Ever had jalapeno pecan brittle? How about some chili-coated pistachios? Dare to try some Jamaican sauce made from the habanero, one of the hottest peppers in the world?
Welcome to a world where some like it hot. Very hot.Peppers, the hotter the better, starred over the weekend at the 3rd annual Fiery Foods Show, where some 100 exhibitors offered their spicy wares. Largely food manufacturers from throughout the American West, those participating in the trade show ranged from mom-and-pop purveyors to large-scale producers.
The Southwest's chili-based cuisine dominated the show of food that bites back.
Chili "stimulates the palate, lets you know you're eating something," says Mark Harden of Tijeras, N.M., who produces a line of enchilada and salsa mixes.
But fiery foods also are found in Cajun cooking, Caribbean sauces and spicy Oriental dishes.
Marie Permenter of Trinidad produces a hot pepper sauce for restaurants on the West Indian island. She also makes a mild version for U.S. consumption, which she sells primarily to restaurants in Florida. Her daughter, Mary Jane Barnes of Jacksonville Beach, Fla., says it took a year to persuade her mother to lighten up on the pepper.
Still, some believe that truly spicy food must cause flesh to flush, eyes to water and the tongue to tingle and awaken.
"If it's a nose-blower, that's a good meal," says Karla Pierce, who with her husband, Jim, traveled from Cheney, Kan., to answer the call of pungent food.
It's also the kind of food that inspires at least one fan, Sylvia Vergara of Dixon, N.M., to wax philosophic.
"Food is not boring out here," says Vergara, who sells a chili-flavored apple vinegar to restaurants and gift shops.
"My feeling is that hot food here is natural. The geography is so dramatic, everything is intense, passionate. Hot food is like a natural byproduct of the culture and the geography," Vergara said.
The spicy repasts of the Southwest have traveled far, however, in gaining popularity throughout the United States and beyond, says Dave DeWitt, founder of the fiery foods show and editor here of the Chile Pepper magazine.
Sales of American chili-based spicy foods is a $2 billion business worldwide, DeWitt said.
The broader popularity of spicy foods has also widened its versatility in the marketplace.
Nowadays, salsa, taco and enchilada sauces range from mild to volcanic; jalapeno peppers sharpen mustards and lollipops; chili heats up Oriental sauces; superhot green chili comes in vegetarian tamales; pistachios come coated in red and green chili flavoring.
Word-of-mouth is gradually tempting Canadians and Europeans to try American-style fiery foods, say manufacturers like Texas sauce-maker Colon Stephenson.
"They say, `Oh, you're from Dallas, you got some of that hot stuff?' " says Stephenson, who's been in the business for 20 years, selling a line of hot sauces and barbecue sauces and marketing products for private labels.
Spicy Southwestern food isn't merely hot, according to Stephenson. "It's the best stuff you ever tasted," he said.