Spicy food was not a part of my culinary experience growing up, but when I was introduced to it later in life, I was hooked. Whenever I ordered food, I went for the spicy choices. If a dish on a menu had a star or a little chile pepper next to it, that was the dish I wanted. I did have my limits, however. I remember when my friends at school went to get barbecue and got the hottest, spiciest kind – the kind that came with loaves of white bread for coolants. They sat there eating it while their faces turned red and sweat poured out of them. I’m pretty sure their lips and tongues were too numb to even taste the food. That did not seem enjoyable to me. Spicy is good; flammable is not so much.

Nothing makes me happier than cooking with lots of spices. Spicy food doesn’t necessarily have to be hot. It can just be packed with flavor, but hot can be fun, too. Maybe spicy food is new to you or you want to increase your tolerance. When I met my husband, he didn’t like spicy food and now his tolerance is even higher than mine. Maybe it’s not how to eat spicy food that you want to learn but how to cook spicy food. How do you make food hot and flavorful but not necessitate a fire extinguisher? How do you balance spicy flavors with other tastes such as sweet or bitter? Here are some helpful tips on how to cook spicy food.

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1. Learn About Different Spices and Cuisines

Making spicy dishes isn’t just about dumping hot sauce on your food. There are many types of spices and different spicy cuisines. In Chinese cuisine, Szechuan food tends to be spicy from chili oil and Sichuan peppers. Japanese cuisine has spicy condiments such as wasabi and shichimi which is a combination of seven spices including hot red peppers. Some Thai dishes also use a lot of chiles. South Indian cuisine tends to be spicier than North Indian with lots of red chiles and dried chili powder. Cajun and Creole dishes use spice blends with cayenne, paprika and chile peppers while Jamaican food uses super-hot scotch bonnet peppers. Mexican cuisine makes use of hot peppers such as habanero and jalapeno.

If you plan to cook spicy food, there are some spices and condiments you should definitely have in your pantry.

  • Allspice is grown in Jamaica. Its aroma and taste is warm and sweet. People sometimes mistakenly think it is a combination of spices because it is similar to the combination of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Allspice is used in Caribbean cooking as well as in baking.
  • Chile peppers come in a wide variety of heat levels from mild bell peppers to jalapenos to intensely hot habanero and Scotch bonnet peppers.
  • Crushed red pepper, also known as red chile flakes or red pepper flakes, is made from a variety of red peppers such as ancho, bell and cayenne. You may know this spice from the shaker bottles on the tables at Italian restaurants and pizza places. However, the origin of red pepper flakes is India. While fresh chiles have direct heat and sweetness, dried chile pepper is more full-bodied and smoky. And hot!
  • Curry powder is a blend of spices including cumin, coriander, turmeric, fenugreek and many others. There are a variety of curry powders that differ in flavor and span a wide range of heat from mild to hot. Curry powder is used in Indian, Thai and Jamaican food.
  • Chile powder, which is used in Mexican and Latin recipes, is also a blend of spices. It contains a variety of peppers as well as garlic, cumin and oregano and can also have different levels of heat depending on the blend.
  • Ginger is used in Asian cuisine as well as in baking. It is warm and spicy. You may not think of ginger as a hot spice but too much of it can burn.
  • Harissa is a popular hot sauce used in Tunisia. It is usually made from grounded red birds eye chili peppers with olive oil, garlic, cumin and coriander.
  • Hot sauce, also known as chili sauce or pepper sauce refers to any spicy sauce condiment made from chili peppers and other ingredients. In the United States, hot sauces are typically made from chili pepper, vinegar and salt. The varieties of peppers that are used often are cayenne, chipotle, habanero and jalapeno.
  • Sriracha hot sauce is a traditional Thai hot sauce made primarily of ground chilies, garlic, vinegar, sugar, and salt. Sriracha is often called “rooster sauce” after the most widely sold U.S. brand’s label. You can learn to make your own in this video.
  • Wasabi is a hot condiment mainly eaten with sushi and other Asian food. It is a green variety of Japanese horseradish. You can buy wasabi in powder, paste and sauce.

