Sweet heat takes flight

by Donna Berry
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The pairing of heat and sweet creates an unexpected but surprisingly versatile twist.

CHICAGO — Heat and sweet have been attracted to each other since the beginning of time. In the United States, this has traditionally been on an individual basis — a sprinkling of red pepper flakes here and a dash of hot sauce there. But as borders continue to blur, either by real travel or social media, Americans increasingly are craving food adventure. What a better way to surprise them then to marry two very opposite flavor profiles into one culinary sensation?

In many dishes, when spicy ingredients are paired with sweet flavors the heat is mitigated. This enables complex, bold tastes to be enjoyed without burning the taste buds. It is an interesting sensory experience that emerged with the chicken wing category, an American phenomenon.

“Particularly popular is pairing sweet and bold ingredients to create a harmonious balance between opposing flavors,” said Laura McGuire, director, Technomic Inc., Chicago. “Chicken wings were one of the first foods to showcase sweet and bold flavor combinations because the protein pairs well with a variety of tastes.”

A trend-setting combination of sweet and heat is chipotle barbecue sauce, which is often used on wings. The sweetness of the barbecue sauce allows the smoky heat of the chipotle pepper to saunter through the profile without being too hot, said Christopher Warsow, corporate executive chef, Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Northbrook, Ill.

“When you pair sweetness with peppers, even the hottest peppers become palatable,” he said. “Habanero mango is a popular combination across many product sectors. The habanero pepper is quite flavorful, if you can get over the heat. Adding a dimension of sweetness helps accentuate the citrus notes of the pepper while the sulfurous notes of the mango play out.”

An example is the Screaming Mango Wings from the national chain Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom. These are twice-cooked wings with a sweet mango sauce, habanero and jalapeño.

“While some like food to be spicy, there are many Americans not quite ready for intense heat,” said Felicia Berger, culinary blogger and founder of The Starving Chef, Akron, Ohio. “They find when heat comes with something sweet, the overall taste of the food is much more pleasant.”

Ms. Berger, too, finds that mango pairs well with habanero, especially in her mango salsa.

“When you put these two together, something magical happens,” she said. “With your first bite you are met with a tender sweetness, followed quickly by the fierce spiciness of habanero.”

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