The Ultimate Guide to Spicy Asian Flavors – Bokksu Market

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The Ultimate Guide to Spicy Asian Flavors

by Bokksu Staff

Spicy food has never been more mainstream than it is today. People from all over the world are starting to seek the bold and intense flavors that can only come from a spicy dish.

Asian countries have been enjoying hot dishes for centuries, and most spicy ingredients originate from the region. But when it comes to Asian spice, the possibilities are endless, which may confuse people unfamiliar with the cuisine.

If you live on the other side of the world and don’t know much about spicy Asian flavors, we’ve got you covered! You’ll find all the information and suggestions you need in our comprehensive guide, covering everything from health benefits to spicy options.

What Makes Food Spicy?

Variety of spicy peppers

Spicy food tastes hot due to the presence of a chemical substance called capsaicin. Capsaicin is an active component in the seeds of most chili peppers. In humans, this substance activates the same receptors in our skin and mouth that respond to environmental heat, leading to the burning sensation our taste buds experience when we eat spicy food. Remember, these receptors are not just in the mouth but are everywhere on our body, which is why capsaicin can also “burn” our hands, nose, eyes, and skin.

The higher the capsaicin content in an ingredient, the more spicy it is. This principle is the basis of the Scoville scale, which is used to measure spiciness in peppers and other ingredients. Wilbur Scoville created the Scoville scale in 1912, and it can help you accurately determine how hot a food can get even before you try it. A higher Scoville heat unit denotes more spiciness. 

For instance, bell pepper is rated 0 SHU because it has no heat and the popular jalapeno pepper has a rating of 2,000 to 8,000 SHU, which is considered mildly hot. The habanero pepper is rated at 150,000 to 325,000 SHU and is considered very hot. Overall, the Scoville scale goes as high as 2.2 million SHU, which is the heat level of the Carolina Reaper, and is considered by many to be extreme.

Knowledge of the science of capsaicin can help you neutralize the heat from the spiciest of dishes. It’s a fat-soluble substance so drinking milk right after eating spicy food will dissolve some of the capsaicin in your mouth and provide relief. Because most of the capsaicin in peppers is held in the seeds, you can reduce spiciness by removing the seeds and veins from chili peppers.

Rather than find ways to limit spiciness, some countries embrace it. Mexican cuisine is famous for its use of allspice and jalapeno peppers. China has Sichuan peppercorn and five spice powders. In India, ginger and garlic are used to make spicy curries, while Thai and Korean cuisine have reputations for favoring fiery chili peppers.

Health Benefits of Eating Spicy Food

Man eating spicy noodles

Just because spicy foods burn does not make them bad for your health. There are many health benefits that come with eating these foods.

  1. Lowers blood pressure: Recent studies suggest that the capsaicin in spicy food could help to lower blood pressure, particularly in females. This benefit greatly reduces the risk of hypertension.

  2. Improves cholesterol levels: Spicy food lowers LDL cholesterol, also known as “bad” cholesterol, in the body. It also increases HDL or “good” cholesterol levels, thereby reducing the chances of heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems. 

  3. Increases longevity: Several research projects carried out in the 21st century suggest that spicy food could lower mortality rate by 12–14%. The results revealed that people who ate spicy food at least once a day lived for longer.

  4. Enhances weight management: Eating spicy meals could make you feel full faster, which is a vital trait for people looking to avoid overfeeding and lose weight. These foods also boost metabolism, which allows your body to burn more calories even at rest.

  5. Promotes gut health: These foods are good for the growth of helpful bacteria in the gut. They also reduce excess amounts of stomach acids.

  6. Reduces inflammation: Ingredients like ginger and turmeric contain compounds that provide pain relief and offer anti-inflammatory benefits, particularly for people suffering from arthritis.

  7. Fights cancer: Capsaicin can destroy cancer cells in the body and limit the growth of tumors.

These are only some of the potential benefits associated with spicy food. There is ongoing research attempting to discover more. However, spicy food also comes with some potential downsides, especially when taken in excess. Too much of it can cause diarrhea, heartburn, vomiting, stomach pain, and nausea. People with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis could also experience flare-ups when they eat spicy food.

Spicy Asian Sauces and Spices

Spicy Asian powder and sauce

Some of the world’s most popular spicy dishes are made with Asian hot sauces. These condiments come in various types, with spice levels ranging from mild to hot. They include Thailan’s sriracha, Japan’s wasabi, China’s Lao Gan Ma, Korea’s gochujang, and Indonesia’s sambal. To learn more about those fiery condiments, read our Asian hot sauce guide.

For now, we’ll explore the key ingredients that are responsible for bringing heat and flavor to homemade Asian sauces and spices.

