Some like it hot – and some like it hotter, still.
When it comes to the world’s best spicy dishes, we have some of the world’s hottest peppers to thank, along with incredible layers of flavor and a long, spice-loving human history.
“Spicy food, or at least spiced foods, clearly predates the idea of countries and their cuisine by a very, very long time,” says Indian author Saurav Dutt, who is writing a book about the spiciest foods on the Indian subcontinent.
“Every spicy ingredient has a wild ancestor,” he says. “Ginger, horseradish, mustard, chiles and so on have predecessors which led to their domestication.”
Hunter-gatherer groups historically made use of various wild ingredients to flavor their foods, Dutt says, and there are many ingredients all over the world that can lend a spicy taste to a dish or stand on their own.
Peppers – a headliner for heat – are rated on the Scoville Heat Units scale, which measures capsaicin and other active components of chile peppers. By that measure, the Carolina Reaper is among the hottest in the world, while habaneros, Scotch bonnets and bird’s eye chiles drop down a few rungs on the mop-your-brow scale.
Redolent with ghost peppers, Scotch bonnets, serranos, chiltepin peppers, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and more, the following spicy dishes from around the world bring the heat in the most delicious way.
Egusi soup, Nigeria
Ata rodo – Scotch bonnet pepper – brings the fire to Nigeria’s famous spicy soup. Egusi is made by pounding the seeds from the egusi melon, an indigenous West African fruit that’s related to the watermelon.
In addition to being protein-packed, the melon’s seeds serve to thicken and add texture and flavor to the soup’s mix of meat, seafood and leafy vegetables. Pounded yams are often served alongside this dish, helping to temper the scorch of the Scotch bonnets.
Sichuan hot pot, China
“The joy of this dish is not only the delightful warming ingredients of cinnamon, cloves, star anise and, of course, the Sichuan peppercorns, but the fact that you can cook exactly what you like in the bubbling spicy broth,” says British-born Chinese chef Kwoklyn Wan, author of “The Complete Chinese Takeout Cookbook.”
Duck, seafood, chicken, pork, lamb and seasonal vegetables are all fair game for tossing into the pot to simmer in a mouth-numbing broth made with Sichuan peppercorns and dried Sichuan peppers for serious kick (the dipping sauce served on the side often has chile paste, too).
Also known as Chongqing hot pot, the dish is said to have originated as a popular food among Yangtze River boatmen. It’s enjoyed by those who can handle its heat all over China, not to mention elsewhere around the world.
Som tam, Thailand
From northeastern Thailand’s spice-loving Isaan province, this fresh and fiery salad is a staple dish at Thai restaurants around the world and is also popular in neighboring Laos.
Som tam turns to green (unripe) papaya for its main ingredient, which is usually julienned or shredded for the salad. The papaya is then tossed with long beans or green beans and a mix of flavorful Asian essentials that include tamarind juice, dried shrimp, fish sauce and sugar cane paste, among other ingredients. Thai chiles, also called bird’s eye chiles, give the salad its requisite kick.
Piri-piri chicken, Mozambique and Angola
The Portuguese introduced this spicy dish also known as peri-peri chicken into Angola and Mozambique as far back as the 15th century, when they mixed African chiles with European ingredients (piri-piri means “pepper pepper” in Swahili). And it’s the perky red pepper of the same name that brings the spiciness to this complex, layered and delicious dish.
Piri-piri chicken’s poultry cuts are marinated in chiles, olive oil, lemon, garlic and herbs such as basil and oregano for a fiery flavor that blends salty, sour and sweet. The dish is also popular in Namibia and South Africa, where it’s often found on the menu in Portuguese restaurants.
Chairman Mao’s braised pork belly, China
The glossy red hues dancing on a plate of this popular pork dish, a version of which hails from Mao Zedong’s home province, give a hint about the mouth experience to come. The dish was apparently a favorite of the communist leader, who requested his chefs in Beijing prepare it for him.
Chairman Mao’s braised pork belly – called Mao shi hong shao rou in China – is often served as the main dish for sharing at a family table and is made by braising chunks of pork belly with soy sauce, dried chiles and spices.
“It is a very delicious and moreish dish due to the caramelized sugar and dark soy sauce being reduced and all the aromatics (that coat the pork belly),” wrote BBC “Best Home Cook” winner Suzie Lee, author of “Simply Chinese,” in an email to CNN Travel.
