It started out innocently enough, with me and a large bottle of Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce. If you've hung out at any Southeastern Asian restaurants you've seen it: a clear plastic squeeze bottle with a rooster on the front. Sriracha, although made by a Vietnamese émigré, is 100 percent American, made in California. Shortly after becoming enamored with Sriracha at an Asian restaurant, I brought the rooster home. Now I squirt the rooster on turkey burgers, dogs, even huevos rancheros. The difference between this chili sauce and, say, a Latino habanero hot sauce is Sriracha can deliver the goods without melting away your lips. Asian chefs use heat as one of the contrasts in their dishes, not as a way to overwhelm the eater. Both Asians and Africans excel at creating a momentary -- not searing -- hotness.
Most Ethiopian dishes are stews, known as wats, which are tempered by a specific spice combination. Spices are the key to what makes a great wat. Berbere is a multi-dimensional chili mix which is a blend of chile peppers, shallots, and as many as fifteen spices which may include ginger, turmeric, salt, coriander, cumin, cloves, cardamom, allspice, fenugreek, cayenne, cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper. A mild condiment made from this spice mix is called an awaze and is thickened with honey wine and butter. Dishes with more pow use mitmita, the Ethiopian version of the three-alarm chili mix. The kitchen at Meskerem makes a mean Miser Wat, a piquant lentil stew. Make sure you have plenty of extra injera (bread) to soak up the flavors.
Meskerem Ethiopian Cuisine, 601 South Kings Street. 704-335-1197.
One of the heat-seeking dishes in Indian restaurants is the Vindaloo. A vindaloo's heat is layered. Unlike a lip-searing Texas chili, a vindaloo aims the heat towards the back of the mouth where it can be extinguished by a cooling hit of raita or a sip of icy beer. As with other aspects of Indian cuisine, moderation and balance is an essential element to any dish. One of the best lamb vindaloos can be found at Sangam. You may want to discuss the degree of heat before ordering. For heat seekers at Bombay Cuisine, try the Phall Vindaloo, a piquant sauce made with green chilies.
Sangam, 20910 Torrence Chapel Road, 704-655-9600.
Bombay Cuisine, 230 East W.T. Harris Boulevard. 704-503-5558.
But Thai dishes are the truly hot Asian food. Beware of an owner who smiles while asking, "How hot do you like it?" And unless you are one of those Tabasco carrying hot shots, do not venture, "Like you." Before that night, I had thought curries were color coded for heat degree. Wrong. Any Thai curry can be made patently hot, even Panang. Like many Thai restaurants, Thai Orchid has chilies on the menu to denote hotness.
Thai Orchid, 4223 Providence Road. 704-364-1134.
They say Korean food is spicy to ward off the cold winters. Maeuntang is a very spicy seafood soup normally served in the winter months. Unfortunately, the last full service Korean restaurant closed in Charlotte recently. However, PePeRo, a Korean grocer, has rows of spicy kim chee on their shelves and is now making spicy soups in house.
PePeRo Oriental Food, 10920 Monroe Road. 704-845-2107.