A quarter of the world's population eats chilies every day, but many cuisines now defined by spice only started using them in the last few hundred years.
Chilies originated in Mesoamerica and have been domesticated there since around 5,000 B.C. But they didn't leave the Americas until Spanish colonialists brought them to Europe in the mid 1400s. And they didn't arrive in Asia until Portuguese traders brought them to India at the end of that century. Since then, chilies have spread like wildfire and become a dominant force in many food cultures.
But why do we love chilies so much?
Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chilies, triggers the same pain response that we have when we touch things that are really hot. Psychologists believe we love spice for the same reasons we ride roller coasters and watch horror movies. We like fear and pain when we know that, in the end, we'll be OK.
Our brains also produce endorphins to help us cope with the pain of the pepper. We start associating the suffering of eating spicy food with the pleasure that follows. We become addicts of the heat, slaves of spice, and start pushing ourselves to eat hotter and hotter food.
To help guide your masochistic hot food journey, here's a list of some of the best spicy eats in the East Bay.
World Famous HotBoys' Hot Chicken Sandwich
HotBoys in the Northgate-Waverly neighborhood in Oakland opened the last week of June to serve the best and spiciest Nashville-style hot chicken sandwiches in the East Bay.
The chicken sandwiches there consist of a bun, a fried piece of spicy chicken, coleslaw, pickles and "comeback sauce," a Southern staple made of chilies and mayonnaise.
You have a choice between mild, medium, hot, hot hot, and hella hot chicken sandwiches. Medium leaves your mouth burning and is supposed to "whoop your ass a little bit," according to co-owner Victor Ghaben. He said that only two people have ever finished a hella hot chicken sandwich, and he could see that they were suffering.
These sandwiches are simple, but the combination of hot, crispy fried chicken, and cool, crunchy pickles and slaw is divine. 478 25th St., WorldFamousHotBoys.com.
Larb's Dry Tom Yum Noodle Soup
Larb is a small restaurant in an inconspicuous strip mall on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito. It looks like any other Thai restaurant in the East Bay, but the funk and fire in its dishes puts most of the others to shame.
Larb's dry tom yum noodle soup is dry because the broth is served in a separate bowl, meant to be sipped separately from the noodles, which are tossed with dried red chili peppers, ground pork, sliced pork, pork liver, fish balls, bean sprouts, shredded cabbage, and peanuts. You have your choice of egg noodles, flat rice noodles, thin rice noodles, and vermicelli, and a choice between not spicy, mild, medium, hot, and Thai hot. Medium is hot by most restaurants' standards.
The noodles have a great balance of sweetness, burning heat, limey tanginess, and funk from the fish sauce. The metallic, earthy pork liver adds even more character to the dish, and the chewy fish balls are a nice textural contrast to the crispy bean sprouts and crunchy peanuts. 10166 San Pablo Ave., 510-524-8988, LarbThaiTapas.com.
Wojia Hunan Cuisine's Red Chili Fish
Wojia Hunan Cuisine is a restaurant with over a hundred menu items on San Pablo Avenue in Albany. It's a Hunan restaurant but also features some incredible Sichuan dishes, like the red chili fish.
Wojia's version of the dish is made with fish, bean sprouts, wood ear mushrooms, bean curd strips, garlic, ginger, and whole Sichuan peppercorns. It's all drowned in a sauce made with doubanjiang, a Sichuan fermented fava bean and chili paste, and covered in a layer of dried red chili peppers. You can choose between whole live tilapia kept in a tank in the kitchen or sliced flounder.
This dish is definitely hot, but it was mainly chosen for the complexity of its spice. The biting ginger, the burning red chili, and the cool, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn leave your taste buds in a bewildered ecstasy that's hard to get from other cuisines. 917 San Pablo Ave., 510-526-9088.
Chengdu Style Restaurant's Sichuan Tan Tan Noodle
Chengdu Style Restaurant is on Bancroft Street across from the UC Berkeley campus. It has over a hundred specialties from Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province and the restaurant's namesake.
The tan tan noodle at the restaurant is a mix of thin egg noodles, ground pork, sui mi yacai — a pickled mustard green — and stalks of little bok choy doused in chili and Sichuan peppercorn oil and garnished with ground chili and crushed raw garlic.
The tangy pickled mustard greens cut the spice nicely, and the powerful Sichuan peppercorn oil leaves your lips tingling. 2600 Bancroft Way, 510-845-5807.
Everett and Jones' Hot Barbecue Beef Brisket
Everett and Jones has two locations in Oakland, one in Berkeley, and one in Hayward. The homey joints serve barbecued sliced beef brisket, smoked chicken, homemade sausage links, and smoked pork ribs with soft white bread and a choice of sides like ranch beans, collard greens, candied yams, and mac and cheese.
You have a choice of mild, medium, and hot for all the meats. The hot beef brisket is nearly unbearably spicy, but the fruity and smoky flavors in the sauce and the tender meat keep you eating it despite the pain. EandJBBQ.com.
La Grana Fish's Aguachile Tostada
La Grana Fish is a food truck in an industrial area on 50th Avenue off San Leandro Street in Oakland. The simple white trailer doesn't look like much, but some incredible food comes out of it.
The aguachile tostada consists of raw shrimp, sliced cucumber, red onion, and avocado in spicy green sauce. It's garnished with a little bit of cilantro and red chili flakes.
The bright, refreshing acidity from the lime juice balances the burning heat of the chili in the sauce. The crunchy tostada, buttery avocado, crispy cucumber, and the slightly chewy raw shrimp bring a satisfying textural diversity to the dish. 865 50th Ave., 510-520-0561.