Firepower: Recipes for hot food without chillies

  • Food
  • Tuesday, 16 Jan 2018

Spices that add heat to food. Photo: Jane F. Ragavan

International Hot And Spicy Food Day is celebrated today (Jan 16). On this day, all manner of red-hot events take place – from habanero-eating challenges to chilli cook-offs. It brings out the daredevil in many chilli heads and some have been known to end up in hospital from over(h)eating.

I haven’t heard of it being a big thing here in Malaysia because, well, why would we when we observe our love for hot and spicy food every day.

When we talk about heat in food, we almost always think of chillies first. But as we all know, many other ingredients have piquant potential as well. Dried items include peppercorns in various colours and mustard seeds; among fresh ingredients, we find ginger, garlic and onion (although it becomes sweet when cooked). There are even fresh vegetables, such as arugula (rocket leaves) and mizuna, which have a peppery taste.

For this recipe feature, we go beyond the chilli and prepare dishes made with other hot ingredients.

There is no disguising the prominent ingredient in a Lebanese garlic sauce. Both the smell and taste of garlic – it’s used raw – are strong, and what a kick it provides.

I’ve made this sauce many times since I first tasted it a few years ago at Al-Jannah, a charcoal-grilled chicken restaurant in Sydney. It was one of the best things I have ever eaten and went perfectly with the chicken.

In Lebanon, the sauce is called toum, which means “garlic”. It’s made like a mayonnaise but instead of egg yolk, the white is used.

Another condiment is the South Indian ginger pickle, inji puli. Now, if I only had this dish to eat with plain rice, I would not be unhappy. It has the perfect balance of hot, tangy and sweet. The heat doesn’t come right at the start but gradually hits you at the back of the throat – perfect for clearing out those sinuses.

Another excellent cure for the cold is a masala tea made with ginger along with spices like peppercorns and cardamom. Try to use full-cream or fresh cow’s milk if you can – it will make a richer and more flavourful beverage. Plus, you’ll have a nice foamy head when you tarik the tea.

The final recipe featured is fun to make and eat. Wasabi cream cheese balls are flavoured with wasabi paste and coated with crushed wasabi peas. I use them as a spread on crackers (rice crackers would keep with the Japanese theme, but cheese biscuits are good too), but if consuming a rich cheese ball doesn’t make you sick, by all means have it just on its own as a snack.

hot food


(Ginger pickle)

Makes 1½ cups

2 tbsp oil

½ tsp black mustard seeds

100g fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

2 green chillies, finely chopped

1 sprig curry leaves, stem removed and thinly sliced

½ tbsp chilli powder

¼ tsp turmeric

¼ tsp asafoetida

Salt, to taste

2 tbsp tamarind paste

3-4 tbsp crushed palm sugar

In a frying pan, heat the oil and add the mustard seeds. When the seeds start to sputter, add the ginger, chillies and curry leaves. Saute over medium heat until the mixture turns golden brown.

Stir in the chilli powder, turmeric, asafoetida and salt. Add the tamarind with 1 cup of water and bring to the boil.

Stir in palm sugar and cook until dissolved. Keep stirring until mixture thickens. Adjust seasoning to taste.

It’s best to wait a day before eating. Store in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.

hot food


(Lebanese Garlic Sauce)

Makes 2 cups

5 fat cloves garlic

1 egg white

Juice of 1 lemon

A good pinch of salt

1 cup flavour-neutral oil (vegetable, corn, canola, sunflower)

Put the garlic cloves, salt and a quarter of the lemon juice in a mini blender (or use an immersion blender and a mixing jug). Blend until the garlic is smooth.

Add the egg white and blend until foamy. Continue blending while adding the oil in a steady pour until the mixture emulsifies.

Reduce the speed and add the rest of the lemon juice slowly, followed by the rest of the oil.

Blend in 1 or 2 tbsp of cold water. It will turn creamy and light.

If preferred, drizzle a little flavoured oil over the toum before serving.

hot food


Serves 1

350ml water

100ml milk

5 black peppercorns

10 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed

2 cloves

1 small piece cinnamon stick

1cm fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

1 black tea bag

Sugar, to taste

Heat the water and milk in a pan with the spices and ginger until it comes to the boil. Turn the heat down and cook over a low to medium heat for 15 minutes until reduced to a little more than half. Add the teabag and let it steep for one to three minutes to preferred strength.

Strain into a mug or glass and add sugar to taste.

hot food


Serves 4

100g wasabi peas

150g cream cheese, softened

1½ tbsp finely chopped green onion

1 tsp wasabi paste

1 tsp soy sauce

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

Place wasabi peas in a freezer bag. Using a rolling pin or the bottom of a heavy pot, crush the peas. Most of it should be a coarse powder but it’s all right to have a few pebble-sized pieces. Leave in the bag and set aside

Stir the remaining ingredients in a bowl until well-blended. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Form a ball with 1 heaped teaspoon of the mixture and drop into the bag of crushed wasabi peas. Shake the bag to coat the cream cheese. Serve with crackers as a spread.

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