2. Start Small

If you are new to spicy food, I wouldn’t recommend starting with habanero peppers. Try adding small amounts of spices to your dishes. Remember, you always add more but you can’t take it out once it’s in the food. One of the biggest mistakes people make regarding spices is to add too much or too many. Experiment with just one type of hot spice at a time to see if you like it and if it works for the dish you are making. Spices should enhance the flavor of food, not cover it up.

When you are cooking aromatics such as onion and garlic for your sauteed greens or pasta dish, add a pinch of crushed red pepper to the oil. This Asian Cucumber Avocado Salad has just a pinch of cayenne in it to make it spicy. Try spiking your ketchup with a dash of hot sauce for a spicy kick. Swap out bell peppers in a recipe for poblano or jalapeno peppers. The next time you make mac and cheese or need a cheese sauce for your nachos, try this Spicy Vegan Cheese Sauce. Instead of just salt, sprinkle some chile powder on your fries like these Spicy Raw Jicama Fries. Enjoy old favorites like Buffalo Tofu Fries with just the right amount of heat for you.

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3. Increase the Heat Slowly

So you tried adding poblano peppers to your paella and you loved it. That doesn’t mean you should jump to habaneros next. When you find a spice that you like and can tolerate, increase the level just a bit.  Try using chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, being careful to remove the seeds where most of the heat lies. You can use them to make this Chipotle Cashew Cream or this Smoky White Bean and Yellow Pepper Hummus. Add some minced jalapeno to your next dish and then try a fruity serrano pepper like in this Watermelon Gazpacho. Try this Spicy Eggless Coriander Quiche which has moderately hot green chiles for heat. Build your tolerance little by little until you find the heat level that is right for you. If you do work your way up to habanero peppers, try these Habanero Kale Chips and these Raw Habanero Pepper Crackers.

4. Serve the Heat on the Side

If you are concerned that your dish will be ruined if you don’t like the spice or you need to accommodate people with different tastes and tolerances, rather than putting the spice in the dish, serve it on the side. Make spicy salsas, condiments and sauces and let each person decide for themselves what they want and how much of it they eat. This Black Bean and Corn Salsa uses two … count ‘em, two kinds of tobasco sauce. This Vietnamese Tofu Banh Mi Sandwich is served with a vegan mayo spiked with Sriracha and my Tempeh “Crab” Cakes come with a Horseradish-Dill Mayo on the side. These Crunchy Couscous Tacos are served with a Sweet and Spicy Jalapeno Dressing.

5. Balance the Heat

When you serve something hot, be sure to balance the heat in the dish with other flavors that will cool it down. Many Mexican and Indian dishes tend to have sour cream or yogurt as well as lime and cilantro which all have cooling effects. My Indian Curry Potato Latkes are served with Cucumber Raita to cool them down. If you are making a curry, balance the spice with coconut milk which will also add creaminess as in this Spicy Coconut Curry with Green Beans, Fried Tofu and Bean Sprouts. These Cajun Quinoa Cakes are served with a Lemon-Dill-Sriracha Remoulade which is a perfect example of balancing acid, herbs, heat and creaminess.

6. In Case of Fire

If you eat something that is too hot and your mouth is on fire, water will not help. Try eating a spoon of non-dairy sour cream or yogurt, or eat a piece of bread, rice or some crackers. Starchy foods help absorb some of the capsaicin so make sure to have some nearby.

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And what about the dish? Don’t worry, if it’s way too spicy, there are things you can do to fix it. Add some acidity by squeezing some lemon or lime on it or add something sweet like sugar or agave to balance out the heat. If you have more of the ingredients other than the spice that went into the recipe, add them so the percentage of spice will decrease. If you can, add coconut milk or other non-dairy milk to the dish. I once made a batch of my Southwestern Tofu Scramble and added way too much spice to it. It was literally inedible. Instead of throwing it out, I mixed a few big spoonfuls of vegan mayo into it and put it in the fridge. The next day, I had the most delicious spicy vegan “egg” salad ever!

Spicy food is delicious and it can be fun but it’s even better when you are the one controlling the heat level. I hope these tips help you turn up the heat on your cooking and get you to love cooking and eating spicy food.

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Lead Image Source: Crunchy Couscous Tacos with a Sweet n’ Spicy Jalapeno Dressing