You know something's up when the ghost pepper makes its way to Popeye's and Wendy's. If you have yet to be haunted by this infamous chili, also known as bhut jolokia, just imagine the spiciest jalapeño you ever ate. Now multiply that lip-tingling, eye-watering intensity by, give or take, 200.
In 2007, the Guinness Book of World Records crowned the ghost pepper Hottest Chili, with more than 1,000,000 Scoville units (a scientific scale developed in 1912 to measure peppers' capsaicin or heat). A few years later, the Indian military used it to cook up a hand grenade. And now, it's the latest trend in American fast food.
In the U.S. today, spice is—for lack of a better word—cool. Prom queen who becomes a famous actress cool. Hence, Popeye's ghost pepper chicken wings ("not so hot," according to the Washington Post) and Wendy's ghost pepper cheese fries (similar reviews). To be fair, both limited-time products genuinely included ghost pepper. But, assuredly, an undetectable amount. Otherwise, customers would be sweating and sobbing in the drive-thru and crashing into each other's cars. So why feature it in the first place?
In need of some chili expertise, I reached out to Wilma Schroeder, the farmer at Dog Day Farm in Siler City, who grows a host of hot peppers and sells them to local chefs, as well as at the Western Wake Farmer's Market in Cary. By late July, she will have fish peppers, poblanos, and big red Thais. In past seasons, she has also produced kung paos, chile de arbols, and haberneros.
"I like spicy food," she said. "It's one of the better spices of life."
In moderation, though. When I asked about ghost peppers, Wilma's enthusiasm waned. "For my palate, there's a certain amount of hot beyond which I can't taste anything. The heat masks the flavor."
Cooking at home, she loves experimenting with hot peppers and vinegar. Infusing the vinegar to dash on barbecue, for instance, or adding finely chopped peppers to a vinegar-based coleslaw.
Between Wilma and that guy who eats an entire ghost pepper just to upload the subsequent massacre on YouTube, I'm on Team Wilma. Yet I can't help but wonder: Are the two all that different? Or are those who harness spice for flavor and those who brave it as a challenge playing the same game? Cheering so loud for the American spice craze that every fast food chain can hear the screams.
Compared to other regions such as the southwest, classic southern fare is mild. Today though, its classification becomes less clear. If you tour the Triangle, you'll find the spice mania in more places than just Popeye's.
Take Beasley's Chicken & Honey in Raleigh. This swanky fried chicken joint is Ashley Christensen's modern take on southern tradition, so of course there's pimento cheese on the menu. But it's not just pimento cheese. It's roasted poblano pimento cheese, with more kick and flavor than the original. Trying it inspired me to make roasted jalapeño pimento (which I like even better because, well, it's spicier).
Rise Biscuits and Donuts in Durham similarly amplifies a southern staple—in this case, biscuits. In addition to usual-suspect toppings such as country ham and Duke's mayonnaise, you can add pickled jalapeños to your sandwich (will do, next time I get my fried chicken-cheddar). Likewise, at Monuts Donuts, one of the build-your-own options is maple Sriracha.
Which brings me to Sriracha. I deeply regret starting this article after I ran into a man, at the Durham Farmers' Market, wearing a Sriracha T-shirt. (I suspect he also had the Sriracha keychain and water bottle and tattoo—but now we'll never know.) The easiest, surest way to attract spice fanatics is whispering, softly, "Sriracha, Sriracha." Trophy Brewing Company (named best pizzeria in the state by Thrillist) seduces with "The Daredevil," a signature pizza featuring ghost pepper salami, fire-roasted tomato sauce, mozzarella, fresh jalapeño, and caramelized Sriracha. Still, no one plays the Sriracha card better than Americanized sushi restaurants. On their respective specialty roll lists, Shiki Sushi, Mura, and Sushi Nine cite "Sriracha" five, four and two times. (Also worth mentioning: Collectively, they say "spicy" 90 times.)
Fortunately, not all fiery dishes magically appear by rubbing the Sriracha genie bottle. When you move past savory, the spice fad involves less Rooster Sauce and more creativity.
Cocktails, notably, have become far more cosmopolitan than Cosmopolitans. You need only bar-crawl downtown Raleigh to see. Just as Beasley's revamps pimento cheese, it upgrades the Dark and Stormy to the Dark and Stormier, with rum, lime, and jalapeño sorghum ginger syrup. After one or two of those, stroll over to Centro and have your pick between several "hot" drinks; I'll get La Linterna, with tequila blanco, pineapple, lime and habanero syrup. After one or two of those, stumble to Bida Manda's hip bar and meet the Mexican Firing Squad, featuring tequila, grenadine, lime and Thai chili powder. Finally, crawl to Crank Arm Brewing and order a (seasonal) Holy Mole Smoke Porter, whose sauce-inspired recipe includes habanero peppers and cocoa nibs from Videri Chocolate Factory.
Which brings me to chocolate. This is where it gets interesting.
Long before chocolate as we know it even existed, Ancient Mayans were combining cacao and chili in their version of "hot cocoa." Centuries later, the flavor combo is on a comeback and, slowly but surely, the salty-sweet trend is stepping aside for spicy-sweet. Escazú, an artisanal chocolate shop in Raleigh, is all over it.
I spoke with Hallot Parson, who makes the chocolate (literally, from the bean) at Escazú about why chilies are so "hot" in desserts these days. They weren't always. When Escazú opened in 2008, it debuted a lime-chili chocolate, and the customer response was lukewarm.
"People weren't sure about it," Parson said. "As time has gone on, though, we get a lot less of that disbelief: 'Chili and chocolate? I don't understand that.' People have become more adventurous and are interested in trying things."
This summer, Escazú is growing its own jalapeños and habaneros, and head chocolatier Danielle Centeno is creating chocolates that would impress even the Mayans. The selection rotates, so keep a lookout for lemon-cayenne, garam masala-amaretto, and habanero-tamarind, amongst others.
The last one, said Parson, would rank nine out of 10 spice-wise, so tread carefully: "We're definitely not afraid of spices."
But these days, it seems, not many people are.
And speaking of "afraid"—one more word about that spooky ghost pepper. It's not actually the hottest pepper around anymore. The current demon of the spice world is the "Carolina Reaper." Puckerbutt Pepper Company grows it in South Carolina, just a few hours away.