Jerk chicken/pork, Jamaica
Jamaica’s favorite pepper is the Scotch bonnet, beloved not just for its spiciness but for its aroma, colors and flavor, too, says Mark Harvey, content creator and podcaster at Two On An Island, who was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica.
“For Jamaicans, the degree of spiciness starts at medium for children and goes up to purple hot,” he says, explaining that the peppers come in green, orange, red and purple hues, growing increasingly spicy in that order.
Scotch bonnets star in several of the island’s iconic dishes, including escovitch fish, pepper pot soup and curry goat. But you might recognize them most from the ubiquitous jerk chicken and pork smoking roadside everywhere from Montego Bay to Boston Bay, where meat prepared with the peppery marinade is cooked the traditional way, atop coals from pimento tree wood (the tree’s allspice berries are also used in the jerk marinade).
Ayam betutu, Indonesia
Popular on the Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok, in particular, this whole chicken dish is stuffed with an intensely aromatic spice paste (betutu) that usually includes a mashup of fresh hot chile peppers, galangal (a root related to ginger), candlenuts, shallots, garlic, turmeric and shrimp paste, among other ingredients.
The chicken is then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, bringing the aromatics out all the more and flavoring the chicken to the max. Best shared, ayam betutu is often presented at religious ceremonies in Bali, but you’ll find it at restaurants specializing in it throughout the islands, too.
Buffalo chicken wings, United States
Beer and buffalo chicken wings are as American as, well, hamburgers. And if you’re not eating them alongside a pile of celery sticks and a ramekin of dunking sauce – traditionally blue cheese dip, but ranch works, too – you’re missing half the picture.
A sports bar staple at chain restaurants such as Buffalo Wild Wings and more refined outposts, too, from Alaska to Maine, “wings” are actually made up of the wing parts called drumettes and wingettes, which have the most meat.
Buffalo wings, said to have been invented in a bar in Buffalo, New York, in 1964, are among the spiciest preparations (other popular variations include teriyaki wings and honey garlic wings). Make them as fiery as you like using a sauce that includes cayenne pepper, butter, vinegar, garlic powder and Worcestershire sauce.
Shrimp aguachiles, Mexico
Similar to ceviche but with more bite, this raw marinated shrimp dish from the western Mexican state of Sinaloa (and a staple along the Baja Peninsula, too) tastes as good as it looks.
Tiny but mighty chiltepín peppers (they look like bright little berries), grown throughout the United States and Mexico, make the spicy magic happen in shrimp aguachiles, which means “pepper water.” If you can’t find those, serrano and jalapeño peppers also do the trick.
Marinate the raw shrimp with ingredients including lime juice, cilantro, red onion and cucumber and enjoy with crispy tostadas.
Pad ka prao, Thailand
A go-to dish when you want something satisfying – but with kick – pad ka prao is a mealtime staple in Thailand, where you’ll find it on offer at street-side stalls and restaurants everywhere from Bangkok to the islands.
Considered the Thai equivalent of a sandwich or a burger, the dish is a mix of ground pork, spicy Thai chile peppers and holy basil and can be ordered as spicy as you like. Many locals believe it’s best topped with a fried egg with a runny yolk.
Beef rendang, Indonesia and Malaysia
A fiery favorite that originated in West Sumatra, versions of beef rendang are also enjoyed in Indonesia’s neighboring countries, including Malaysia and Brunei, as well as the Philippines.
This flavorful dry curry dish calls on kaffir lime leaves, coconut milk, star anise and red chile, among other spices, to deliver its complexity. It’s often presented to guests and served during festive events.
Dakdoritang, South Korea
The fermented cabbage dish kimchi might be the spicy Korean dish that first comes to mind, but when you want some extra kick, dakdoritang does the trick.
Comfort food to the max, the chicken stew doubles down on its spiciness with liberal doses of gochugaru (Korean chile powder) and gochujang (Korean chile paste) mixed with rice wine, soy sauce, garlic, ginger and sesame oil in a braising sauce that packs the bone-in chicken pieces with flavor. It’s often served with carrots, onions and potatoes.
Phaal Curry, Birmingham, England (via Bangladesh)
This tomato-based British-Asian curry invented in Birmingham, England, curry houses by British Bangladeshi restaurateurs is thought to be one of the spiciest curries in the world.
“Typically the sauce has a tomato base with ginger, fennel seeds and copious amounts of chile, habanero or Scotch bonnet, peppers,” says Indian author Saurav Dutt.
As many as 10 pepper types may find their way into phaal curry, he says, including bird’s eye chiles and the bhut jolokia (also known as the ghost pepper, it’s one of the world’s hottest peppers). Even hotter than vindaloo, this dish will absolutely light your mouth up.
