Para leer la versión en español de este artículo, hacé clic acá.

It took a little while for the restlessness to set in. When I first arrived in Argentina, you couldn’t pry me away from asados, empanadas, pasta, extremely cheesy pizza, and all manner of thin breaded meats. As far as I was concerned, I’d arrived at a culinary paradise. What else could I possibly need?

Once that initial rush of infatuation subsided, it became clear to me that there was something missing. I had grown up relishing the burn of capsaicin, be it from a chili-pepper-heavy recipe or from a bottle of fiery hot sauce. But for my first few months of living in Argentina, the spiciest thing I had come into contact with was the mildest of mild kicks from chimichurri. I needed something more.

For many years, the topic of spicy food was almost verboten among my Argentine friends. The times I managed to sneak in a bottle of Tabasco or Sriracha from abroad, they’d be treated as a novelty; a crazy party trick that immigrants could somehow pull off, but would send locals into pained hysterics. Restaurant menus brandished warnings about the spice level of certain dishes, which would inevitably reveal to be sheer hyperbole. During my first decade in Argentina, spicy food was as far from mainstream as you could get.

Of course, something being far from mainstream doesn’t mean it was nonexistent. Argentina has a strong presence of immigrants from Asia as well as other Latin American countries more accustomed to the burn. Their restaurants and businesses have long been a fantastic resource for anyone looking to inject some heat into their lives. Whether it’s the Asian supermarkets at Barrio Chino carrying a good selection of hot sauces and other ingredients, or Peruvian immigrants at Abasto selling fresh and dried ajíes, spicy food culture in Buenos Aires has always felt distinctly foreign. And that holds true even if you’re a local who is into the heat.

Thankfully, there’s been some progress. While spicy food is still far from mainstream, the last few years have seen a gradual shift in attitudes towards foods that are on the hotter side of the Scoville scale. It feels like locals have gone from “why would you even want to eat hot food?” to “sure, I’ll give it a shot” — not quite at “I need the heat” levels yet, but getting there. And to be honest, I couldn’t be happier about it. 

There are many potential reasons for this slow and steady rise. One may be pop culture exposure — shows like First We Feast’s Hot Ones have done a lot to spread the good word (in fact, it even inspired a blatant Argentine ripoff titled Terapia Picante). Another contributing factor may be the influx of immigrants from Venezuela, who have popularized their country’s street food such as arepas, tequenos, and more. And in the last year or so, another factor may have come into play: the government-mandated lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fact that we’re seeing a dramatic increase in activity by local spicy food vendors is undeniable (check out the list of recommendations we published a few months ago). This is especially true of artisanal hot sauce makers like León Febres-Cordero, a Venezuelan who has been living in Buenos Aires for three years. Along with a team of three other people, he created Lagrima del Diablo, a hot sauce brand that has become extremely popular for its delicious Sriracha flavor and its stylish presentation. Over the last few months, the Lagrima team have partnered with several businesses for pop-ups and custom menu items, generating even more buzz around their product. We interviewed León about Lagrima Del Diablo’s origins. 

“We are a group of friends who all live in the same house,” he told us. “We share many similar tastes, including food. We realized that the hot sauce we consumed was getting expensive, so Anderson started making his own hot sauces for the house using chili peppers from the local greengrocer. We used to eat it every day. At one point I said ‘let’s do something with this. I want my friends to try this. I want more people to try this.’ Through word of mouth, people began to find us, people beyond our social circle. And then everything just blew up.”

León’s background in marketing came in handy when developing the brand’s identity. Their fun, engaging online presence is part of what attracts novices. “It’s something that people had been waiting for. The public was waiting for a product that carried this name, that had a bit of an attitude, a sense of humor, a bolder way of communicating. This opened a lot of doors for us because it allowed us to share this creative process with the entire team, and communicate in a very specific way. Although we are a team of only four people doing all we can, we’ve put a special focus on creating a strong brand identity.”

León told us that while there’s still widespread aversion for hot sauce, he has noticed an increased willingness to give it a shot — and quickly become hooked. “For a couple of years now, people have been more open to making their food a little more interesting. Spiciness is part of that.”

Is his product a gateway drug? “I have received a lot of messages from people who had never eaten spicy food before, and now they do. And after giving Lagrima del Diablo a try, they ventured on to other spicy things. It’s a great starting point. It’s good to know that there is a growing public that is choosing to try something different.”

One of those Argentines who didn’t grow up eating spicy food and is now a fervent convert is Daniela López Camino, a local cook who operates La Fermentadora. Through this project she sells spicy fermented products such as specialty hot sauces, kimchi, sauerkraut, and more. 

“I haven’t been eating spicy food for long. I used to not be able to tolerate it,” she told us. “I was born in Entre Rios and the food was always very basic. Lots of meat, very little variety. When I moved to Buenos Aires I started trying a lot of things. I started out as a vegetarian and started researching. I watched a lot of YouTube channels, I watched a lot of workshops. I also traveled quite a bit. I have a sister who used to live in Israel, where she eats a lot of very well-seasoned food. Many spices. That really blew my mind.”

As is the case for many Argentines, Daniela’s introduction to spicy food came after some gentle prodding from a friend. “I have a friend who traveled to Mexico for two years and tried many spicy artisan sauces. At first I couldn’t bring myself to try it, but she insisted. I tried a little, and then a bit more, and then more each time until I realized that I love spiciness. And then I incorporated it into my life.”

Another one of Daniela’s projects is the pop-up FF Pizza, which led her to creating her own fermented hot sauces. “We try to make unconventional pizzas, which is what’s most fun. But there always has to be plain mozzarella, because some people always want that, or there are people who won’t eat anything else. So I thought, ‘let’s make a couple of sauces to finish them off with something more delicious.’ Then the idea of experimenting with a hot sauce arose.”