Chili Powder: The Heat Provider

Chili powder is made from one or more varieties of ground chili peppers and sometimes includes other spices such as cayenne and paprika. All ingredients are dried, pulverized, and ground into powder form, which is typically red in color. Chili powder is used to add spiciness to a variety of dishes and sauces. It’s especially popular in the United States, Korea, China, India, Mexico, Portugal, and Thailand. When chili powder contains little to no additional spices or additives, it’s called chile powder. However, some people use both terms interchangeably.

Making chili powder requires slicing, seeding, and stemming dried chili peppers before placing them in a pan. Cook the peppers for about 4-5 minutes over high heat and allow them to cool. Next, blend the cooked peppers in a blender until they form a powder. Mix the powder with other ingredients in a bowl. Common ingredients are paprika, cumin, oregano, cayenne pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder. The resulting chili powder can be used to add an extra kick to soups, meats, stews, traditional dishes, and snacks. 

The types of peppers used to make chili powder determine the variations and heat levels. Below are some of the most popular types of chili powders:

  1. Chipotle powder: 2,500–10,000 SHU

  2. Chile de arbol powder: 15,000-30,000 SHU

  3. Habanero powder: 150,000–325,000 SHU

  4. Jalapeno powder: 2,000–8,000 SHU

  5. Ghost pepper powder: 1 million+ SHU

Red Pepper Flakes: A Sprinkle of Heat

Red pepper flakes are made from dried and crushed red chili peppers; hence, they're often referred to as crushed red peppers. They’re used in Italian, Asian, and American cuisine to add heat and flavor to food.

Like chili powder, red pepper flakes only have variations based on the type of pepper used to make them. One of such variations is the standard red chili flakes, which are made with chili peppers. In Korea, red pepper flakes are a super-popular ingredient used in a variety of meals and sauces, and they're called gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes).

Gochugaru adds balanced heat and spice to kimchi, tteokbokki, bulgogi, and Korean tofu. You can mix it with soy sauce, garlic, and sugar to make a marinade for meat-based foods. If, after cooking a dish, you find that it’s not spicy enough, a sprinkle of gochugaru can add to the spice levels without negatively affecting the meal experience.

You can easily make gochugaru at home by drying some chili peppers in the sun for a few hours, removing their stems, seeds, and insides, and grinding them in a stone mill. The resulting spice is coarse and crispy when compared to the powder form of gochugaru, which is fine and smooth. Learn more about gochugaru in our recent post about the essential Korean chili flakes.

Chili Sauce: The Fiery Pantry Staple

Drizzling chili sauce and hot sauce is perhaps the most common way to add heat to food. But most people don’t know that both sauces may differ from one another in certain situations. Chili sauce is a pasty condiment made with chili peppers, much like hot sauces. But chili sauce can sometimes be sweet or mildly hot, which is a rare occurrence in hot sauce.

The most common ingredients used in chili sauces are chili peppers, rice vinegar, brown sugar, salt, garlic, and water. The complexity and flavor depth of these sauces can be enhanced by either fermentation or the use of vinegar. In some cases, fermented chili sauce is mixed with vinegar to add an extra layer of punch and improve its stability.

There are various types of chili sauces used all around the world.

  1. Sriracha: This is a classic Thai chili sauce made by crushing peppers and fermenting them in salt water. After a while, sugar and vinegar are added to the mix. Sriracha chili sauce enhances the flavors of noodle dishes and snacks like brownies or popcorn. Sriracha is also a popular addition to Bloody Mary cocktails.

  2. Tabasco: This is the most famous chili sauce in the world. Tabasco spends longer in the fermentation barrel than Sriracha, giving it a tangier taste. Originating in the United States, tabasco is used to spice up a variety of foods and drinks, including Bloody Mary.

  3. Cholula: The Mexican hot sauce is made from pequin and arbol peppers. It also includes vinegar, salt, and other spices. You can eat it with traditional mexican dishes, rice, beans, and pizza

  4. Piri Piri: This is a Portuguese sauce made from bird’s eye chili and citrus. It’s a very effective marinade

Chili Oil: A Drop of Heat in Every Meal

An infusion of chili peppers and vegetable oil, chili oil is a staple ingredient in Chinese cuisine. People use it as a dipping sauce for meat or an ingredient in noodle soup. Some believe that chili oil can be categorized as a chili sauce, and in fact, the oil is a popular substitute for chili sauce. Depending on the ingredients added to it, chili oil can be crispy or crunchy.

A typical Chinese chili oil is made by mixing chili powder with ground Sichuan peppers, five spices, and neutral oil. The oil is heated over medium heat and then poured into the chili pepper and ingredient mixture in a bowl. Mix the entire bowl’s contents. Other common ingredients you can use to make chili oil are paprika, garlic, and soy sauce.

But you don’t always have to make chili oil at home. There are several store-bought versions that can be just as delicious and spicy. Lao Gan Ma is one of the best chili oils from China and has applications in a wide variety of dishes, including zucchini noodles, scrambled eggs, avocado toast, and chicken wings.

