It seems far more often than not when I am out and about, taking in meals or attending receptions, that I find the food I am presented with is too bland for my tastes – so much so that I regret not carrying around with me a bottle of preferred hot sauce to make whatever is before me either more palatable, more enlivened, or simply to bring out the essential flavors already inherent in a more pronounced way. For those like me, who like to challenge their taste buds (and stomachs, and colons – not to mention their endurance and fortitude), the 2nd Annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo at the Penn Pavilion Plaza was the place to be on Saturday, March 29 and Sunday, March 30.

Although there indeed can be consequences to savoring such fare – there are products with names such as Rectum Ripper, and Red Rectum Hot Sauce – there is also a staggering degree of flavor diversity in the products either featuring or enhanced by the various varieties of hot peppers that comprise the focus of this show. To engage in a truly exhaustive survey at one time of the sauces presented would surely occasion a sort of sensory overload, so besides sampling as many things as I could during the event I obtained some samples that I could use at home in order to discover what different sauces paired best with what sorts of food. My study is by no means comprehensive, yet at the same time has enabled me to appreciate the range of approaches adopted by those who’ve dedicated themselves to the craft of creating distinctive hot sauces – to say nothing of the degrees of intensity on the Scoville scale that can be found.

It is an essential trope of the hot sauce business to proclaim on the labeling of any bottle the extreme degree of heat delivered by the contents within, but when you have opportunity to taste a good number of different products side-by-side you recognize that there is a fair degree relativity to the principle – some sauces are hot, some are really hot, some are painful, and some require recovery time (if not in fact hospitalization; I jest). Thus, it can be a regrettable error to use the same amount of different sauces to spice up whatever you’re pairing them with. Dirty Dick’s Hot Pepper Sauce with a Tropical Twist [www.DirtyDicksHotSauce.com] has an appealing blend of sweet and hot, with the fundamental heat of habanero peppers offset by a number of fruits, including mangoes, pineapple, bananas and sultanas, as well as brown sugar, garlic and tomatoes; this sauce would be ideal to use in cooking, or for dipping. A smokier flavor is to be found High River Sauces Hellacious Hot Sauce [www.highriversauces.com], which, while it also has a somewhat sweet tang – supplied by roasted red peppers, agave and lime juice – nonetheless carries a decent amount of heat in its blending of habanero and jalapeno peppers.

Another sauce that features a complex blend of fruit to balance the basic heat of habanero peppers is Torchbearer Sauces All Natural #37 Tarnation Sauce [www.torchbearersauces.com]. Ingredients in it include mandarin oranges, carrots, onions, tomatoes, garlic, sugar, black pepper and chili powder, and while the label reads, “Hot enough to hurt you,” and it is indeed hotter than the aforementioned, I found its character to be more savory than simply hot. One sauce availing a more traditional and direct delivery of Scovilles – along the lines of ‘Tabasco’ sauces – is Born To Hula Habanero Ancho sauce [www.borntohula.com]; while not the hottest product they make, it features a good blend of red bell peppers, ancho chilis and habanero peppers, along with garlic, lime juice vinegar and other ingredients. Leavening the heat from habanero peppers and Panamanian aji chombo with mustard, garlic, celery, black pepper and cane sugar is Panama Red 100% Natural Gourmet Hot Sauce [www.pancalifoods.com], a sauce I would describe as ‘sunnier’ than those previously mentioned, and which would be ideal for barbeque preparations and similar sauces.

Another notable product by High River Sauces is their Rogue Moruga Blood Orange Scorpion Pepper Sauce. While the initial flavor impact is delivered by the fruit and other sweet elements within – it also contains applesauce, pears, brown sugar and lime juice in addition to the orange concentrate – it finishes with a healthy hot kick, courtesy of the scorpion peppers as well as jolokia peppers and red serrano peppers. A firm creating an intriguing array of products is The Karma Sauce Co. [www.karmasauce.com]. Their Green Envy Hot Sauce boasts a ‘heat level’ of 11 (no word on Scovilles, but perhaps Nigel Tufnell drafted this designation), but is actually more savory and rather well-balanced than merely hot; green habanero peppers and green peppers are set off by onions, apple cider vinegar, lime juice, garlic, coriander, black pepper and lemon zest – this would be ideal as the base of a green sauce for dipping tortilla chips with. Karma sauces go beyond 11, however, as their Ghost Island Hot Sauce has a ‘heat level’ of 13 – and indeed it was one of the more memorable sauces I tried, with a lingering hotness that seems to build on the palate as you absorb the habanero, bhut jolokia and fatali peppers, which are well-paired with apple cider vinegar, mustard seed, mango, pineapple, allspice, fenugreek and thyme. Of course, hot peppers are suitable not only for hot sauces, but also for other condiments. The extensive line of pepper jellies produced by Jacky’s Jams & Jellies [www.jackysjamsandjellies.com] are all quite good, and in addition to jams with peppers alone also feature such ingredients as cranberries, raspberries, peaches, strawberries and blueberries teamed with chile peppers to produce a satisfying blend of sweet, savory and hot flavors.