As the cool months take hold, Larissa Dubecki taste-tests the spicy food trend sweeping Australia – new chilli-loving cuisines gaining ground and old favourites turning up the heat.
It’s entirely fitting in an era preoccupied with global warming that food is also trending upwards in the temperature stakes. An onslaught of spicy cuisines is firing up restaurant kitchens across the nation and, gastronomically speaking, it’s safe to say Australia is on track for its hottest year on record.
Take Korean food, with its incendiary hotpots and fiery kimchi; Mexican, which is never too far from a habanero or smoky chipotle; or Sichuan, the regional style that makes China’s more sedate Cantonese flag-bearer look downright staid. And then there’s Southern US barbecue with its hot chicken, chilli fries and support cast of nasal-passage-destroying sauces with cute and cuddly names like Scorpion, Deathwish and Ass Blaster.
It’s a world of heat barely imagined five years ago by Australia’s growing tribe of chilli fanatics. “No way was there as much out there,’’ says Sydney chef Dan Hong of Mr Wong and Ms G’s. “You could say that, for Australians, it generally started with Asian food but now there’s much more. Everyone’s obsessed with [spicy] fried chicken, for starters.
Benjamin Cooper, executive chef for Melbourne-based The Lucas Group, whose restaurants include the Thai-leaning Chin Chin, the Korean Kong and pan-Asian Hawker Hall, emphatically concurs. He agrees with Hong that fried chicken in this country reaches its apogee with Morgan McGlone’s Belles Hot Chicken (in Melbourne’s Fitzroy and Richmond and Sydney’s Barangaroo). “Oh God, I was in pain… all that cayenne and hot pepper he puts in the coating. Literally crying.”
Cooper’s a chilli man. He picked up the habit at the tender age of four or five and hasn’t looked back. His jungle curry at Chin Chin is a testament to a lifetime of desensitisation to the more painful aspects of the genus Capsicum. More and more people are jumping on his bandwagon. Just look, he says by way of a clincher, at how chilli sauces have taken the place of tomato sauce at any self-respecting café. (“Chilli on eggs… it makes perfect sense.”)
Hong credits pioneers such as Neil Perry, who brought Sichuan food, with its mountains of dried red chillies and its curious hot and numbing peppercorn, to the public consciousness through his Spice Temple restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. Perry is also an advocate of the lesser-known but equally incendiary regional cuisine of Hunan – perhaps not coincidentally the birthplace of Chairman Mao.
The latest hot-food waves traverse vast geographical regions but what they share in common is the chilli pepper’s scientifically proven addictive qualities – something Cooper describes as “awakening, energising and liberating”. He adds: “For me, that sensory overload is part of the addiction. It’s a feeling you don’t get from any other food source.” Chilli is known to have an opioid effect, which would indicate that, as people chase their chilli high, it’s only going to get hotter.
It begs the question: when does eating chilli stop being dinner and start being self-harm? Judge for yourself with our round-up of 20 of Australia’s hottest dishes.
NEW SOUTH WALES
At Neil Perry’s central Sydney temple to all things Chinese, regional and interesting, the hottest dishes are printed on the menu in red. That means there’s a hell of a lot of red ink. The delicious, almost crisp hot and numbing wagyu lives up to its name with the telltale loss of sensation in the mouth from the Sichuan peppercorn. rockpool.com
Mr Wong ￼￼￼
Dan Hong generally dials down the heat at the Canto-leaning Mr Wong in Sydney’s CBD but the Sichuan influence is the barbarian at the gates. A liberal dash of tingling Sichuan chilli oil brings the party to cold poached chicken and sesame sauce. merivale.com.au/mrwong
If you’re looking for typical Sichuanese in central Sydney, this is your place. Go for the dry-fried chicken on the bone with a terrifying-looking mountain of dried red chillies to pick through with chopsticks. Tread carefully. spicyfood.com.au
Mao Zedong, “the Great Helmsman”, was a native of Hunan, a region renowned for a fiery palate often compared to Sichuan but with greater use of fresh chilli. (“Absolutely super-hot,” says Dan Hong.) His namesake restaurant in Kensington doesn’t spare the palate; even the sautéed eggplant comes bristling with fresh green chillies.
