By Maria Gabriela Bolivar Gomez
Each corner of the world has its dish, snack, or street food they proudly want to share with the rest. Gastronomy studies are motivation to travel to sample these foods.
Let’s talk science. Humans experience the big five flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Sweet is felt at the tip of the tongue, bitter on the back, sour on the front corners, and salty on the back corner, with umami felt throughout the middle of the tongue.
But contrary to popular belief, “spicy” is not among these. That spicy feeling is a sensation rather than a flavor. Your sense of taste is triggered by a chemical compound found in peppers called capsaicin.
All over the world, high levels of this compound are found in spicy dishes. A worldwide consensus says the top five countries with the spiciest foods are Thailand, India, China, Jamaica, and Mexico.
After conducting a survey of 124 Barry students, The Buccaneer found that 36 percent believe Mexico to have the spiciest food. Twenty-nine percent voted for India, with Thailand in third with 14 percent.
Let’s dive deeper into the world’s spiciest countries.
Whether you are looking for fine dining or street food, Thailand proudly offers the best of both worlds. For some of the best spicy street foods, stop by the country’s capital of Bangkok.
Thai cooks gravitate to ginger and chili peppers for that kick to take you over the edge.
Their dishes have been voted CNN’s World’s Best Foods multiple times. Green curry, massaman curry, som tam, tom yum kung, and pad Thai were among the favorites.
According to a Thai blogger, a great pad Thai has the perfect harmony between the sweet, salty, and sour. Even though you might have seen pad Thai on menus elsewhere, many argue only in Thailand is it authentic. A tip to help differentiate between non-authentic pad Thai there should be no ketchup or tomato in it.
With some of the most flavorful foods in the world, India doesn’t joke around with their seasoning. Along with vegetarian favorites, they have meaty dishes of chicken, turkey, and lamb.
The spice that brings their heat is the green Thai chili peppers.
One of the most famous dishes is charcoal-grilled Tandoori chicken marinated with yogurt and Tandoori masala. Another is Thali, typically presented in a metal tray which holds little bowls of a variety of traditional sides: rice; “papadam” also called “papad” and “papadum,” a deep-fried snack made from rife, flour, or lentil; chutney, a condiment made with fruits, spices, vegetables, and sometimes fish; and raita, curds mixed with vegetables.
A common favorite for someone who can’t exactly handle as much spice is their butter chicken.
During their early dynasties, Chinese chefs took their title very seriously —so much so, they were the hunters of their produce. Back then, the common types of meat were deer, elk, boar, muntjac, wolf, quail, and pheasant. Still in trend today is beef, mutton, pork, and varieties of seafood.
For spice, they use Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorn, star anise, cloves, dried tangerine peel, bay leaves, white pepper, dried licorice slices, and fennel.
Chinese cuisine is focused on creating a balanced dish between “fan” (grains and rice) and “cai” (vegetables and meat). They aim for a yin-yang balance between hot and cold.
One of their spiciest concoctions is Mapo tofu made with spicy bean chili sauce, tofu, and ground beef or pork. Another important dish to try is Saliva Chicken marinated in chili and sesame oil sauce. They say it produces enough saliva to bear its famous name.
You might think of “jerk” first when you think of Jamaica. The tradition of jerk seasoning comes from a mixture between the Arawak and Taíno tribes who intermingled with the Maroons. Their spices include ginger; garlic; cloves; cinnamon; scotch bonnet pepper; capsicum peppers; and pimento. The protein dishes of jerk are commonly pork, chicken, and fish.
But jerk is not only the combination of spices but a style of cooking with modern wood-burning ovens, with seasonings either dry-rubbed or wet marinated.
In addition to their staple jerk-seasoned meats, they also have their own round of curries with goat, mutton and chicken.
Last but not least, one of the famous cuisines to have entered the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity back in 2010 is Mexican cuisine.
Mexico’s gastronomy is considered to have survived cultural colonization since they still use corn, peppers, and beans as staples in the kitchen from pre-Hispanic times. Their spicy stables of a variety of colors and sizes are poblano, serrano, and habanero peppers.
Mexican food is very localized. Due to its great geographical size, some dishes popular in the north are not as seen in the south or prepared vastly differently.
Baja California has “chili con carne” (chili with meat). In Jalisco is the well-known birria, traditionally made with goat—nowadays made with beef and lamb too—cooked slowly in a broth later used to soak tortillas. In Puebla, the Pole Poblano is an exotic mixture of spices, chilis, chocolate and more combined into a thick sauce to be poured on chicken or paired with tortillas.
Clearly, each country’s food is filled with history, flavor and hit — representing their culture in authentic ways.