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Column: The spices of life: Hot, zesty, risky

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I am a spicy foods fan.

I nod happily when the waiter asks if I would like fresh ground pepper. I readily accept the punch of horseradish as I dip a warm pretzel into Rathskellers’ mustard or slather shrimp with St. Elmo’s shrimp sauce. My Tex-Mex order just doesn’t seem quite complete without a fiery boost from the hot sauce on the table, and the variety of hot and spicy tastes available when I visit Asian restaurants is for me yet another opportunity to put my taste buds to the test.

Yes, I admit I have a real zest for zesty foods.

This is one reason I am happy to read that the factory that makes Sriarcha hot sauce has come to an agreement with the city officials of Irwindale, California. The town council had declared the business a public nuisance after complaints that spicy odors from the factory were making some neighbors ill.

Last week David Tran, the CEO of Huy Fong Foods which makes the sauce, said the ventilation system has been upgraded and the company will continue to address residents’ odor complaints. The city has since dropped all lawsuits against the company.

The year-long dispute started getting media attention early on with Tran cast as a pro-business, anti-governmental regulations advocate.

Other states, most noticeably Texas, began making welcoming gestures to the company should it decide to move out of California. Probably the realization that a company and the jobs it provides would be leaving was just the incentive the governmental powers-that-be needed to help sway their decision.

Sriracha sauce has become somewhat of a trend among foodies and others who enjoy a good burn with their food. Some devotees, it is said, carry their own bottles with them when they go out to eat.

The sauce takes its name from the town of Si Racha in Thailand where it originated. It is a concoction of red chili pepper paste, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt. It is pretty hot.

Not as hot, however, as some foods. Food scientists measure heat from peppers in Scoville heat units (SHU). For comparision, a red bell pepper has zero SHUs, Tabasco sauce has 600-800 SHUs and Sriracha comes in with a rating of 1,500-2,500.

That seems fierce until you learn that cayenne peppers range from 30,000-50,000 SHUs while habaneros top out at 350,000. They are not the upper end of the scale, though.

In tests done by the Indian Defense Research Laboratory as well as New Mexico State’s Chili Pepper Institute the Bhut Jolokia pepper grown in India has a score of 500,000 to 1.5 million SHUs.

Want hotter? Standard U.S. grade pepper spray, for example, is between 2 to 5 million SHUs, and pure capsaicin, the primary active ingredient in peppers, is at the upper end measuring between 15-16 million SHUs. Of course, no one eats pepper spray.

While I enjoy spicy foods, I am not sure I would fall into the category of “chiliheads,” but maybe. A 2013 study showed a correlation between preferences for spicy foods and risk-taking.

Nadia Byrnes of Penn State’s department of food science says participants were asked how much they enjoyed sensations such as loud music, roller coasters, gambling, public speaking and standing on the edge of something high and looking down. Those who preferred high-risk behaviors were more likely to enjoy spicy foods.

Well, I used to like loud music, but these days not so much. I don’t ride roller coasters and I don’t gamble.

However, public speaking doesn’t bother me, and I admit I find a thrill in standing on the edge of a cliff and looking down. Byrnes says there are always exceptions to the rule. Maybe I am one.

Last summer was a good year for hot peppers from my garden. I still have some in the freezer. I hope this year will be just a bountiful. Perhaps I am not a chilihead or a big risk-taker, but I do delight in the fire of spicy foods.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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