The Heat is on. And as much as we’d like to believe that line is a preview of the NBA finals, we have to admit it’s about a trendier topic these days:
Spicy food and drink.
And we also have to admit that as we write this, our palate burns from the Emerald Jalapeño Cashews we just devoured.
Hot is happening, and not just because Beyoncé may or may not carry hot sauce in her bag.
While certainly it’s not news that this is one of those millennial-driven food trends (so very Spring 2015), it’s noteworthy. Because it’s still trending. America’s most coveted consumers are increasingly hot for an increasingly varied lot of spicy food.
The latest fascination involves, of all things, the dairy case, says Food Processing magazine, a trade site for food and drink manufacturers. From “hot” ice cream spiked with Tabasco to Sriracha-mango Greek yogurt, “bright spices and peppers” are showing up in some dairy foods, the magazine reported this month.
At the snack aisle, teenagers are gobbling up the scorch bombs known as Takis, tiny rolled tortilla crisps that come in spicy flavors with names like Fuego and Xplosion and Nitro.
And, hey, hot honey is now a thing.
Heat-seekers are finding spicy recognition at the drive-thru, as well. Take Wendy’s spicy sandwich of the moment, the Jalapeño Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich. It’s a spicy chicken breast that’s topped with ghost pepper sauce, pepper jack cheese and diced jalapeños on a red jalapeño bun.
Over at Taco Bell, spicy sorts can customize their Fiery Doritos Locos Tacos with Flamin’ Hot Fritos and jalapeños. And, yes, there’s KFC’s take on Nashville hot chicken, the spicy classic that originated in the city’s African-American neighborhoods in the 1940s.
In truth, the story of heat in the USA is a deeply American story, one that rings from Louisiana to Texas to Tennessee. But sometimes it’s an American story because it is a deeply global story, a story of new immigrants bringing new flavors and new levels of heat.
When it comes to heat, there’s a difference between the fad, the fascination and the foundation. The fad and fascination may be ephemeral (as in the hot burger of the month), but they rise against a backdrop of a new American flavor foundation that has been trending toward the spicy for the better part of two decades.
Industry watchers have noted that hot sauce sales rocketed by 150 percent from 2000 to 2013 alone, more so than the country’s classic condiments. The new America is a place where hot sauce can be found in more than half of the nation’s households, as the sales-tracking firm NPD Group reported last year.
But that hot sauce selection has expanded beyond the usual Tabasco. Bottled heat now speaks with a global range of accents, from Thai to Jamaican to Nicaraguan. And the heat comes from peppers beyond the trusty jalapeño.
Ask Bruce Ollis, machinist by trade, ghost pepper entrepreneur by passion. He started growing the fiery, sneaky-heat peppers in his Wellington backyard just a few years ago. He and his wife, Stacey Ollis, would turn those peppers into hot sauce, or dehydrate them and grind them into spice mixes.
These peppers are hot, as in 10 times hotter than the spiciest habanero pepper. Hot enough to scare away less adventurous sorts. But in this new, heat-loving era, they’re a hit.
In less than four years, the Ollis’ Bruce’s Ghost Pepperz enterprise has outgrown their backyard and kitchen. Bruce’s peppers are now grown by a Loxahatchee farm and processed at a separate facility.
“When I was a kid, it was ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise. Now hot sauce has taken the country by storm. The American palate is changing,” says Bruce Ollis, who notes that his customers are skewing “much younger.”
His latest hot sauce pairs ghost peppers, Boynton Beach-grown habaneros and key lime. It’s now featured on the Bloody Mary bar at The Cooper restaurant’s popular brunch in Palm Beach Gardens.
Spicy bloodies aside, restaurants have jumped aboard the heat train as well.
The newly opened Banko Cantina in downtown West Palm Beach shakes up blazing habanero-infused syrup into a passion fruit sangria and tops it with a jalapeño raft that’s filled with tequila.
Burger Bar, in Palm Beach Gardens, serves a spicy monster it calls the Volcano Burger – an eight-ounce prime beef patty topped with pepper jack cheese, Sriracha sauce, jalapeños and a sunny-side egg. You can wash it down with a fiery cocktail called Spicy Paloma (jalapeños shaken with tequila, grapefruit juice, lime and lemon-lime soda and served in a salt-rimmed glass).
Grease Burgers in downtown West Palm Beach serves a “Burger from Hell” – 10-ounce patty topped with sautéed jalapeños, habanero “Hell” sauce and fixings. Down in Delray Beach, Tryst gastro pub offers a slightly milder habanero-spiked burger – however, the patty is made of spicy chorizo.
Chef and heat-purveyor Charlie Soo has no such snazzy concoction. But he has “stupid spicy” scorpion chilies immersed in oil, and he has super-hot Thai bird chilies at the ready.
Come into his Talay Thai restaurant in Palm Beach Gardens and dare to order your curry at a level 5 (the highest on his heat chart), and you just may regret it. Level 3 is spicy enough, level 4 scorching.
Soo says he’d really rather not use the spiciest levels. “I’d rather you just enjoy the food and remember the food,” he says.
But if you insist, he’s got you covered. Just make sure you can handle it before you order it. Soo says some customers say they want five-alarm heat, but then wimp out and send it back.
“They go, ‘Can you make another one?’ You can’t take the heat out of a dish,” says Soo, who would rather serve those searing, chili-infused oils on the side. “If someone goes more than a five, I go out and have a conversation.”
He agrees customer interest in heat has grown, but says the interest is not coming from his millennial customers.
“I’m seeing more women overall order spicy,” he says. “You want to talk about a trend? It’s the women who are eating spicy these days.”
Yep, from Beyoncé to Hillary Clinton. Oh, did we mention? The presidential candidate carries a bottle of Ninja Squirrel Sriracha sauce on the campaign trail. As if the trail isn’t scorching enough.