Spicy food is found all over the world, but one little plant is responsible for most of it: the chili pepper. There are many varieties of chili pepper that make each region’s food unique.
Countries that have the spiciest foods include India, Mexico, and South Korea. Chili peppers grow best in very warm climates, so spicy cuisine is often in tropical or temperate regions. Chili peppers are native to South America and spread throughout the world in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Explorers like Christopher Columbus brought chili peppers home to Europe from their expeditions to places like Peru and Mexico. In fact, we have Columbus to thank for the fact that we call them chili peppers, as he erroneously thought they were related to the common black pepper plant. Peppers spread from Europe to Asia, and the climates where the peppers flourished are recognized today as the nations with the hottest cuisines. Keep on reading to learn more about nine countries with the spiciest cuisines.
Indian dishes like biryani, chaat, and curries are popular spicy foods known around the world. The spiciest food in India is in the southern region of Andhra Pradesh, but chilis are used across most of the subcontinent.
Historians credit the Portuguese explorer Vasca de Gama with bringing chili to India in the 16th century. Today there are seven common varieties of chili flourishing in the country: Ghost pepper, Kashmiri pepper, Guntur chili, Jwala finger hot pepper, Dhani chili (Bird’s eye or Thai chili), Byadgi chili, and Gundu chili.
Dried chilis are used to spice many Indian sauces and stews, but even rice-based dishes, such as biryani, are flavored with spicy chilis in some southern states. Red chili powder is also commonly added to most dishes, so you’ll encounter chilis in all three forms in cuisines across the country: fresh, dried, or ground.
Chilis came to China around the same time they arrived in India. Sichuan and Hunan provinces are where you can find the spiciest food in China. Chinese food uses chilis in many ways:
dishes like Mapo tofu add chilis to a bean paste, while Gan Guo uses fresh chilis for spice. China is also the world’s largest producer of green chili peppers.
Red and green chilis are prominent in Chinese food. Like India, there is a large variety of regional cuisine in China as it is such a large country. Sichuan province tends to use chilis in paste or oil form, whereas Hunan province has drier food, using fresh chilis or dried chili powder.
Fun fact: The famous Sichuan pepper is actually not related to either pepper or chili plants but is more closely related to the citrus plant family.
Tamales, mole, enchiladas, posole…there are lots of Mexican dishes known for their spicy kick. Tacos and burritos often get the international spotlight, but Mexico is home to dozens of spicy foods.
Mexico is the second largest producer of green chilis, after China. Chili peppers are native to Mexico, so there are plenty of Mexican foods from all over the country that feature a wide variety of chilis. Poblanos, Jalapeños, and Habaneros are just a few of the well-known Mexican chilis.
Three dried pepper varieties are commonly known in Mexico as the “holy trinity” of Mexican peppers: Ancho chilis, Mulato chilis, and Pasilla chilis. Ancho and Mulato chilis are dried versions of the Poblano pepper, picked at different stages of ripeness. Pasilla chilis are dried versions of Chilaca peppers.
The two most common chilis in Thailand are the Bird’s eye chili and the Bang Chang chili, although Cayenne use is growing due to damage in the Bang Chang chili’s preferred habitat.
Portuguese traders brought chilis to Thailand in the 16th century, as with China and India. However, Thai food varies in flavor and style across different regions with spicy food primarily found only in the southern region of the country.
Spicy curries using dried chilis or chili pastes are common in southern Thai cuisine. Many of their vegetable dishes, like bai liang pad khai, are served with chili sauce.
Malaysia, which shares a peninsula with southern Thailand, has some of the world’s spiciest food, though it is not as well known internationally as its northern neighbor.
Many Malaysians top their dishes off with sambal, a paste made from chilis and other spices and produce. People in nearby Sri Lanka and Indonesia also use sambal in their cooking. There are dozens of sambals, both cooked and raw, with a wide variety of secondary ingredients to complement the chilis.
Cayenne and Bird’s eye chilis are all used in sambals in Malaysia for a variety of heat levels and flavors. Malaysian dishes, like curries and spicy soups, are also garnished with a wide variety of fresh chilis.
Since European explorers introduced chili peppers to Korea in the 16th and 17th centuries, Koreans have used these spicy peppers to flavor soups, meats, and vegetables.
Kimchi is a traditional South Korean side dish known the world over for its spicy flavor. It’s a dish of fermented vegetables, usually cabbage, in a garlic, onion, and chili pepper brine. More recently, a few new, trendy foods have joined the ranks of Korea’s hottest foods.
While chili peppers aren’t native to Korea, they’ve certainly made an impact on local food.
The island nation of Sri Lanka, located just south of India, is another haven of spicy chili dishes. Sri Lankan cuisine has similarities with many of its neighbors.
Samba rice and curries are common, usually mixed with fish and vegetables. Lunu miris is a popular sauce made with one of the spiciest peppers used in Sri Lankan food: the Cobra chili.
This lunu miris condiment is spread on dishes like Appams or hoppers (a pancake-like food made with coconut milk and rice) or heaped onto rice dishes.
Trinidad and Tobago
The Caribbean is another region where chili peppers, and therefore spicy foods, flourish. Trinidad and Tobago, islands off the coast of Venezuela, is full of native chili peppers, most notably the Scotch bonnet pepper and the Moruga Scorpion pepper.
Murtanie is a popular pepper sauce made with carrots and Scotch bonnet peppers that locals use to season all kinds of dishes, from roti to macaroni pie.
Trinidadian cuisine has influences from Africa, South Asia, and nearby South America. Curried dishes, both meat and vegetables, are prevalent, but one of their spiciest dishes is actually fruit-based. Pineapple chow is a dish made of chopped pineapple mixed with lime juice, garlic, salt, and hot peppers (either powdered, or in a sauce, or fresh).
Chili peppers are also native to the Caribbean island of Jamaica. There are several species of sweet peppers that grow on the island, but the Scotch bonnet is the island’s spicy pepper variety.
Like many of the countries on this list, Jamaica’s spiciest food has a history of colonization. During the British occupation, African people fleeing enslavement created jerk, a method of cooking meat in a Scotch bonnet pepper and allspice mix over a wood fire.
Another well-known spicy Jamaican food is the patty, often made with ground beef. It’s a pastry similar to a turnover or Cornish pasty but spiced with Cayenne pepper and turmeric. This dish is another example of how colonization influenced spicy food in Jamaica.
A lot of spicy food around the world comes from one family of plants: chili peppers. While there are tons of different kinds today, they all started in South and Central America. Because of global exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries, chilis are now a popular part of cuisine all around the world.
Spicy food has a history in colonization and exploration, sending peppers to new homes and blending native plants with foreign culinary techniques. Whether you find yourself in Asia or the Caribbean, there is plenty of spicy food waiting for you.