COVER PHOTO: Jane Mitchell
For a country that once dominated the spice trade for two hundred and fifty years, Spain should have a lot more spicy dishes in their culinary lineup, right? Yet as soon as I moved to Madrid ten years ago, I discovered that nothing can elicit true fear in many Spaniards more than the four letter word: pica.
It’s amusing how most Spanish people express their disdain for anything spicy; it’s practically their kryptonite. Once, a Spanish lady asked me how I could stand eating spicy food because it’s “dolor, no sabor.”
A few years back, when I was still managing one of the food trucks selling Asian streetfood for the MADreat food truck festival, a typical exchange among customers went like this:
Me: ¿Quieres un poco de salsa Sriracha? (Do you want some Sriracha sauce?)
Customer: ¿Pica? (Is it spicy?)
Me: Sí, ¡pero está rica! (Yes, but it’s really good!)
Right on cue, a crumpled face mixed with horror + fear + revulsion would surface. This conversation was on repeat mode almost a hundred times during the three day food festival.
Once, a brave female customer asked for a tiny droplet of the nuclear Sriracha on her pinky finger, and upon tasting it yelped “¡Ay que picaaaaaaa!!!” like she was going to burst into flames.
Yet every so often I’d meet the unique Spaniard, usually in their twenties or thirties, who would proudly declare yes, I love spicy food! as if a genetic mutation had somehow turned them into one of the X-Men. Many of them had traveled abroad, to Thailand, Mexico or India, and so were not just familiar with spicy fare, but actually missed the heat on their palates. I dare say that it’s these young, global-oriented Spaniards who are cracking the doors open, albeit slowly, to new adventures in spicy gastroscapes.
All that said, there is one temple of spice in Madrid that just defies all logic, led by a crew of young and unflappable Spanish chefs: Kitchen 154 Spicy Food Lab. These guys give zero fucks about the ordinary Spaniard’s innate fear of pica, in fact they revel in it and declare:
It’s a glitch in the gastronomic matrix if you will. I first encountered these guys at the MADreat festival, when I swore they were peddling cocaine in their spicy Korean tacos because the queues outside their food truck were longer than the lines to buy tickets on the last day of the Loteriade Navidad. A few years later, Kitchen 154 had evolved from food truck to a small, unpretentious and rather rudimentary open-kitchen restaurant at the corner of the Mercado Vallehermoso . In spite of its humble size and irregular opening times, it is always packed, and in fact they’ve had to add tables where space permits just to accommodate their customers.
Yet there is zero wonder why, because their food is mindnumbingly good and most importantly not watered down spicy to cater to the general Spanish palate.
Kitchen 154 employs a cooking technique called “sous-vide”, French for “under vacuum”, which means that their food is seasoned and sealed inside vacuum packed bags and cooked at a precise temperature to get the perfect flavour each time.
Must trys on their menu for me are their pork ribs (cooked sous-vide for 12 hours at 80ºC) with homemade kimchi (their star plate!); beef dumplings in a special spicy sauce with chilis, kimchi sauce, sesame oil and chives; black pepper merluza (cooked sous-vide at 40º). On Tuesdays, they offer a gloriously fiery curry Vindaloo – definitely a must, unless you’re a spicy food amateur!
So Kitchen 154 is my pick for top restaurant for 2017. Here’s a tip: it’s not that easy to get a reservation on the day itself unless you call in advance or reserve on their website. So there’s a chance you might have to just settle for a takeaway and feast at home. Thankfully, they’ve also recently branched out to open 154 Ruiz, a small but exciting space on Calle Ruiz in Malasaña that’s open a few times a week.
My other top spice temples and what to order:
Yue Lai (Calle Hermosilla 101, metro Goya) is known for specializing in a Sichuan style of interactive cooking called “Hot Pot”. At the center of the table, a small fire stove with a cauldron of boiling water is placed along with assorted sides like sliced meats, won tons, dumplings, seafood, shiitake mushrooms, noodles, bok choi, and various other veggies. Again, not for the faint hearted, these guys do not turn down the volume on spice. Perfect for a cold winter’s night!
Trikki Nueva Orleans Cuisine (Calle Santa Engracia 108, metro Iglesia/Alonso Cano). Authentic Creole and Cajun food, my hands down favourite dish here is the spicy gumbo. (Read more about them in my previous post.)
Tuk Tuk Asian Street Food (the original one on Calle Cardenal Cisneros 6, metro Bilbao). Must try their Bicol Express, which is a typical dish from my father’s region Bicol in the northern Philippines and is made with with coconut milk, chilies and pork.
And finally, my cutrelicious Sichuan hotspot Chuan Yu (Calle Estrella 5, metro Gran Vía). Must trys: oreja de cerdo in oyster sauce and spicy chilli crab, washed down with TsingTao beer. You’ll cry in delight at how delicious and cheap it is!
Spice is life.
Here’s to 2018 (and this blog’s first year anniversary!) Happy new year and happy eating for 2018 y’all!!
(Spices in cover photo: Pepita y Grano courtesy of Trikki Nueva Orleans Cuisine )