In a companion piece, we categorized types of culinary hotness by the botanical specimens that produce the burn. Putting that knowledge to work, here are the 12 hottest cuisines on earth, with some suggestions as to what you should order to enjoy maximum heat in the restaurants that serve those cuisines.
THE DOZEN SPICIEST CUISINES
Chinese — Sichuan dishes often use a combination of fresh green and dried red chiles, red chile oil, and Sichuan peppercorns. Shredded beef with hot green pepper utilizes green chiles only, while Chongqing chicken is stir fried with toasted dried red chiles, as much for their fragrance as for their heat (don’t eat the chiles themselves). Sichuan hot pots often use a combination of dried chiles, chile oil, and Sichuan peppercorns. Ma po tofu is made with a spice paste containing dried red chiles known as doubanjiang, along with Sichuan peppercorns, while kung pao chicken uses dried red chiles which don’t impart much heat; it’s considered one of the mildest dishes in a very hot cuisine.
Hunan cuisine is considered hotter than Sichuan, though it uses few Sichuan peppercorns but rather a combination of fresh green chiles, pickled green and red chiles, and dried red chiles. Steamed fish head in pickled chile sauce makes great use of pickled red chiles; dong an chicken deploys dried red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. Braised pork with chestnuts — a favorite of Chairman Mao, who was born in the province — is studded with red chiles and laked with chile oil. One of the most unusual Hunan dishes is white pepper smoked beef, which coats dried meat with egg white then stir fries it with tofu skin, scallions, and scads of ground white pepper, giving the dish a perfumed hotness.
Northern Chinese food can be quite spicy, too, not only borrowing Sichuan and Hunan recipes, but developing its own spicy ones as well, including fresh fish in hot bean paste and cumin lamb, both of which use dried red chiles.
Ethiopian — The spicier aspects of Ethiopian cuisine revolve around a powdered spice mixture called berbere, which varies tremendously according to cook, but invariably contains a large powdered red chile component in addition to ginger, garlic, cloves, nutmeg, and a half-dozen other spices. Berbere is incorporated into stews called wats, of which the most famous — and often the hottest — is doro wat, featuring chicken and whole boiled eggs. Tibs, a recipe of meat or fish sauteed in clarified butter and berbere, is often also hot; so is kitfo, the Ethiopian take on beef tartare. The raw meat is coarsely ground and tossed with clarified butter and more berbere. For breakfast, try fit fit — torn pieces of injera mixed with chile-bearing spices and oil. Note that, while Ethiopian food is potentially one of the hottest things going, Ethiopian cooks in the United States often intentionally make it disappointingly mild.
Ghanaian, Liberian, Nigerian — You’ll find that most West African cuisines have a fiery component, sometimes in the stews (often referred to as "soups") but also in the condiments. In Ghana, the heat can be ramped up in any dish with shito, the hot paste based on ground black pepper, palm oil (that’s where the reddish color comes from), and sometimes anise pepper — a close cousin of Sichuan peppercorns. The typical leaf, palm oil, or peanut soup will probably contain vast amounts of shito already, and the paste is also used to make shrimp pepper soup and goat pepper soup, two very spicy potages that can also be found on Liberian and Nigerian menus. In any African restaurant, even one where you don’t speak the language, asking for "pima" — a word that seems to be common to many tribal languages — will usually produce a small crock of homemade, hot-as-hell hot sauce.
Indian — The signature pepper of India is the green finger chile, but long green chiles are also deployed, sometimes as appetizers lightly breaded in chickpea flour and fried as chilli pakoda (note that, in India, chilli is usually spelled with two "L"s). Spice mixtures called masalas also use powdered chiles to adjust the spice level, which can be ramped up to very hot. Individual curries can exhibit different levels of heat, so ask your sever how spicy a certain dish is. That said, lamb or chicken vindaloo from the former Portuguese colony of Goa is invariably spicy, and so is chicken chettinad from the vicinity of Chennai. From Indo-Chinese cuisine, there's chilli paneer. Many are the spicy vegetarian dishes from the South, too, including mysore masala dosa (a crepe coated on the inside with a spicy masala) and pea and hot pepper uttapam (bouncy pancakes studded with chiles).
Japanese — Sure shishito peppers are found on many Japanese menus, served by themselves seared, but these peppers are often only mildly hot. Higher heat is found in many forms of ramen, especially spicy miso ramen, or may be added in the form of red chile oil — a Chinese import — found on the table in many ramen parlors. The powdered condiment shichimi is also spicy hot, via vectors that include dried cayenne (togarashi) and sansho (see separate section).
Korean — Korean winters are long and arduous, and Koreans often prefer their food both spicy hot and physically hot. So the class of thick pork, seafood, or fresh tofu (sundubu) stews called jigaes or chigaes are brought to the table boiling and kept that way with sterno or butane flames. The extreme spiciness comes from a red chile paste or from kimchi itself — a fermented table condiment made with Napa cabbage or other vegetables, plus crushed red chiles. Bibimbap and other cold salads come with a nose-clearing dab of mustard, which must be vigorously mixed in with the meat and vegetables. Green chiles are also used in Korean cooking, including the pickled chiles called gochu-jangajji, or the green chile pancake known as gochujeon. Other jeon pancakes may contain kimchi, dried chiles, or green chiles. Shown: chile-soaked tripe BBQ, prior to grilling.
