In Nashville, hot chicken isn’t just a local specialty or comfort food that’s deeply personal for its longtime loyalists. It’s also a spiritual experience for thrill-seekers

“With the spices, I like how my body reacts,” says Aqui Hines, owner of 400 Degrees in Nashville. “I like the perspiration, I like the pepper going down my esophagus. It gets your endorphins going, you break a sweat, it opens up your nasal cavity. You are going to remember how the pepper affected you.”

Thanks to a recent wave of in-depth reported pieces exploring hot chicken's appeal, that memory of both anguish and elation that Hines speaks of is now familiar to a national audience, creating a rabid cult for chile-laced golden bird. 

“It’s a flavorful shock to the system,” summarizes Nashville native Carla Hall, The Chew co-host whose new restaurant, Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, serves a rendition to Brooklynites.            

The history of hot chicken is indebted to Prince’s, a Nashville institution responsible for spawning legions of copycats. But the combination of crispy meat and spicy seasoning appears in various guises around the South, often in home kitchens. Maybe because at heart, hot chicken is simple: pieces of fried chicken coated in fiery chile oil.  

“For me, it’s always been a cultural thing,” says Hines, who grew up eating at Prince's. “It’s my guilty pleasure. If I had a bad day, it made it better, if I had a good day, it would make it better.” Hall sees hot chicken's rise as part of a broader trend towards heat: “Lately, people have been flocking to spicier foods for the sport of eating them,” she says.

And it’s true: an expansion of hot chicken joints—including KFC's decision to feature its own recipe—has brought the regional specialty to the attention of a wider, and arguably whiter, audience, causing controversy about who deserves credit for its recent ascent. Even as those much-needed conversations unfold, the result is that more people around the country crave the stuff. Thanks to Hines and Hall, who are keeping its legacy in tact, Nashville-style hot chicken is yours to make at home, wherever you live.

Here’s how to cook it.