I’ve never been one to go for the pepper flakes—the slightest hint of fire and I’m desperately in search of a glass of water, or better yet, milk. Yet, I recognize I’m an anomaly. Whole cuisines are centered around spice and celebrate its many iterations. For so many people, the numbing, tingling, burning sensation borders on addictive.
Turkell dives headfirst into just what makes spice so noteworthy, leaping, in his own words, "from the many molés of Mexico, to 'mala' spicy-numbing dishes of Sichuan, China, to an array of Indian cuisines that aren’t curry.” It’s gonna be a spicy ride.
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I reached out to Turkell to learn a little more. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Valerio Farris: What made you decide to devote a whole episode to spice?
Michael Harlan Turkell: I think the biggest thing here is pointing out that chiles aren't just about heat. They have a long history in medicine, warm weather climates, and most importantly, FLAVOR! Capsacin gets a bad wrap sometimes because it burns, but if that's the case, often you're using too much (or applying it in excess for sport). I've come to appreciate the heat/flavor combination that comes from chiles. It only takes a light hand to bring out their nuances.
VF: Are you a spice guy? What would you consider your threshold?
MHT: I can eat relatively "spicy" foods, though I know when I see the word "atomic" or wing descriptions that start with the pepper's names (e.g. Bhut Jolokia, Carolina Reaper), it's more about Scoville units than it is enjoyment. Those are adventures for thrill seekers, and there are many, and that's an area we explore as well: how to physically and mentally prepare and up your hot pepper prowess.
VF: What's one wild thing you learned while making this episode?
MHT: I've learned a few: Birds can eat spicy foods without fear/pain. Sichuan Chinese food wasn't always fiery! And learning to combine a variety of hot peppers yields a more flavorful and balanced heat.
VF: I don't like spice... Should I still listen? And why?
MHT: If you're not an official "chilehead," I think the history of how chiles came to be, influenced global cuisines, and affect the body is not only of great interest, and relevant to how we've evolved as farmers, cooks and eaters, but also shows that they're not inherent to any one culture—they're worldwide!
VF: Did you eat anything ridiculously spicy in the making of this episode?
MHT: I do love spicy food, and push my limits at many Thai restaurants. I've been all about a recipe for Dan Dan Noodles (which is Sichuan Chinese) that uses tahini combined with the traditional chili oil and Sichuan pepper to create a creamier, and cooler, mouthfeel. I've also been substituting crispy oven-dried maitake mushrooms instead of minced pork for some earthiness. The great thing about spicy foods that use sauces as a base is that you can adjust accordingly for people who want a really hot pot, and others who just want a little burn.
This episode of Burnt Toast is available for listening here.