white rice to "cool off" the heat effect or "balance the yin and yang." Chilies and spices provide flavor, variety, nutrition and color to an otherwise bland diet which, in turn, quells the heat. Chilies and spices not only enhance desirable flavors, but also mask undesirable flavors.  Dried spices and oleoresins have been used in low-fat and low-salt products to compensate for loss of flavor-carrying fats and salt. Most oleoresins of spices and chilies do not typify the whole spicy notes of the original ingredients. They merely provide heat to marinades, snacks, dressings and sauces. Since there is an increasing consumer demand for complex flavor, color and texture profiles associated with chilies, care must be used when substituting oleoresins for chilies. Nutrition issues  More consumers are looking for "healthy ingredients." Hot and spicy foods create a niche for healthy foods. Spices, herbs and chilies will be increasingly used to enhance foods that have reduced or no salt or fat, such as snacks, sauces, salad dressings and marinades.  Indigenous populations of Latin America, India, Korea and China have traditionally used spices, herbs and chilies for healing. Health professionals are exploring the therapeutic uses of chilies and spices, whereby they can be promoted as potential nutraceuticals. Some spices and herbs, such as ginkgo leaf, cilantro, chilies, ginger, garlic and fenugreek, have been researched for different health benefits -- for example, preventing nausea, memory loss, decreasing serum cholesterol, and preventing migraines and colds.  Chilies are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, with some of the fresh hot chilies containing four times as much vitamin C as an average orange. They have no cholesterol and are a good source of folic acid, potassium, protein, fiber and trace metals. Chilies have been traditionally used as medicine for treating pain and wounds, respiratory diseases, and digestive problems. Now there are more scientific studies on their role in decreasing heart attacks, averting obesity, decreasing blood clots, acting against arthritic pain, and protecting against stomach ulcers. Measuring heat  Capsaicinoids (responsible for pungency in chilies) depend on the variety, environmental growth conditions, stage of maturity, and seasonal and post-harvest conditions. Heat, especially high night temperatures, and light intensify pungency.  Pungency also varies depending on where chilies grow -- milder chilies from cooler coastal valleys, and hotter chilies from higher altitudes and warmer temperatures. For major varieties, chilies in the red stage are more pungent than the green ones.  Currently, there are no minimum standards from the FDA to create uniformity in pungency levels labeled as high, medium or low. The Scoville heat unit (Shu) is an organoleptic measurement of pungency in chilies. Scoville unit measurements cause errors due to build up of heat, rapid taste fatigue, increased taste threshold, and poor reproducibility. Pungency of chilies varies among the rive species. Ancho averages 900 to 1,500 Shu; jalapeños, 2,500 to 6,500 Shu; cayennes 30,000 to 50,000 Shu; and habaneros, 200,000 to 350,000 Shu.  Merle Eiss, technical activities coordinator for the American Spice Trade Assoc. (ASTA), Englewood Cliffs, NJ, says there is a new HPLC method that will become the official ASTA, as well as AOAC, method for measuring capsicum heat.  "It is a more reliable method than the subjective Scoville method," says Scott Harris, technical service manager for Cal Compack Foods, Santa Ana, CA. "The coefficient of error is 50% for the Scoville method and less than 12% for the HPLC method."  The HPLC measures the capsaicinoid(s) in ppm, which can then be converted to Scoville units using a conversion factor of 15, 20 or 30 depending on the capsaicinoid.  Chilies vary not only in their amount of pungency but in the nature of their bites, so true release of heat is different in different chilies. We used to distinguish black pepper bite in front of the mouth and red pepper at the back of mouth and throat. Heat responses can be immediate, late or lingering. The habanero has an initial sharp and violent bite which quickly disappears, leaving behind a soothing and aromatic sensation, whereas the cayennes from Asia have a lingering effect in the mouth.  The capsaicinoids responsible for pungency are found in the inner layer of the chili pods, while the flavor predominates in the outer layer. The type and amount of the capsaicinoids vary with different chilies, so they release different bites. How these isomers react to the trigeminal nerves in the mucus-forming membrane of the nasal and oral cavities, and on the surface of the tongue, creates these differing responses.  