“I started off making a jalapeno sauce. A friend had brought me some dried chili peppers from Mexico. We made it, people loved it. I started fermenting the jalapenos and experimenting with that. And then I realized that this was something I could sell. People love it.”

Daniela’s main product is her fermented sauerkraut. Her hot sauces often involve fruit, such as her yellow jalapeno and mango sauce. She makes small batches depending on seasonal availability. These can be ordered through her Instagram account.

Things aren’t easy for small-scale hot sauce makers in Argentina when it comes to acquiring produce. “It is quite difficult,” Daniela explains. “I always try to get someone to bring me but there is not much variety. Jalapenos are expensive and hard to find. Sometimes I also look for yellow chili to make Huancaína, I go near the Abasto where there are ladies selling it. But it is not always available.”

Jaime Paolini, a fellow hot-sauce maker who runs Alto Pico, often runs into similar issues. “Getting the ingredients is very difficult,” he told us. “Due to the pandemic, the borders with Bolivia are closed, and only two or three suppliers of chili peppers are bringing them into Buenos Aires and providing them to small companies. Because the lion’s share of it is bought by large-volume companies, and they leave small enterprises and makers with very little produce. They are very hard to find and there is little variety.”

Still, Jaime has managed to create some fantastic hot sauces, including a fermented mango and lime sauce, a spicy ketchup, and a glorious concoction called “Alto Suero” — a spicy twist on suero, a savory dairy product, very popular in his native Venezuela. 

Jaime has lived in Buenos Aires for three years, and funnily enough, he wasn’t much of a spicy food lover before he arrived here. “I didn’t really eat spicy food until I moved here. I started working in a restaurant where a lot of spicy food was consumed. I was reluctant at first but little by little I started to try it, and I realized that I loved it and I could withstand it.”

Soon he started making his own hot sauces. “There is a bit of a reluctance with the local public. My first hot sauce, which was a kumquat and mandarin orange hot sauce, was very delicious and very citrusy and quite spicy. I’d say about 50% of locals liked it. But then I made an even spicier sauce using fermented scallion and that one blew up. People loved it. That is still one of my top sellers.”

“There was another one that was very popular, made of fermented mango with lime. I draw on the flavors of Venezuelan street food. Back home, we eat green mango with lime and vinegar.”

I asked Jaime if there was much sense of community among the local small-batch hot sauce makers. “There’s a very supportive community. We share information and contacts. Even though we make similar products, we always collaborate and support each other.”

One of the biggest names in local spicy food culture is Locos X El Picante, an Instagram account turned online store, specializing in selling hot sauces as well as chili seeds and other gourmet products you won’t be able to find at your local chino. The account is run by Martín Estel and his wife Carolina Mosconi.

I asked Martin if he thought spicy food was having a much-awaited moment within Argentine cuisine. “It was a niche that, beyond what I am doing, was latent in many people. It is something that not only serves to enhance flavors and create new experiences but also to discover new horizons. It’s a bit like the creation of the cell phone — there was no specific need for it, but when it appeared, everyone went ‘hey, this is good.’ Not quite the same, of course, since spicy food has existed for a long time and has been very popular in places such as Mexico, the United States, and Asia. But it is something that, at least in Argentina, people didn’t have within their reach.”

Martin has been a spice fanatic for many years. It started as a competitive thing — trying out increasingly spicy chilis with his friends to see who could withstand them the best. His project Locos X El Picante started out as a humble account on MercadoLibre, only selling chili seeds. Nowadays, they’ve expanded their online catalogue to include spices, gourmet products, and sauces — both locally made and international (they carry El Yucateco and Tapatio, among others).

“It hasn’t been easy. We achieved it little by little, and we have other projects on the way to gradually increase our catalogue. Importing those sauces is a risk and an investment, complicated by quarantine controls and border closures. But I’ve been able to surround myself with the right people to be able to make it happen. There are also a lot of interesting developments within the local market.”

Interestingly, the Covid-19 pandemic was what led Martin to finally turn Locos X El Picante into his full-time job.

“I had to make it work as a full-time job,” he told us. “As usual, opportunities come from problems. I ran a marketing agency for over 10 years, which is not an easy thing to do. When the quarantine started I realized that there was no future in that business. And after a decade of running it, I closed it down. I had this other side thing, this hobby, selling seeds through MercadoLibre. And with the start of the quarantine and all the free time I found myself with, I began to take photos. Soon, sales started to explode, and I started selling out. When I took stock of what I had, I realized that I was going to very quickly run out of seeds, and there I began with the gradual incorporation of other products, such as sauces. I created the webpage that exists today as Locos X El Picante. It was born out of necessity.”

The Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns have had devastating effects on countless establishments, but in an interesting twist, it actually seemed to have a positive effect on Argentine spicy food culture, serving both as a hurdle to jump through and as a motivating force. 

Jaime told us it was the quarantine shutdown of the restaurant he worked at which led to his first experiments with chili peppers. “The restaurant closed and we had 10 kilos of chili peppers we didn’t know what to do with, so we decided to ferment them. They turned out incredible. That’s when I realized that I could do something nice with this. And soon after I started making my own hot sauces.”

León agrees. “The quarantine prompted them to get the ball rolling on their projects. There are many awesome projects that are going on, and quarantine definitely served as a turning point. We found ourselves with the time to try new things, to figure out what we want to do and how to do it.”

Daniela believes that, for many people, these unprecedented circumstances led to them finally having the courage to pursue their calling. “Many young people, or even not-so-young people, were stuck on this feeling of not really knowing what to do, feeling afraid, having great ideas but feeling discouraged… it gave us a push towards doing that thing we wanted to do. What is born out of real desire.”

“You then ask yourself, what do I want to do? What do I want to pour my energy into?”