Momoya is another fantastic chili oil option. It’s used to make arrabbiata sauce, fried rice, pasta sauce, pizza, grilled chicken, and many more dishes.

Spicy Asian Noodles

Spicy Asian noodles

Some of the most popular spicy dishes are Asian noodles, which seem to have gained a better global reception than traditional dishes. All over the world, people from different backgrounds enjoy these noodles because they offer a lot more than just spice. Their soups and broths are packed with umami-rich flavors that are irresistible to most people. Let’s take a quick journey through Asia, exploring the most popular spicy Asian noodle dishes and what makes them unique.

Our journey starts in Japan, the home of spicy ramen noodles. It consists of the basic Asian noodle dish formula: noodles, broth, and toppings. The noodles used to make ramen contain kansui, a Japanese lye water that gives them their signature yellow color and crunchy texture. Spicy ramen broth typically consists of sriracha or chili garlic sauce.

Next, we visit South Korea and their wide variety of noodle dishes. The country also boasts some of the most successful spicy instant noodle brands in the world, including Nongshim and Samyang. Samyang, in particular, has made a name for itself among spicy food lovers thanks to viral marketing and the release of fiery noodles like Buldak Ramen. The product uses chili powder to get most of its heat.

In Southeast Asia, Laksa’s aromatic broth made with coconut milk, chili pepper, and herbs is popular in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

Iconic Spicy Asian Dishes You Can't Miss

Spicy Korean tteokbokki

We’ve talked about spicy sauces and noodles. Now it’s time to explore the fiery indigenous dishes that formed the childhoods of millions of Asian people. We’ve curated a list of must-try spicy dishes in Asian cuisine.

  1. Devil’s Curry (Malaysia): This is a spicy chicken curry and vinegar dish popular in Malaysia. It was introduced to the country by Portuguese colonizers but is now a culinary tradition among the locals. The main ingredients for devil’s curry are candlenut, galangal (South Asian native spice), vinegar, turmeric, and mustard seed. 

  2. Tom Yum (Thailand): Tom yum is an intensely spicy and sour Thai soup made from seafood or chicken, herbs, spices, and sometimes fish sauce. Shrimp tom yum is the most popular kind. 

  3. Malatang (China): This is a hot and spicy Chinese broth and popular street food. The dish contains sliced meats, Sichuan peppercorns, dried chili peppers, mung bean noodles, garlic, and traditional Chinese spices.

  4. Kimchi (Korea): Kimchi is a Korean dish made with chili and seasoned vegetables. These vegetables are salted, fermented, and seasoned with gochugaru, garlic, ginger, and other ingredients. The most common version of kimchi is made with cabbage. 

  5. Phaal (India): Phaal is the spiciest curry in the world because it contains the world’s hottest chili pepper, Bhut Jolokia (ghost pepper). It’s a thick, tomato-based curry that includes ginger and fennel seeds.

  6. Tteokbokki: This spicy rice cake is a popular Korean street food. It’s made with garae-tteok, Korean soup stock, gochujang (Korean chili paste), gochugaru, soy sauce, and other ingredients.

Spicy Snacks for the Heat Addict

Spicy chips

Spicy snacks are popular worldwide because of the unique experience they offer. If you’re not afraid to challenge yourself with these fiery flavors, you should try one of the countless options available to you.

You can start with spicy chips, which are basically a mixture of chili peppers with potato or tortilla chips. Most times, the chips are flavored with other ingredients, such as crayfish or shrimp.

Japan offers its fair share of spicy snacks, including wasabi peas. These are roasted green peas coated in a Japanese horseradish called wasabi. Japan also has its own version of spicy rice crackers called Kaki no tane. These are seasoned in soy sauce and fried with chili peppers. China has a similar snack that’s made with Sichuan peppercorns.

Other popular spicy Asian snacks include Korean spicy almonds, Taiwan’s fried fish and peanuts, and spicy rice cakes.

Pairing Spicy Foods with Beverages

Whether it’s spicy snacks, noodles, or dishes, you can never go wrong pairing your meal with the right beverage. These drinks complement the flavors or soothe the palate when eating spicy foods. Of course, it’s never a bad idea to have a glass of milk on standby when eating spicy meals. However, for a more enjoyable experience, you should try other beverages. Ice tea is a solid choice, particularly one flavored with mint or hibiscus. Other options are coconut water, citrus-flavored drinks (lemon, orange, or lime), and ginger lemonade.

Where to Buy Authentic Spicy Food and Ingredients

You can find authentic spices and sauces as well as spicy food to try at home by visiting the nearby Asian grocery store. A more convenient method is to source these items from a trustworthy online Asian store like Bokksu Market. We’ll deliver your order right to your doorstep.

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The Ultimate Guide to Spicy Asian Flavors


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