by ANDREW COPPOLINO
If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. So the saying goes, but here we’re talking about chile pepper heat. Nothing is further from the truth when considering the spicy hot peppers: some people can handle the heat physiologically, and some can’t.
At many area restaurants, the kitchen is happy to boost the heat level in a dish or tone it down. Whatever the case, hot pepper heat can bring significant quality and satisfaction to a dish, if it is balanced.
It’s generally true that the smaller the pepper the more heat it holds – a green pepper has a zero pungency on the Scoville Scale of heat units (SHU), while a small Serrano can rate 25,000 SHU. In between, the jalapeno pepper registers 7,000 SHU. You can find these peppers and many more as ingredients in dishes in Waterloo Region.
(A few notes – Individual responses to hot spices can vary greatly: one person’s mild chicken wing sauce might be another’s five-alarm blaze. As well, please check with the venues listed for hours of opening and availability of dishes. )
Although it has a Kitchener address, Bombay Bhel is arguably a destination close to Cambridge. While bhel refers to a “snack,” this dish is much more: spicy shrimp vindaloo can jostle the nerve-ending in your mouth with its juicy shrimp cooked in a hot tangy sauce with potatoes and red chilies.
A Mexican food in a small venue that will make your tacos de chorizo with sour cream, cheese and Mexican sauce very hot, if you like.
Grand Trunk Saloon
Check out the jalapeño and tasso (ham but from the pork shoulder) mac and cheese or the catfish and shrimp étouffée: neither is rocking hot – until you add their proprietary “Cherry Bomb Hot Sauce.”
As the name implies, pepper pot soup has a kick of heat thanks to a traditionally Jamaican – and searing hot – cooking ingredient, the Scotch Bonnet (325,000 SHU). As a whole, the dish captures the essence of the island: some goat and salt beef, callaloo, okra and Jamaican yellow yam – and all from downtown Kitchener.
A dish of Ethiopian food and the process for eating it – tearing morsels of fermented injera flatbread as a utensil – is revelatory. This casual restaurant introduces you to Ethiopian culture and gives you a chance to heat things up with berbere, the spice blend that combines red pepper, garlic and other herbs. The cool soft injera can settle your taste buds after eating beef tibs or shiro wot chick peas.
A chain venture, but one whose flame-grilled chicken relies on the newly popular peri-peri (or piri-piri) peppers. Originally from Mozambique, the name is Swahili for “pepper-pepper.” It’s a relatively small pepper which the Portuguese introduced to the Indian region of Goa hundreds of years ago, giving them a spice for their own hot foods.
Empress of India
A dish originating in the central and southwestern coastal regions of India, a vindaloo is at the upper end of the spice-heat index. At Empress of India, the vindaloo – chicken, beef or lamb – is touted by the restaurant as “only for the daring.” It comes with potatoes and coconut – and a triple-hot pepper warning on the menu.
[Please note: Empress of India is currently re-locating to 34 King Street South, Waterloo.]
We should expect Mexican- and Tex-Mex-inspired food to be hot. And so it is: smoked chicken is served with a lime-onion salsa, queso blando, crema and chile-garlic hot sauce. You can add a few additional hot shots of sauce from the little squeezy bottles that are on each table – there’s a very hot one in there.
Tucked away in a commercial sector of Waterloo, Shiri’s Kitchen specializes in cooking and catering south Indian dishes, including their version of chicken dhum biryani, the popular dish of long grain rice, spices and herbs. It’s a well created dish that is moderately hot and can be vegetarian.
For a more gentle, more subtle heat, try mohammara, a nice spicy dip of walnuts, red chile pepper, onions and pomegranate syrup. Now with two locations in Waterloo.
The Hakka are a culturally distinct group of people from southern China and regions including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Nepal and Bhutan, Singapore and Malaysia. Hakka can also be found in Calcutta, India, and the Caribbean. Some observers refer to it as Indian-Chinese cuisine which includes dishes such as “chilli chicken” and Indianized versions of chow mein and noodles, for example.
In Waterloo, Flame Take-Out prepares a chilli chicken, Manchurian chicken and a few other Hakka dishes. The chilli chicken at Empress of India is stir-fried chicken tossed with spicy chilli sauce, onions and peppers. They also prepare Manchurian mushroom and a halibut chilli.
Hakka Hut Indo-Chinese and Thai restaurant in Cambridge, immediately south of Highway 401, specializes in the cuisine with chilli prawns, chilli chicken and Hakka-style noodles to name a few. A minute or so away is Saffron Indian Restaurant, also preparing a few Hakka dishes.