Friday, August 1, 2008

About hot sauces in New Orleans

Po-boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
If You Can’t Stand The Heat
Scoville’s Horse
Okay, Tabasco sauce is hot, and when it comes to food, the word means hot. In fact since the first two ounce bottle was sold by Edmund McIlhenny in 1869, Tabasco brand pepper sauce has been the benchmark in hot sauces and is exported to over 110 countries. Talk about a success story. It is rated at about 3-5,000 SU (Scoville Units). Consider it a classic.
Recently though, hot sauces have taken a different turn with a ‘burn K-Doe burn’ emphasis, with criterias of higher Scovilles and catchier labels. The labels that have flooded the market are the likes of ‘Pleasure and Pain, Plastering Phiery Pneumatic Perambulators On Unsophisticated Pharynxes ’, ‘Ass On Fire In A Bucket Of Blazing Briquettes’ and ‘Bubba’s Butt Rectal Revenge/Satan Sphincter Shrinker Venom Masochistic Napalm’.
Scoville ratings have now gone out of the roof and into outer space. And next you’re gonna ask, “Phil, what the deuce is a Scoville?”
Ahem…in 1912 a man named Scoville heard his horse ask: “Wilburrrrr, how hot is hot?” And, viola, he set about investigating, formulating and recording the different heat levels of different peppers. Assembling a posse of gangster tasters and using a normal bell pepper as a zero Scoville Unit, he set about seeing exactly how much sugar water it would take to neutralize the heat of any given pepper. For example, he found that it would take 2,500-5,000 ounces of sugar water to neutralize one ounce of a Jalapeño pepper’s heat, so he gave it a rating of 2,500-5,000 Scoville Units, based on the Scoville Organdeptic Test. What he was measuring was the levels of capsiacinoids, the element that we call heat. Incidentally, nowadays the test is done using a microscope. By the way, that little orange pepper called a Habanera that you see in stores and in hot sauces? It’s 200,00-300,00 SU. There are sauces available that go up to 1,000,000 SU if you’d care to blow your brains and your bottom out. Compare classic Tabasco sauce at 3-5,000 SU to pure capaicin at 16,000,000 SU.
Where are we going with this? Just a little background information while we whet your appetite for real hot sauces with simple names from the New Orleans area that are used in our homes and restaurants to flavor our local foods with a minimum of fooling around.
But first, did you know that until very recently, most New Orleans restaurants made their own hot pepper sauce? It was usually kept in a big glass bottle in the dining room and vinegar and peppers were added as necessary to keep it going. Many residents still make their own (myself included). I recently met a man that is keeping up and using his grandfather’s sauce. His grandfather died over thirty years ago!
I contacted some local companies and did taste tests and here’s what I found. Hot sauces are either water distilled or vinegar distilled, naturally the type of pepper used and it’s proportion to the liquid effects the strength of the brew. Vinegar is added to most pepper sauces for bite, sugar or fruits will be added to tone the mixture down. Water distilled sauces will be milder, with less bite and more emphasis on flavor. Aging is also a factor, and like fine wine, aging develops complexity of taste, a balance of acidity and the heat and smoothness of flavor profile. But you already knew that.
Okay, this is the part where I ‘Goggled’ local hot sauces and only one answered out of a half a dozen. If I had been writing this about Tabasco, I’m so damn sure that they would have jumped on this wagon and sent me samples, some Tabasco bling, banners and maybe even a brass band, that I could spit. But nooooo… I’ve got to write about the little guys.
Anyway, rule numero uno: read the ingredients and if there is something other than stuff found in nature and your kitchen, put that puppy back on the shelf! I’m thinking “peppers, vinegar, salt”. You with me?
Here’s some local names: Cajun Chef, Panola, Crystal, Louisiana, Chachere’s, Ashanti and Bayou Red.
Rule two: choose your camp. Are you gonna be a Louisiana fan, a world fan or are you, like some hard core Pepperheads, gonna swear allegiance to one brand and go so far as to even carry a bottle with you? Or do you give a rat’s whisker at all? Personally I love Sriracha and will use it on everything wherever I find it served, but I don’t tote it with me. It’s got a lot of stuff in it and is contradictory to any Pepperhead rules; but, like love, I am blind to it’s faults and prey to it’s flavors. Other sauces I can take or leave; however, some of the chipotle (smoked jalapeño) sauces are rather appealing.
Rule three: snub your nose at gimmicky pepper sauce. If you’re going to be a serious Pepperhead use them for flavor and heat, not just for heat and a cartoon of a woman dressed in low cut leather, sporting a whip and black thigh-high boots.
Number four: check out Latin American, Caribbean, Asian, Indonesian and American regional sauces. Go to tastings (Austin has a great one) and talk it up with fellow Pepperheads.
Five: as the man said, “If you don’t like the news, make some of your own!” The same goes for hot sauces. You can and should make your own hot sauce. There are books out there like ‘Hot Licks’ by Jennifer Trainer Thompson and more; check ‘em out! To further exploit quotations, as an ex-con acquaintance once said to me “read a book, get a clue.
And Six: Use your computer to Further educate yourself. When last I checked there were 1629 books answering the key words ‘recipe hot sauces’. Rounding third and heading for home, heeeeeere’s Seven: go down to the Decatur Street Newsstand, 1133 Decatur, and pick up a chili lover’s magazine, or two. Call Bruce, 566-3000, to see which ones are in.
Until next month, here's this: In India they grow a pepper, Bhut Joloka or Ghost Pepper, 1,001,304 SU. It is said to be the equivalent of a sensory mugging or as one quote assured "like swigging a cocktail of battery acid and glass shards." Woof! Let me in on your thoughts,

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