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. . .