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.

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