One of the things that has always fascinated me about the human senses is that you can never be entirely sure that you see, smell, hear, feel or taste anything precisely the same way as another person. An extreme example was a relative who is colour blind – where I saw all the seven colours of the rainbow, he saw… well I’m not sure what precisely he saw, but the best description is that he saw green and red both as a shade of brown because of a defect in his visual receptors. But what fascinated me more was people that had no discernible sensory defects; that although my best friend or my brother or the postman (who all have normal vision) might all describe the postbox on the corner as red, we might all be seeing something slightly different that we had been taught to call red. And it was unlikely that any of us would ever be able to know precisely what the others were seeing.
The same goes for taste. In some cases, there is a physiological reason for differing experiences of the same taste. Coriander leaf is a good example: if you have a certain enzyme, you experience coriander leaf as a pleasant taste, but if you lack the enzyme you complain about its unpleasantly “soapy” flavour. Again, this is the extreme end. Even among people with perfectly normal and functioning taste receptors, there is a huge variation in the experience of taste. My father could easily add 4 or 5 teaspoons of sugar to an expresso-sized cup of coffee and still complain that it was not sweet enough (although this was probably more because the crystals simply did not have enough liquid in which to dissolve!) whereas my husband puckers up his face in annoyance if I add more than half a teaspoon to his large cup of coffee, professing it to be syrupy sweet. Similarly, some people simply have far greater tolerance for hot, spicy foods than others and even though my husband might taste a sauce and a dish and pronounce it “not too hot” or “tasty rather than hot”, I might taste the same dish and have smoke exploding from my ears as I dash to the fridge to retrieve the ice-cold milk!
An attempt to quantify the relative heat of specific foods led to the creation of the Scoville scale, a measurement of the spicy heat of a chili pepper. The number of Scoville heat units indicates the amount of capsaicin present (capsaicin being the chemical compound in chillies that makes them burn by stimulating nerve endings in your skin). The scale was created by American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912 and to give a chilli a rating he added capsaicin extract from different dried peppers to a sugar water solution in tiny increments and measuered when the heat became just detectable by a panel of five tasters. The degree of dilution at the time that tasters begin to detect the heat gives you the Scoville score. So a sweet bell pepper containing no capsaicin at all, has a Scoville rating of zero, meaning no heat detectable. The hottest chilis, such as habaneros have a rating of 200,000 or more, indicating that their extract must be diluted over 200,000 times before the capsaicin presence is undetectable.
Nick has always been a bit of a chilli freak and eats Tabasco the way I eat mayonnaise, so when Hot Headz asked me if I could review some of their products, I figured he could be my guinea pig and subject his tongue to a barrage of capsaicin, and I would write about it (division of labour and all that!). Surprisingly, I managed to taste 4 out of the 5 (clearly getting braver in my old age!) – here's what we thought:
Brother Bru Bru's Mild African Chili Pepper Sauce is a fairly runny sauce which is not surprising: it's main ingredient is apple cider vinegar! You actually smell the apple cider sweetness on the nose, as well as spicy notes making it quite different from all the other sauces we tried. It's also the most gently spiced of the lot, coming in somewhere well below the heat of normal Tabasco and with very appealing cider vinegar and cardamom notes on the palate. The sauce is all natural with no salt, no sugar, no gluten, no artificial colouring and no preservatives – and it's also available in hot and very hot variants. VERDICT: My favourite! Loved the applecider vinegar and cardamom flavours – although heat freaks should get the hot or very hot versions.
Tapatio Salsa Picante took me straight back to our 2005 trip to Chihuahua, Mexico, when we were served little sachets of a near-identical sauce with our carne seca. Like the previous sauce, it has a pretty runny consistency (the main ingredient is water, which explains this) and has a pleasant, uncomplicated salty, vinegary flavour with no hint of sweetness at all. It's a nice example of typical Mexican-style salsa picante and its heat is like a mild Tabasco (3000 on the Scoville scale). VERDICT: a great Mexican-style salsa picante – neither too hot nor too bland. Would be great on nachos or fries.
Pyromania Hot Sauce was of a different consistency altogether. Not only is it not runny – it is pretty chunky too! You need to give the bottle a good shake to get it out and the ingredients are pretty coarsely chopped, giving it texture as well as flavour. I loved this one too – the smokiness of the chipotle chillies, plus hints of vinegar and green pepper. It's hot, but I would not say much hotter than Tabasco (4125 on the Scoville scale). VERDICT: This was both my and Nick's second favourite: Nick loved the balanced heat and I loved the smoky chipotle flavour.
Who Dares Burns Naga Bhut Jolokia Sauce was more viscuous and less pourable than the Pyromania, but not as chunky. You could, however, still see whole chilli seeds in it. I dipped a skewer into it and tasted the teensiest bit. Yowzer. It felt to me like I had touched a stinging nettle to my tongue – no actual flavour, just that tingle like tiny electric shocks. I can't actually imagine how my mouth would have felt if I'd had more! Nick, on the other hand, got the distinctive flavour of habaneros and the sweetness of fruit (mango?). VERDICT: This was his favourite by a country mile – despite its alleged 300,000 Scoville units! I found it a little on the hot side – but perfect if you like your burn with flavour.
Mad Dog 357 Sauce was definitely the hottest in out batch of sources and I have to say that I was not even willing to try this one! Unlike the others made from fresh chillies, this sauce also contains chilli extract – a far more concentrated source of heat. Apparently its Scoville heat rating (357,000) is as hot as a sauce can be before you legally have to start labelling it as a food additive. Good grief. Consistency-wise, it was the thickest of the lot- more a paste than a sauce, and very smooth with no chunky bits. Nick tasted it and I have to say, he did not look that happy as the sauce hit his tongue. His best description of the sauce was that of a sharp, painful pins and needles sensation on the tongue that took a long time to dissipate. Five minutes later he could still feel the prickle, but he did say that he eventually detected a hint of sweetness (although I do not know how!). VERDICT: for serious chilliheads only (or those needing to prove their manliness!)
Hot Headz stocks an astonishing range of hot sauces from around the world, categorised helpfully into region of origin as well as hot, super-hot and untouchable. For those of us with a more sensitive palate, they also stock other seasonings like the fab South African NoMu range of spice rubs and grinders. For lovers of heat, they also sell gift packs and hot sauce samplers that would make the perfect Christmas stocking filler for chilliheads.
And if you are wondering what the heck to do with that bottle of chilli sauce at the back of your fridge, here are my 3 top tips for using up hot sauce:
- Add a few drops to mashed potato for a delicious spicy kick.
- Add a splash to savoury shortcrust pastry for a quiche with a tang.
- Add some smoky chipotle sauce to salsas or soups to add a smoky depth of flavour without too much heat.
DISCLOSURE: The 5 sauces I tasted were free samples sent to me by Hot Headz.
And in other news…