It’s a well-worn trope that when the going gets hot, the hot eat spicy foods. It’s well-worn, sure, but if you’re like 98 percent of the Western world, it’s also totally unthinkable. Spicy foods are hot, right? And when you yourself are hot (a totally flawed linguistic leap of logic—we’ll get to that), the best way to counteract it is with cold things, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no. The primary problem is with that word, “hot.” Spicy foods aren’t actually warmer than others, they simply make you sweat, for a complex set of chemical reasons that have to do with pain receptors and neural trickery.
In the Western cultural repertory of foods, there is no indigenous source of serious spice, so we never evolved a language for dealing with it. The first time someone brought Christopher Columbus a jalapeño, he popped it whole, started sweating like a fiend and determined that witches had made him “hot,” and it stuck.* (*This scenario may not be historically accurate.)
Chile peppers have helped people in warmer climes survive summers since air conditioning was a palm frond fan and ice in your drink was a dream. Now that global warming is evening the score and energy costs have us thinking twice about letting the climate control run nonstop for the next three months, it’s a good time to revisit their techniques and, as a wise man once said, give spice a chance.
Thai food may be the second most bastardized food in this city, trailing only behind Chinese in white-guy-ification. Think of all the ketchupy Pad Thai you’ve been suckered into; the sickly sweet Tom Kha Gai that tastes more of Hawaiian Tropic than tropical climes. Thankfully Thai, like Chinese, is experiencing a revival that is placing an emphasis on regional differences—and like Chinese, you finally no longer have to go out to Queens to find chefs doing their thing.
At Zabb Elee (75 2nd Ave., betw. 4th & 5th Sts., zabbelee.com), the chefs specialize in the notoriously chile-laden cuisine of Isaan, the northeastern region of the country. Some dishes, like Som Tum Thai, green papaya salad, are recognizable in name, but their execution is miles beyond that of your corner takeout. Others, like Gang Som, a sour, coconut milk-less curry, and Khai Jiaw Kratiem Dong, omelet with pickled garlic, are full of flavors you’ve never experienced.
When you order, you will be asked about your spice level preference—be prepared to be assertive when asking for full strength, as every meal there sees at least one bro trying to impress his pals who ends up gasping for water and white rice. It’s a balanced heat, though; the kind that was designed to get you sweating happily through the summer night.
Miracle of miracles, there is now a surfeit of seriously spicy Sichuan restaurants in New York City. One of the best, and the most reliably spice-happy, is Szechuan Gourmet (21 W. 39th St., betw. 5th & 6th Aves., szechuan-gourmet.com).
Sichuan food uses fierce dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorn, which will numb you faster than a dentist’s novocaine, to achieve ma la, the signature spicy and numbing taste. The combination of the two means you’re never suffering for the sake of it.
For a real summertime treat, get the double whammy of heat and cool with cold dishes like ox tongue and tripe doused in ma la-heavy chile oil, ground peanuts and cilantro, and the spicy cucumber salad, which is like taking a Katz’s deli half-sour and lighting it on fire in your mouth. You’ll leave flushed and tingling, with a buzzing mouth that makes even drinking water a sensory delight.
Not enough? Take the phaal challenge at Brick Lane Curry House (235 E. 53rd St., betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves., or 308 E. 6th St., betw. 1st & 2nd Aves., bricklanecurryhouse.com). A true bro dare for the guys at Zabb Elee who managed to make it through and want their photos in a Hall (sorry, P’hall) of Fame. By all reports a British invention, the so-called “spiciest curry on earth” uses 10 or more ground chiles per serving.
Finish it, and you get a certificate of honor and a free beer, while your companions cool off the old-fashioned way, with top-notch curries like Nilgiri Korma, a brightly green South Indian specialty. At least the beer is a guaranteed cooler.
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