Spicy food doesn’t always have to equal hot. Playing with spices while cooking can transform virtually any dish with interesting new aromas, kicking up the heat and other flavours while also adding vibrant fragrances and colour. For very different takes on “spice”, these three chefs share their secrets for cooking spicy food and extracting flavours to surprise and delight your palate.
Chef Vano Sikov – Bull & Finch Bar
At the Bull & Finch Bar, their famous Volcano chicken wings are so hot they require a waiver, and come with their own cautionary note. While chef and owner, Vano Sikov, says the sauce behind his intense tear-inducing, lip-burning chicken wings recipe is bought (he uses Dave’s Gourmet Insanity Hot Sauce as a base), his secret to the scorching flavour is in double-cooking the wings with the sauce to intensify the heat. “We put the chicken wings in the oven until they’re about 50 to 70 percent done, then add the sauce and it goes back in the oven,” says Chef Sikov. “When you reheat the spices, it gets hotter. Always do a notch less than what you want. You can always add spice but it’s harder to take it out.”
Sikov says his go-to dried spices for heat are crushed chili peppers, paprika, cayenne and Cajun seasoning. For freshness, they should always be stored away from light and in air-tight containers to help preserve the flavours and aromas.
Chef Vikram Vij – Vij’s
It seems like no other country uses a wider range of spices than India, so who better to ask about spices than one of North America’s top Indian chefs himself — Vikram Vij of Vij’s in Vancouver.
“Spices are to me what notes are to a musician,” he says. “My cloves and cinnamon, ginger and garlic, and spinach sing to me the same way notes sing to a musician.”
Spices never lose their flavour over time, so the ‘wow factor’, as Vij calls it, comes from the harmony in how multiple spices come together in the cooking process. “One of the biggest mistakes people make with spice is that they think they should add them all at once,” he says. “Spices need to be layered.”
Chef Vij advises to add whole spices first, then ground spices afterwards, explaining that whole spices take a bit longer to break down than ground spices. He says while spicy foods should not be leaving your palate on fire, “by the time you are finished with your meal, you should have a bit of sweat on your forehead and your back. You should be warm from the inside out.”
Chef Cody Willis – Native Tongues Taqueria
Mexican food has a reputation for being very spicy — after all, one of the basic ingredients in most dishes is the chili pepper. Chef Cody Willis, owner of Native Tongues Taqueria, describes Mexican food as a very ingredient- and technique-driven cuisine. At the restaurant, he uses a chili puree, a combination of four different chili peppers.
“We use the chili puree for our chorizo, as a rub or marinade for different proteins and meats, and we add it to salsa roja for a spicy component,” he says. “We even add it to soup for a pozole.”
In dried or fresh chili, the seeds are the spiciest part, so remove those first if you don’t want things too spicy, says Chef Willis. If you happen to over-spice, make a bigger batch or figure out complementary ingredients to balance it out the spice level. “Sweetness helps counteract spiciness,” he says. Depending on the dish, “you can always add in more coconut or cream as those also act as cooling agents.”