I was brought up as an ABCD - American Born Cultured Desi (thank you to Bakwaas Apparel for setting things straight!) And in the early 80s and 90s…Indian food wasn’t really a cool thing.
I remember telling my friends and later co-workers about our regional cuisine and always getting the response: “Oh…Indian food. It’s so spicy!”
And yes, Indian food (like many ethnic foods) IS SPICY…but it’s not always SPICY!
There is SPICY
This is what most people think of as the tongue burning heat brought on from chili peppers that makes you sweat, turns your face red, and makes your nose drip! Some people think food doesn’t taste good unless you are sweating (cue my hubby)! That’s the spicy from what we call mirchi (chili peppers in Hindi). We do use mirchi in most dishes, but it can be more or less depending on your preference and the type of peppers used. Peppers are rated on a Scoville Scale (which measures spiciness) and can range from 0 which is a bell pepper to a Carolina Reaper which is more than 1.5M Scoville Heat Units.
Our harissa is spicy (it won’t make you sweat but definitely has a kick) as it’s blended with two different peppers.
And then there is SPICY
This is the burst of flavor when just the right spices are blended together in harmony like the perfect Bollywood hit. A little heat, sweet, salty, garlicky, bitter, and all the love for your tongue.
Indian foods, like many other foods from that part of the world, are often packed with 10 or more spices and aromatics to make simple vegetables and meats taste rich and complex. Sometimes it feels like a sensory overload and can be confused with chili pepper spicy because the spices are often what are considered “warm” spices. But that's not chili pepper heat - it's actually flavor - which IMHO is a great thing!
For instance, our masala paste made with garam masala has 13 different spices, garlic and ginger – but very little chili pepper!
So do you like it SPICY or SPICY?
Want to learn more about chili peppers and the science behind what makes them so hot? Check out this interesting article from the Smithsonian Magazine
And check out this Guide to Every Herb and Spice from the Kitchen