Hot, Hot, Hot: Spicy Sauces to Seasonings
How Traditional Spicy Sauces Inspired Some Of Our Boldest SeasoningsBy Savory Spice Co-Founder Mike Johnston
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.
Sure, places closer to home like Mexico, Columbia, and Jamaica know how to make you sweat; 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!
But it wasn’t until the late 15th century that countries across the pond got their hands on them—thanks to the Columbian Exchange. And wow, 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 in 2004. Traditionally, it is a spicy chile-based condiment that is a staple in North Africa and throughout the Middle East. It is believed to have originated in the area now known as Tunisia during the Spanish occupation of the region, in the mid to late 1500's.
Its name comes from the Arabic verb harasa, which means “to pound” or “break into pieces.” The most basic version of harissa can be as simple as crushed chiles, salt, and oil. When creating our seasoning version, we used a Moroccan-inspired flavor profile so ours includes cumin, coriander, and caraway to balance the garlic and ground chiles. Also, we wanted the heat level to be approachable for the American palate so it includes 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 has been credited with introducing chiles to Europe, it was the Portuguese who spread them far and wide. At that time, they dominated trade routes. Through their colonialism, they introduced chiles to Africa and Asia. For a spice to spread that far and wide in a relatively short time span 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. 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 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. Let it sit for a few days. Brush onto chicken while grilling for a spicy, flavorful piri-piri experience!
Let’s bring it closer to home. Buffalo sauce has permeated our culture over the past 50+ years, like few other American-made flavors have. I’d venture to say it might now be as American as hamburgers or apple pie. Buffalo wings can be found on almost every bar menu and they must be given credit for a whole new segment of specialized wing and chicken restaurants that 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 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 a 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 distinctive experience in spice form, but was always unsuccessful. The flavors I had just couldn’t provide that essential tangy zip. But, when a dry sriracha chile powder blend ended up on my desk, I knew a dry version of Buffalo sauce was within reach.
And there you have it—a little spicy history on how fiery sauces have inspired the creation of seasonings here at Savory Spice.
Make sure to share your spicy creations and tag us on Instagram @savoryspiceshop!