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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Voices
voices
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
Sport
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
News
William Hague
people... when he called Hague the county's greatest
Extras
indybestKeep extra warm this year with our 10 best bedspreads
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Voices
voicesBy the man who has
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
Sport
Arsene Wenger tried to sign Eden Hazard
footballAfter 18 years with Arsenal, here are 18 things he has still never done as the Gunners' manager
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
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

    Service Charge Accountant

    30,000 to 35,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: We are currently recruiting on...

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?