That's because foods such as chili peppers and hot sauces can do way more than simply add mouth-searing heat. Adding just a touch will heighten the other flavours of a dish without adding noticeable spiciness.
For example, whip up your favourite mac and cheese. Now stir in just a few drops of hot sauce. Taste. It won't be spicy, but it will be better.
Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to try a seriously spicy ingredient and there is no need to be scared off by the heat.
Throughout Asia there are numerous condiments referred to as sambals. Most are made by grinding together chili peppers and vinegar. Depending on where you are, other ingredients — such as dried shrimp, fermented soy beans, brown sugar, spices, coconut milk, etc. — may be added.
The result is a family of sauces with bright, punchy flavour and a fair amount of heat. They usually accompany meat and rice dishes and are added to taste.
The international aisle of most mainstream grocers in the United States will offer at least one or two varieties and they are worth checking out.
One of the most common is sambal oelek (also called chili paste or fresh chili paste), which is a simple blend of crushed chilies, salt and vinegar. Alongside sambal oelek, you may also find something labelled chili garlic sauce, which is sambal oelek with garlic added.
Either is a fine choice for any of these recipe ideas. The flavours are intense, slightly acidic and almost pungently sweet.
Like most vinegar-based condiments, sambals can be refrigerated for months after opening (most are marked with "best by" dates).
One caution — the word sambal also sometimes refers to a spicy dish. You're looking for the condiments, which are sold in plastic and glass jars.
Chili Garlic Roasted Shrimp With Fettuccine
Start to finish: 25 minutes
30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil
5 ml (1 tsp) kosher salt
2 ml (1/2 tsp) ground black pepper
15 ml (1 tbsp) sambal oelek or chili garlic sauce
500 g (1 lb) large raw shrimp, shells and veins removed
1 pkg (340 g/12 oz) fresh fettuccine
125 ml (1/2 cup) grated Parmesan cheese
3 scallions, chopped
Heat oven to 230 C (450 F). Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil.
In a large bowl, mix together oil, salt, pepper and sambal or chili garlic sauce. Add shrimp and toss well.
Transfer shrimp, as well as any sauce in the bowl, to a rimmed baking sheet. Roast for 5 to 7 minutes or until pink and firm.
While shrimp roast, add pasta to water and cook according to package directions. Reserve 50 ml (1/4 cup) of the cooking water, then drain.
In a large bowl, combine pasta and shrimp. Use a silicone spatula to scrape any liquid from baking sheet into the bowl. Toss well.
Sprinkle cheese and scallions over pasta and shrimp, as well as a bit of the reserved pasta cooking water. Toss until cheese is melted.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 500 calories; 140 calories from fat (28 per cent of total calories); 15 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 245 mg cholesterol; 51 g carbohydrate; 39 g protein; 4 g fibre; 1,050 mg sodium.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook, "High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking." His Off the Beaten Aisle column also appears at FoodNetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch.Suggest a correction