Boon Café ￼
This Haymarket diner offers Thai-leaning café food by day and authentic Isaan Thai by night, with no holding back on the fermented funk of north-eastern Thai flavours. Try the grilled pork, aromatic herb and chilli sausages for tingling good times (and salad for respite). booncafe.com
Song Fang Khong
Will Laotian food be the next big thing? “We haven’t really opened our eyes up yet. It’s like Thai food’s funky little brother, quite similar to Isaan with its fermented fish,” says Hong. For something truly authentic, visit this Fairfield institution and order the raw beef larb packed with fresh herbs and a surfeit of chilli to make the palate zing.
Indian food, hot? Yep. And the beef curry at West Melbourne’s LeTaj – made with the infamous bhut jolokia chilli (otherwise known as the ghost chilli), up to 400 times hotter than a jalapeño – is hotter than Hades. letaj.com.au
Lau’s Family Kitchen
This St Kilda restaurant’s traditional Sichuan dish of custardy tofu, minced pork and plenty of peppercorns and chilli is as restorative as an hour in a sauna. Call it Chinese penicillin. lauskitchen.com.au
A wolf in sheep’s clothing, Melbourne’s favourite Mexican casa dishes up a prawn salad jazzed to the max with plenty of serrano chillies, red onion, lime juice, avocado and cucumber. mamasita.com.au
It’s not uncommon to see diners tackling dinner at Melbourne’s best Sichuan restaurants (in the city, Box Hill and South Yarra) with latex gloves and two litres of chilled soy milk in hand – necessary in the case of this poetically named fish dish that gets a three-chilli rating on the menu (and four by us!).
The hero ingredient changes (it’s currently braised pork shoulder) but one thing stays the same: Benjamin Cooper’s signature Thai curry will take the roof off your mouth.
Belles Hot Chicken
Authentic Nashville-style fried chicken at Belles in Melbourne’s Fitzroy and Richmond (and Sydney’s Barangaroo) comes in five gradients of heat, from mild to so hot it will have you begging for mercy. And they mean it. belleshotchicken.com
Expat chef Duncan Welgemoed has set a fire under Adelaide with his South African cuisine. The house specialty, Mpumalanga fire chilli sauce (his mum’s recipe), is just one reason it’s the hottest ticket in town. Try it on peri-peri chicken, cooked on the charcoal grill, with added “boom chakkalaka” sauce (vegetable relish that’s rather fiery in its own right). africola.com.au
Taro’s Ramen & Cafe
The high heat fire tonkotsu was originally made for a ramen regular who wanted an extra kick but the Ascot and Brisbane CBD ramen houses now regularly serve a high-octane version with four types of chilli (powdered, oil, freshly shredded and house-made sauce). taros.com.au
Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley fires up with Alfredo’s zing-tastically hot pizza featuring super-charged “Inferno” salami, extra chilli, peppers and torn mozzarella.
AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY
These are the chicken wings that defeated former PM Tony Abbott at a US Embassy event in Canberra back in 2014. Or maybe it was the signature “suicidal buffalo wing sauce” they were doused in? Whatever the case, the United States Southern barbecue specialist is the heat-lover’s friend. No matter what you order, be sure to add chilli cheese fries and jalapeños. smoque.com.au
Parap Village Markets
South-East Asian cuisine is the cornerstone of this bustling Darwin market and Mary’s laksa is the bona fide star with its lusciously spicy coconut broth, hot chilli sauce and wontons. The made-to-order papaya salad (medium equals two birdseye chillies) is pretty darn good, too. parapvillagemarkets.com.au
David Thompson brings his brand of transcendent Thai food to central Perth with uncompromising authenticity. The Chiang Mai larp of chicken is a peppery-hot dish served on cabbage leaves, with added chilli and fish sauce. longchimperth.com
Arirang Korean BBQ
Koreans do a mean hotpot and the waiters at Northbridge’s Arirang will warn you that their spicy beef version is danger city for anyone not used to the long-simmered broth that is redolent of aromatics and devilish red chillies. arirang.com.au
The Tasmanian Chilli Beer Company
The Hobart boutique brewery says chilli adds flavour, not fire, and indeed its signature brew has a delightful chilli warmth that actually makes complete sense in a ginger beer. Find out for yourself at Salamanca Market (salamanca.com.au) every Saturday. ￼