So far, five capsaicinoids have been isolated, each characterizing a certain "bite" sensation in the mouth. Some capsaicinoids produce a prolonged numbing effect in the throat; some burntoward the back of the mouth; some in the middle of the tongue into the throat; some burn lips more than the tongue; and some are painful at first but leave behind a pleasant feeling.  For determining heat, it is important to conduct sensory evaluation in addition to the HPLC readings, since we are measuring not only the amount of heat but the type of bite and release. Sylvia Ying, sensory analyst from McCormick & Co. Inc., Hunt Valley, MD, says there are three recommended sensory methods that have been developed in collaboration with the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) for evaluating high-heat chilies (10,000 to 70,000 Shu), low-heat chilies (200 to Z500 Shu), and oleoresin capsicum (100,000 to 1,000,000 Shu). These methods use trained panelists to determine the threshold levels -- slight, moderate and strong -- of heat in a pepper extract against a control. Cold rinsing the mouth is recommended to eliminate any heat between samples. The sensory heat ratings are obtained by a conversion factor and then correlated to the HPLC-calculated Scoville units.  Remember, when selecting panelists or determining threshold levels there are individual preferences, as well as tolerances developed to capsaicinoids since pain receptors become less sensitive over time.  Standardization of chili pepper names is very important when formulating or manufacturing foods.  "Specific labeling using varietal or cultivar terminology is recommended, such as jalapeño, serrano, sweet banana, or cascabel, which are universal identifications for the consumer," says Jim Lusk of Peto Seed Co., Saticoy, CA.  Terminology such as hot, mild or sweet may not be enough. Labeling of pungency becomes very important. One variety of chili may show different pungency levels -- for example, jalapeño variety has several types, such as jalapeño M, early jalapeño, Tam jalapeño #I, and Tam Veracruz.  When formulating seasonings or foods with chilies, it is important to choose the right type of heat and flavor, as well as the processing techniques that create a particular smokiness or combination of fried notes. Balancing heat with flavor is critical for creating hot and spicy foods. Pungency and flavor perceptions also must take into account the entire product system -- whether it is a starch, gum, water- or oil-based system-, its pH and heating methods; and the addition of other spices and herbs. These factors can balance, negate, augment or add zest to the entire system.  When purchasing chilies, it is crucial to have a reliable supplier that meets your specifications consistently. In the production of ground chili powders and spices, variations in pungency, color or flavor can occur among different batches due to climatic conditions, when and where the ingredients are picked, improper storage conditions, or differences in processing techniques. Make sure you use fresh ground pepper and test each incoming batch for heat values. Testing labs can vary in Scoville readings if they only rely on the organoleptic method. To obtain accuracy and consistency in Scoville values, use HPLC readings with your own in-house sensory panel.  American eating habits and tastes are being influenced more and more by cultures that have traditionally consumed hot and spicy foods. While heat will be a part of the flavor profile in new foods we create (whether they are authentic ethnic, fusion or simply made by adding an ethnic flair to traditional foods), those new products will not be evaluated or accepted solely on their heat. The "new" consumer will be seeking strong balanced flavors, variety, and nutrition for a healthier lifestyle. This will require food product designers to create hot and spicy foods that balance pungency with sweet, sour, nutty or savory profiles.  Proper treatment of spices and chilies, as well as meal presentation styles, will aid in the creation of desired flavors, colors, freshness and textures in foods. Developing successful hot and spicy products also will require knowledge of the trends and complex interaction of chilies with spices, herbs, fermented seafood pastes, misos, fruits, vegetables, legumes or nuts. These will be the greatest challenges for the food and flavor industries.   Susheela Uhl is president of Horizons, a Mamaroneck, NY-based food consulting firm. She identifies trends and concepts, develops products (ethnic, fusion and traditional), and provides presentations and information on flavorings and cultural origins of cuisines and spices.Back to top<

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