Hot and/or Spicy

I wanted to bring to your collective attention a dire misconception which has transpired in the North American lexicon: the words “hot” and “spicy” have been rendered nearly indistinguishable. We use the words completely interchangeably. The problem with this is that to be “spicy” really does not necessarily translate into “hot”—although of course it can (ideally). Spicy, according to Mirriam-Webster’s online dictionary, refers to “having the quality, flavor, or fragrance of spice.” Spices vary from nutmeg to cumin, from chile powder to coriander. There’s a lot of spices. And not many of them are hot.

Of course this misconception is understandable, given that our culture was founded by puritans who liked sitting on cold, hard wood seats and flagellating themselves with the sins of humanity. Spices other than black pepper, to such people, must have seemed to be heated with satanic tendencies—making people want to dance, sweat, take off a layer. Spices have never really been incorporated into our cookery, until very, very recently, with the advent of “California cuisine” and then “fusion.” Strange that we ignored Mexican cookery, considering that we stole half of their land from them. It took the popular incorporation of Thai and Indian foods to introduce us to the glory and complexity of varied spice mixtures.

Indian food has been generating complex spice infused concoctions since the BCs. Much of their food is “hot.” Most of it is “spicy.” But let’s get this straight here: you can have a spicy dish without heat. Yes, you can. Would you really want to have a spicy dish without heat? I certainly wouldn’t. But it’s possible.

Being Americans, we aren’t immediately sensitive to this distinction, simply because to use fresh, multiple spices in any given dish is pretty foreign to us. Using sage, rosemary, and thyme is already getting too deep.

I hit upon this topic of blog post when perusing a barbecue sauce bottle that was broken out to dip the bloated ends of our frozen pizza into, lacking ranch dressing. This bottle states that their product is “hot n’ spicy.” And I suddenly realized that most of us would perceive no real distinction between the words. As I began expounding upon the differences, my girlfriend told me that this was a blog post waiting to happen. So here it is. She also had the memorable quote of stating, in reference to the lack of spice awareness on the part of early American colonizers, that North America was “on the slave trade route, not the spice route.”

I’m hoping that it’s not too late to make the distinction between hot n’ spicy. The most fundamental difference that I want to convey here today is that to be simply hot, all it takes is a straight shot of chili peppers. Like “hot” sauce. (Although there can be some good hot sauces that also generate good flavor.) To be spicy implies a level of complexity of flavor. There are depths in mixes of spices that are akin to the depths found in an ecstatic spiritual experience. At least our early Shaker forefathers would have approved, had only they eaten some hot n’ spicy curries instead of had mini-epilepsies all over the church floor. . .


Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

6 thoughts on “Hot and/or Spicy”

  1. First: I’d like some credit for paragraph 2, i.e. the Puritan comment.

    Second: Am I being made fun of with my ‘memorable quote’? I’m confused…I thought I had been wrong somewhere in that conversation.

  2. And you haven’t even gone into how food that’s termed “hot” around this country isn’t really all that hot to begin with. I find a lot of American “hot” sauces boring.

  3. It’s true that most Americans think that because something’s got jalapeños in it, it’s scorching. But at the same time, I also have to say that I’m kind of impressed with the advancement that the mainstream has made with heat in their food. When I was growing up, if people had too much cinnamon in their hot chocolate, they thought that it was too spicy. Now when you buy a salsa that says “hot”, they usually really mean it. Some of these salsas and hot sauces on the market are truly hot.
    We’re evolving.

  4. Hi,

    I enjoyed your post. I cam e upon it because I, too, was searching for answer to the question of things hot and/or spicy. However, my question was slightly different, and my objective is as well: I was looking for an article or blog which discussed the fact there there is a fundamental difference in taste between things that are hot due do spices, and hot due to inherent hotness. Let me clarify. When I eat two separate things that I would both term “hot” (meaning that they burn my mouth), I want to make a distinction between regular hot, like a habanero hot sauce, and ‘spicy-hot’ like an indian dish that is hot because of the spiced dusted on it. Not only is this a difference in the mode by which things are made hot, but in the sensation in the mouth. Spicy-hot is different than tangy-hoy, say. Yes?

  5. I see your point. My post was just to outline that initial concept of differentiating “spicy” from “hot”. Yes, branching out from that, you could certainly begin denoting different types of heat by saying “spicy-hot”, “tangy-hot”, “straight up hot”, etc.

    From there, other distinguishing terms can be made between the different types of heat represented by different chile peppers. I mean some heat takes a minute to kick in, some heat hits you as soon as its fragrance has wafted to your mucous membranes. “Slow-burn-hot,” “ass kick hot”. Some heat makes you choke when it hits the back of your throat. “Choke-hot”. Some heat is smoky, some heat is direct, some heat is circumspect, hidden behind other flavors. “Smoky-hot”, “straight-up-hot”, “clever-hot”.

    And when it comes to spicy-hot, there is the kind of spice admixtures that don’t seem hot at all, just spicy, but then after a few minutes and a few more bites, suddenly this quiet flame has begun spreading throughout your mouth and has burst into an all out fire. “Spicy-hot-ambush”. Then there is the kind of spicy-hot where it just feels like straight up heat, as if the spoon were on fire, and you keep blowing on it to cool it down as if that would do anything to it. “spicy-hot-HOT!”

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