Mexican — Mexican is currently the cuisine that remains most consistently spicy in its United States evocations. Fresh chiles and dried chiles are used in profusion within dishes, pickled chiles as accompaniments, and chile-bearing salsas are offered in multiple versions at a single meal. Some dishes such as chile rellenos and chiles en nogado feature chiles as the centerpiece of the recipe. Among the southern Mexican dishes common in taquerias, chilate de pollo (a fiery chicken soup) and sopa de camarones, (a shrimp soup from Guerrero) can both be punishingly hot. From Jalisco, the bright red goat or mutton stew called birria is usually very spicy. Among salsas, the green and the chipotle versions that come alongside many dishes are usually the hottest, and in addition to these salsas, most Mexican restaurants also provide pickled or fresh jalapenos, and bottled hot sauces such as El Yucateco, Tapatio, and Valentina.
Peruvian — The primary Peruvian pepper is called aji ("ah-hee"), which supposedly is also the sound of you screaming when you eat it. Ranging from yellow to red, the chile is most often made into a sauce, which is found bottled in South American groceries. The chile can be used to spice up ceviches (the aphrodisiacal leche de tigre is often particularly spicy), or in the national dish of aji de gallina — a tough old hen stewed in spicy sauce of cheese, milk, walnuts, and aji.
Senegalese — According to Amil Naj in his earthshaking volume Peppers, the extent to which chiles become incorporated into a cuisine’s food — rather than served on the side — is an indicator of how long ago the culture became acquainted with peppers. That the Senegalese use of one of the world’s hottest chiles, the Scotch bonnet, indicates a love for chiles, but the fact that the pepper is served stewed as a garnish (some of the heat goes into the dish, but more remains in the pepper itself) may indicate its rather recent introduction. Sometimes in Senegalese restaurants you have to ask for the Scotch bonnet chile, but oftentimes dishes like thiebou djene (Senegalese paella) and mafe (a peanut-butter stew featuring chicken or lamb) are already spicy enough in themselves. Still, nibbling a Scotch bonnet chile — even a cooked one — can be a breathtaking experience.
Southern Italian and Sicilian — Calabria, the toe of the boot, is the region of Italy that most loves chiles. So-called Calabrian peppers are cayenne-type chiles dried and crushed. These can be used to make Calabrian-style marinara, which can be spicy as hell. In adjacent Apulia, fresh pork sausages and dried salamis are designated sweet or hot — the hot ones are flecked with crushed red pepper. In addition, sauteed long green chiles are often served in Apulian and Calabrian restaurants as a side dish. Some dishes in Sicilian cuisine are spicy hot, including the dish sometimes known as Sicilian chicken, bone-in pieces roasted in olive oil with garlic cloves and crushed red chiles. In Sicilian restaurants, fried calamari is often served with a tomato dipping sauce that can be ordered at several levels of spiciness, including very hot.
Tibetan – Over the last couple of decades Tibetan expats in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu have developed a taste for Sichuan peppercorns, and they brought that taste back home with them. This craving for tingly hotness then made its way into Bhutan and Nepal. A mung bean jelly called la phing comes sluiced with soy sauce and heaped with peppercorns, and so does the bean curd-based dofu khatse ngoen ma. Shredded raw potatoes with fresh green chiles is something you can often find on Himalayan menus, a dish borrowed directly from the Sichuan canon, and in similar fashion cow tongue often comes slicked with chile oil. In fact, you can stumble on Tibetan menus in which half the offerings are wildly spicy. The Tibetan take on Indian curries can also be super hot, including a "dry" curry of chicken and green chiles. Modern Tibetan menus also offer Indian-Chinese dishes such as chilli chicken, which are sugary sweet as well as spicy. Finally, the bulbous dumplings called momo — filled with beef, pork, or mixed vegetables — come with a coarse-textured hot paste alongside made from dried red chiles known as sepen. Ask if it’s not provided.
Thai — The hottest food in Thailand comes from the northeast region west of the Mekong River called Isan. Multiple variations of the incendiary green papaya salad called somtum exist, enlivened with salted egg, miniature dried shrimp, and peanuts made lip-burningly spicy with Thai bird chiles. These chiles also appear as accompaniments to bar snacks such as sai krok (sour sausage) and moo dad (dried pork). Curries, many originating in south and central Thailad, can often be ordered at a variety of heat levels, of which green curry and jungle curry are often the hottest, and massaman curry the mildest. The fried or roast chicken called kai tod comes with a sweet red chile dipping sauce, allowing you to consume as much fire as you want. The meat, poultry, and seafood-bearing salads named larbs are often especially spicy. Many basil stir fries in Siamese cooking use brined or fresh green peppercorns still on the branches, known as prik Thai, a term is usually worked into the name of the dish. Soups can be fiery, too, including tom saab kra-dook aon — pork cartilage soup. Thai restaurants often request the customer provide a spice level from 0 to 5, with 5 being "Thai hot." If you haven’t been to a place before and want heat, 4 is usually a good bet.