Some like it hot: How Britain got the taste for spice

Sales of hot sauce are on the rise and so are the scorch levels

It's lunchtime at Nando's, somewhere in west London. I'm supposed to be writing about hot sauce, and since there are now more than 250 branches of this South African restaurant chain in the UK, all serving Portuguese/Mozambican marinated chicken smothered in hot peri peri dressing of varying strengths, it seemed like a good place to begin. I've chickened out – if you'll pardon the pun – and ordered my breast wrap in "hot", not "extra hot". (In any case, the waitress explains, "extra hot sauce" actually means "more hot sauce", not "hotter sauce".)

It's hottish, but I suppose I ought to sweat a bit more to fulfil my brief. There's a row of large bottles on each table, containing sauces of ever-increasing heat. And at the end of the row is a small black receptacle: "Nando's X: extra extra hot," the label says, with a warning: "Devilishly fiery and highly combustible. Strictly for masochists, the unhinged and those with reckless bravado." I am none of the above, but I have a job to do. Reluctantly, I shake some of the stuff on to my wrap as if it's salad dressing, and prepare to take a bite.

In 2010, sales of hot sauces went up by 20 per cent. Today's British diners are eating food 400 times hotter than our parents could handle. And we eat more of it than anyone else in Europe. UK chilli enthusiasts have even bred two of the world's hottest natural chilli sauces: Naga Viper, of Cumbria, and Infinity Chilli, which comes from Grantham, like Mrs Thatcher. It's not just us: a recent report named hot-sauce production the eighth-fastest-growing industry in the US, just ahead of sustainable-building construction.

A colleague's husband is a collector, with a hot-sauce rack containing 20 varieties, including Dave's Insanity Sauce; Cholula Chili Lime Sauce; Sinful Sauces "Wicked" Hot Sauce; Louisiana's Pure Crystal Hot Sauce; Peprico Red Pepper Sauce; Sambal Oelek Hot Sauce; Encona Sweet Chilli Sauce; and Susie's Calypso Hot Sauce. Brick Lane's Rib Man barbecue stall in east London sells two super-hot sauces to order, called, onomatopoeically, "Holy Fuck" and "Christ on a Bike". It is possible to obtain, from somewhere in the belly of the internet, sauces such as "Colon Blow", "Dragon Slayer" and "Satan's Shit". (Though Satan's Shit is technically a paste.) Made with extract of capsaicin, the irritant alkaloid that makes chillies hot, some of them are stronger than pepper spray. Why are people doing this to themselves?

"If you went into Sainsbury's 15 years ago," the food writer Tom Parker Bowles says, "you'd be lucky to find one rather boring, wan bag of finger chillies from Holland. Now you'll find six or seven different kinds in any supermarket. Hot sauce is as common a condiment now as brown sauce. The super-hot sauces are all about being macho: 'My sauce is hotter than yours.' But at the quality end of the market, tabasco, for example, is one of the great sauces of all time. It adds life and flavour. I eat chilli in some form five or six times a week. And it's addictive: the capsaicin releases endorphins that fight the pain, so you get a thrill out of hot food. The more we eat, the more we need to get the same effect. You start with tabasco green, and before you know it, you're scouring the shelves for a bottle of Blair's After Death."

Hot sauce was first bottled and sold in the US during the early 19th century, and in 1859, a Louisiana entrepreneur named Colonel Maunsel White started growing "tabasco" peppers, and bottling the sauce for sale. In the 1860s, his friend Edmund McIlhenny obtained a patent on the tabasco hot pepper sauce that we know today. In 1912, William Scoville developed a test to determine the heat of a chilli, based on how much water one needed to dilute its effects. The world's hottest pepper is the Naga (Bhut) Jolokia, or "ghost pepper", measuring 1,041,427 on the Scoville scale. It's 100 times hotter than a jalapeño, 200 times hotter than tabasco. The Indian army plans to use its seeds to make smoke grenades, for deployment during riots. Blair's 3am Special Reserve Sauce ($49.95, for 3 fl oz) clocks in at two million Scovilles.

Thomasina Miers, the cook and owner of the Mexican restaurant Wahaca, has just developed a range of three Wahaca-branded hot sauces for supermarkets. But, she says, "I think those sauces designed to blast your taste buds into smithereens are a total waste of space. I love eating hot stuff, but chillies and hot sauces are about flavour. I argued with my partner over how hot our hottest sauce should be – and I argued for the flavour to hit your tongue before the heat. In Mexico there are 200 varieties of chillies, all with different flavour profiles. They add a layer of flavour and heat sparkle and even texture, if it's a crunchy salsa."

Miers's latest cookbook contains a recipe for hot sauce. "Hot sauces are a good fit for us. On any cantina table in Mexico, there'll be a couple of hot sauces. In Britain we've always had mustard or mayo; we like to anoint our food with something."

Hot sauce has come to the UK from a number of different cuisines, bearing a variety of chillies: Mexico, with its jalapeños and chipotles, American cayenne and tabasco; the Caribbean's habanero and Scotch bonnet; harissa from Tunisia; peri peri from South Africa. "Lacking a food culture of our own for many years means we've always been open to other cuisines," Parker Bowles says, "and we already had curries in our taste DNA from the Empire. Then came the explosion in popularity of the two great chilli cultures: Thai and Mexican. There's a huge difference between, say, smoky chipotle sauce and fruity, Scotch bonnet-based Caribbean hot sauce, and Thai hot sauce, which uses scud peppers, or can be sweeter. There's a great sauce called Mr Singh's, which is Punjabi flavoured. You can change a hot sauce to match any cuisine you want, as long as it has chillies in it somewhere."

Back in Nando's, I'm waiting for the "extra extra hot" sauce to take hold. The waitress tells me some teenagers were in here last week, daring each other to drink it neat. One of them was violently sick, so I'm expecting to have my head blown off. I even came alone so that nobody could witness me melting. I can taste the capsicum; the sauce is tangy, like the lime chutney that comes with poppadams in Indian restaurants. But it's not making my eyes water. I dip a bit of wrap in a big dollop of the stuff and slide it, sauce down, straight on to my taste buds. My tongue gets hot, my mouth, too. But I have a sip of my drink to take the edge off and... nothing much. I don't even need to take my jumper off. Somebody get me some Colon Blow.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road