Years back, I found myself in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. I was joining a friend for dinner in this “little Portugal” of New Jersey. However, more than the delicious food and cultural experience, I will always remember my friend’s cousin. During the main course, he produced a shocking amount of sweat while consuming a spicy dish in record time. By dinner’s end, he was “pushed-in-the-pool” drenched and I was confused as to how the experience was enjoyable for him … or me for that matter.
Since that clash of cuisine and perspiration, I’ve been fascinated to watch those dining partners who look immediately for the closest Cholula bottle or cover everything in copious amounts of Sriracha. They’re the folks who request “Thai hot,” can tell the difference between hot sauces, and cover their pizza in red pepper flakes. For me, none of it makes sense.
The strangest part comes in how the human body registers the sensation of “spicy.” Unlike the five basic tastes we experience through our tongue and sense of smell, spiciness is the result of a chemesthetic sensation (and not really a “taste” like the others). When consumed, chemicals like capsaicinoids (found in chili peppers) stimulate endings of the trigeminal nerve called nociceptors that then notify the brain. These receptors also react to hot temperatures of food, hence the feeling of heat that tags along with consuming spicy foods.
Long story short, spiciness is a reaction to pain, and all you spicy-lovers are crazy.
However, it’s the pain that might explain some folks’ preference for spicy dishes. When the brain receives pain signals, it reacts by releasing endorphins and dopamine. In laymen’s terms, your brain is trying to manage and decrease the negative feelings. As we all learned from Elle Woods, “endorphins make you happy,” and high levels can lead to feelings of euphoria. I’m not saying that eating super spicy foods will get a person high, but maybe all those hot sauce fanatics aren’t so insane after all.
Strangely, this connection of pain and happiness is something to which Marcel Vizcarra of Llama Restaurant in St. Augustine can relate. At one point in our conversation, he laughingly admitted to finding the kitchen a hellish place to be. Often, he’ll tell his wife, “I don’t know what I did wrong in this life … a past life, but this is hell. [The] heat, stress, being in a kitchen. But at the same time, it’s paradise. I will never leave. It’s my passion. It’s what I do.”
That passion kept the 27-year-old chef going even after Hurricane Matthew sideswiped the First Coast, leaving behind more than two feet of water in his restaurant. He hadn’t been open more than two weeks. The small Llama team worked day and night to return the business to a pristine state, and ready for excited patrons hungry for Marcel’s creative take on traditional Peruvian fare … and Marcel was ready to deliver.
Peppers are common in Peruvian food, and Llama’s menu is no different. The Aji Amarillo, or yellow pepper, is a base ingredient for many traditional dishes of Peru, as well as Marcel’s interpretations. Perhaps one of the more adventurous options at Llama is the limo-pepper ice cream. Marcel tones down the spice of this extremely hot chili with several rounds of blanching. The result is a vibrant and fruity dessert with just enough spiciness to keep you intrigued, if not wanting more. It’s this expert awareness of heat and flavor that makes Marcel’s food accessible, but still captivating.
Oddly enough, this isn’t the first time St. Augustine has offered up spicy options I enjoyed and would repeat. Take for example, the signature sauces available at B Street Eats. Self-described as “casual Latin flavors,” this outdoor restaurant is halfway hidden off Cordova Street. But finding it is worth the effort, especially after an order of Tostones Picante accompanied with spicy jalapeño lime sauce. Another delicious option can be found at The Floridian. They create a mean shrimp po’boy. It’s local shrimp covered in a spicy Creole sauce with spinach, peppers and green tomato relish. It’s worth the pile of napkins you’ll need to clean up after.
To be fair, I’m still not sure that consuming spicy foods isn’t an act of insanity. The sweat, the red faces, the obvious expressions of pain — it’s weird. But chefs like Marcel are coming close to changing my mind. In fact, I’m still thinking about that limo pepper ice cream. If anyone wants to bring me some, I’ll be your friend forever.
For those of you wanting to up your dinner game and bring some zest to the table, check out the following recipe. This vibrant seafood dish as interpreted by Chef Marcel captures the essence of a traditional Peruvian ceviche, and it calls for a limo pepper. Good luck.
Recipe for Peruvian Ceviche
By Marcel Vizcarra
- 6 oz. of a fresh white fish like corvina or grouper
- 10 squeezed limes
- 5 cloves of garlic
- 1/8 of red onion (use the darker outer layers only)
- 1 pinch of minced ginger
- 3 celery leaves
- 5 cilantro leaves
- 1 limo pepper
- 3 medium ice cubes
- Sweet potato
- Peruvian Andean corn (giant kernel)
- Peruvian Chulpe corn (crunchy)
Slice the white fish and save 1 ounce for the sauce. Sprinkle a little salt onto the sliced fish to preserve.
- Leche De Tigre Sauce:
- In a mortar or blender, combine lime juice, red onions, ginger, garlic, celery, cilantro, limo pepper, the 1 ounce piece of white fish, salt, and pepper. Crush, balance, and rectify salt, then strain.
- Serve the sliced white fish in a bowl and garnish with sweet potatoes, sliced onions, cilantro leaves, Andean giant corn and toasted Chulpe corn kernels. Pour all of the Leche de Tigre sauce over the dish. Then enjoy.