Hot, Hot, Hot: Spicy Sauces to Seasonings399
with Mike Johnston
It’s been a hot summer, and it’s not over yet! In baseball, this time of year is often referred to as the dog days of summer—scorching days spent on a field with no shade in sight. With soaring temperatures in mind, this seems like the perfect time to tell you about hot sauces and condiments that inspired me in the creation of some spicy yet flavorful seasonings: Buffalo Wing Dry Sauce, Harissa Spice Mix, and Piri-Piri Seasoning.
A Super-Duper Brief History of Chiles
It may be obvious that what makes for a great spicy sauce or seasoning is chile peppers, but in the grand scheme of things, cultures outside of the Americas haven’t had them all that long. This might seem a little odd, because if you’re like me, some of the spiciest meals you’ve ever eaten have been from Thailand, India, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. Not that places closer to home like Mexico, Columbia, and Jamaica don’t know how to make you sweat, but there is evidence that some of them had access to chile peppers in their own backyards as early as 7500 BC… that’s a long time! It wasn’t until the late 15th century that countries across the pond got their hands on them—thanks to Columbus. Boy, did they spread like wildfire. By 1550, they had reached Western China, Southeast Asia, and the East Indies, where they were quickly embraced and became a critical part of their cuisines.
Of the three spicy seasonings we’re discussing, Harissa has been on our shelves the longest—since the day we opened back in 2004. Traditionally, it is a spicy chile paste condiment that is a staple in North Africa and throughout the Middle East. Its name comes from the Arabic verb harasa, which means “to pound” or “break into pieces.” It originated in the country of Tunisia during the time that the Spanish occupied the region and brought chile peppers with them back in the mid to late 1500's.
The most basic version of harissa can be as simple as crushed chiles, salt, and oil. When creating our seasoning version, I wanted a more Moroccan flavor profile so ours includes hints of cumin, coriander, and caraway to provide balance to the garlic and ground chiles. Also, I wanted the heat level of our version to be approachable so I included a blend of paprika to tone the spiciness down just a bit. Our seasoning version still delivers a nice punch and can easily be converted into a condiment by mixing it with equal parts water and oil. I often do this at my house because I like some spicy heat, while Janet (who doesn’t) can leave it off. And that’s the best thing about having a seasoning version—I can easily make a couple teaspoons of paste in mere seconds! For a more complex sauce though, you can try out our Rose Harissa recipe, which is a common, deliciously floral derivative of the original.
While Christopher Columbus is credited with introducing chile peppers to the Old World, it was the Portuguese that spread them far and wide. At that time, they dominated the spice trade routes. Through their conquests, they introduced chiles to Africa and the countries of the Far East. For a spice to spread that far and wide in a relatively short time span, using primitive sailing ships, is a credit to not only its agricultural adaptability but also to how easily chiles can be integrated into any and every cuisine. African Bird’s Eye chiles, the spicy pepper behind the creation of Piri-Piri sauce, are a great example of this. They quickly became part of the cuisine and grew so well that they became naturalized. To this day, the plant grows wildly in many parts of Africa.
I created our dry spice version of Piri-Piri (believed to originate from Swahili for pepper–pepper) a few years after we opened. The first issue I ran into was that African Bird’s Eye chile peppers weren’t commercially available. After some research I learned that pequin chiles were a variety of Bird’s Eye chile and, while not quite as spicy hot, would be an ideal substitute. Once that was solved, the rest was pretty easy: a little paprika, salt, lemon peel, a touch of garlic and oregano, and the flavor was spot on. To make an infused oil, mix 3 Tbsp. of this blend with 1 cup oil and let sit for a few days. Brush onto chicken while grilling for a spicy and flavorful piri-piri experience!
Let’s bring it back to the good ole U. S. of A. Buffalo sauce is a flavor that has permeated our culture like few other American-made flavors have over the past 50 or 60 years. I’d venture to say it might be as American as hamburgers and apple pie. Buffalo wings can be found on almost every tavern’s menu and they must be given credit for a whole new segment of specialized restaurants that have exploded onto the scene in recent years. It was Teressa Bellissimo, whose family owned Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, who served up the very first plate of Buffalo wings back in 1964. There’s no way she could have predicted the food phenomenon she would start! Yeah, I’m a ‘foodie’ and love exploring cuisines from all around the world, but I’m also not afraid to admit that I love me a plate of Buffalo wings! There’s just something about that tangy, zippy sauce that draws me in. Oh, and give me the full experience too: I want that side of blue cheese dressing, and the celery, and carrot sticks. In my humble opinion, it’s a little slice of flavor heaven.
For years, I tried to recreate that slice of heaven in dry spice form, but was always unsuccessful. The flavors I had at my disposal just couldn’t provide that tangy zip required. Over the years, customer demand for dry vinegar powders and similar products changed that. When a blend of sriracha chile powder ended up on my desk, I knew a dry version of Buffalo sauce was within reach. Ultimately, our customers—as they always do—would determine whether the product would stay on the shelves or not. So far, so great!
And there you have it—a little spicy history on how fiery sauces have inspired the creation of seasonings here at Savory Spice. Hope you check out these spicy sauce-inspired seasonings and continue to follow along as we bring you more saucy content all summer long! Make sure to tag us on Instagram @savoryspiceshop!