Penne all’arrabbiata, Italy
This classic Roman pasta dish’s name gives you an idea of what to expect. “Arrabbiata” means “angry” in Italian. And penne all’arrabbiata pairs the relatively plain penne pasta with fiery flavors from the sauce (sugo all’arrabbiata) in which it’s slathered.
“The peperoncino (red chile pepper) is what makes this sauce ‘angry’ (arrabbiata) or spicy,” Chris MacLean of Italy-based Open Tuesday Wines said via email.
To tame the angry peppers in this garlic and tomato-based dish with a good glass of red wine, MacLean says to pair penne all’arrabbiata with a Cesanese, also from Rome’s Lazio region, with its crisp fruit and light tannins.
“A wine that’s heavy in oak or alcohol would turn up the heat (in the dish) in your mouth and render the wine tasteless,” he warns.
Chicken Chettinad, India
“There’s a saying in South India that you are lucky to ‘eat like a Chettiar,’ ” says Dutt, referring to the Tamil-speaking community in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state credited with creating this spicy dish.
“Like this chicken dish, the traditional Chettinad dishes mostly used locally sourced spices like star anise, pepper, kalpasi (stone flower) and marati mokku (dried flower pods),” he says.
The chicken pieces are simmered in a medley of roasted spices and coconut, and it is traditionally served with steamed rice or the thin South Indian pancakes called dosa, fried chapati or naan.
Doro wat, Ethiopia
The fiery Ethiopian spice blend called berbere – aromatic with chile peppers, basil, cardamom, garlic and ginger – is instrumental to the flavor chorus that’s doro wat, Ethiopia’s much-loved spicy chicken stew.
Topped with boiled eggs, the dish almost always finds a place at the table during weddings, religious holidays and other special occasions and family gatherings. If you’re invited to try it in Ethiopia at such an event, consider yourself very lucky indeed.
Mapo tofu, China
Mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns bring the X-factor to this popular dish from China’s Sichuan province, which mixes chunks of silken tofu with ground meat (pork or beef) and a spicy fermented bean paste called doubanjiang.
Mapo tofu’s fiery red color might as well be a warning to the uninitiated – Sichuan cuisine’s defining flavor, málà, has a numbing effect on the mouth called paresthesia that people tend to love or hate.
A Portuguese-influenced dish from India’s southwestern state of Goa, vindaloo was not originally meant to be spicy, says Dutt. “It originally contained pork, potatoes (aloo) and vinegar (vin), giving you the name,” he says.
But when the dish was exported to curry houses in the United Kingdom that were mostly run by Muslim Bangladeshi chefs, Dutt says, pork was replaced with beef, chicken or lamb and the dish evolved into a spicier hot curry.
Ghost pepper flakes and Scotch bonnet peppers are among the peppers giving the dish its scorching taste. But in Goa, you can still find versions of the dish that swing more on the side of milder spices such as cinnamon and cardamom.
Senegalese cooks are also big fans of Scotch bonnet peppers, named for their resemblance to the Scottish tam o’ shanter hat. And their spice-giving goodness is deployed liberally in one of the West African country’s favorite dishes, the spicy tomato and peanut or groundnut-based stew called mafé.
Usually made with beef, lamb or chicken, the stew is made even heartier with potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables for one filling feed. Mafé is popular in other West African countries, too, including Mali and Gambia, and it can also be prepared without meat.
Chili, United States
Synonymous with watching the Super Bowl or hunkering down on a cold night, chili is a spicy American staple where you can opt to ratchet up the heat as much as you like.
There are basically two pure forms of American chili – with or without beans (usually red kidney beans) – says Chef Julian Gonzalez of Sawmill Market in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In Texas, he explains, chili traditionally doesn’t have beans, which puts the focus on the spices and chiles used to flavor it, and he goes with that approach himself.
“Traditionally chili is seasoned with chili powder, cumin and paprika,” Gonzalez says. From there, you can use other ingredients to make your recipe unique. Adding cayenne pepper is one way to turn up the heat.
At his restaurant Red & Green, which serves New Mexican cuisine, Gonzalez’s green chile stew, made with pork and no beans, is seasoned with a mix of roasted green New Mexican hatch chiles (half mild and half with heat), onion and garlic powder.
Florida writer Terry Ward first discovered the fresh, spicy appeal of aguachiles in Baja California Sur and has been addicted to trying to recreate it at home ever since.