A Scoville fillip

You can still enjoy a pick-me-up in January without alcohol – a comprehensive new guide to hot sauces tells you all you’ll need to get a chilli high

Food and Drink 17 Jan 2024

Hot Sauce by Neil Ridley and Dean Honer (Illustration © Naomi Wilkinson)

Hot Sauce by Neil Ridley and Dean Honer (Illustrations © Naomi Wilkinson)

In their new book, authors Neil Ridley and Dean Honer describe humankind’s ‘love affair with pain and pleasure’. Don’t worry though, Hot Sauce is not a guide to BDSM but rather to SHU – Scoville Heat Units. The pain-and-pleasure cocktail here is a result of our bodies’ reaction to capsaicin, the active compound in chillies. It is essentially an irritant and neurotoxin (as is the ethanol in alcoholic drinks, by the way) and our body reacts by sending in its cracktroops, including adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine, to drive out the enemy through sweating, the shakes and a runny nose. Once victorious, those hormones and neurotransmitters essentially have a party, leaving you feeling euphoric.

This book is sizzling with spicy facts – for example, tabasco is a variety of chilli named after the Mexican state, as well as a brand name for a sauce – and tracks the history of cultivation of the fruiting plant, which is from the same family as tomatoes, potatoes and deadly nightshade. It also offers practical advice – there are some surprising results from experiments about what to consume to counteract excessive burn. The whole thing is clearly very well researched.

Authors of Hot Sauce, Neil Ridley and Dean Honer
Authors of Hot Sauce, Neil Ridley and Dean Honer

That attention to detail is at its most thorough in the heart of the book, a selection of the 101 best hot sauces from six continents (there has yet to be a hot sauce from Antarctica). North America dominates the list, but the UK is well represented too, with brands such as Longbottom, Thiccc, Tubby Tom’s and Yoyo offering a broad variety not only of heat levels but of flavour profiles.

Ridley, a drinks writer and regular on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, is well used to providing detailed and compelling tasting notes. In addition, the book has the story behind the creation of each sauce, the chilli varieties used in it, suggestions for how to use it in food and drinks (with recipes for both) and, of course, that all-important one-to-five heat rating. There is a level above five reserved for just one sauce: The Last Dab: Apollo, as featured on the YouTube show Hot Ones. It is made with an (allegedly) even hotter evolution of the ‘hottest chilli in the world’, the Carolina Reaper. The authors both ate a spoonful of it before posing for the publicity photos – which explains their expressions!

Hot Sauce: A Fiery Guide to 101 of the World's Best Sauces (Illustration © Naomi Wilkinson)
Hot Sauce: A Fiery Guide to 101 of the World’s Best Sauces (Illustration © Naomi Wilkinson)

If you like the sound of some of these sauces – and even a chilli wuss such as this reviewer, whose reaction to spicy food was once mistaken for a heart attack in a Brick Lane restaurant, will find something to suit them – Hot Sauce contains a full list of online retailers (Cheshire’s somelikeithot.shop is a good place to start).

Ridley is also a former record company executive and occasional musician. And when it comes to music, Dean Honeris doubtless responsible for at least one earworm you experienced in the late 1990s or early 2000s – as a member of the electronica bands All Seeing I and I Monster, he had hits with Beat Goes On, Walk Like A Panther (with Tony Christie on vocals) and Daydream In Blue (‘I fell asleep among the flowers, for a couple of hours…’). To accompany the book, the pair have – as The Fire Eaters – recorded a four-track EP on fire-red 10-inch vinyl (also on Spotify). The Hot Sauce Experience EP is a sonic journey through the fire, from Fear & Trepidation via The Rising Burn and Terror & Torment to Euphoria & Joy. It’s the spicy equivalent of ELO’s Concerto For A Rainy Day and makes the perfect accompaniment to a couple of tacos drenched in hot sauce.

Hot Sauce: A Fiery Guide to 101 of the World’s Best Sauces (hardback, £14) is available  from Amazon; The Fire Eaters’ red vinyl EP can be purchased on Bandcamp (£15).