Home > Food, Provenance, Travel > What would life be without chillies?

What would life be without chillies?

Christopher Columbus, the man we must thank for introducing the chilli to the Old World.

Christopher Columbus could have had little idea just how profound would be the impact, of him mistaking chillies (Capsicum) for the much sought after pepper (Piper nigrum), which he discovered in the Caribbean, while looking for a Western sea route to the East.

In what became known as the Columbian Exchange – a phrase coined by historian Alfred W Crosby in his book of the same name – in which the New World exchanged animals, plants and diseases with the Old World, chillies along with the likes of maize, potatoes and tomatoes were introduced into Europe by Columbus and his fellow explorers.

At a slight tangent, the Old World definitely got the better end of the deal. Estimates of the impact of Old World diseases on New World populations – to which they had no immunity – from the time of Columbus discovering the Americas in 1492 to around 1650, range from 50 and 90 percent.

Over time chillies spread from Mexico, a Spanish colony, to Asia, where they became integral to local food culture. What would Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian cuisine be without chillies? Today, there is hardly a country in the world that does not have chillies featuring somewhere in its food culture.

A fiery habanero chilli from our garden.

But chillies are members of the Capsicum family, of which there a great variety of cultivars, from the fiercely hot habanero and Scotch Bonnet chillies to the mild and sweet bell peppers.

Better known locally by their colour names, green, yellow orange or red peppers, they are all the same cultivar C. annuumm, with the green pepper being the immature variety. If you leave green peppers on the bush for long enough, they will turn red, orange or yellow respectively. Interestingly, C. annuumm includes the likes of cayenne and jalapeño chillies both of which are fairly hot.

The heat in chillies comes from the chemical capsaicin (which has an alarmingly complex scientific name) and several related chemicals, called capsaicinoids. Without becoming too technical, these compounds persuade the brain it has eaten something hot, to which the brain responds by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration, and eventually releasing endorphins. The long and the short of it is that if you eat enough chillies which are hot enough, you actually end up having what amounts to a natural high from the endorphin release. This peculiar behaviour is widely practised by those who qualify as “chilli-heads”, a worldwide cult, which to all intents and purposes is addicted to chillies and the hotter, the better. It is instructive to note that the principal active ingredient in pepper spray, is capsaicin.

A crop of lovely plump green serrano chillies

Chilli heat is measured Scoville heat units (SHU), a measure of how much chilli extract must be diluted in sugar syrup to be undetectable to a tasting panel. The scale ranges from 0 SHU (bell peppers) through 2 500 – 5 000 SHU for jalapeños, and habaneros and Scotch Bonnets at 300 000 SHU. But these are the conventional chillies we probably all know. The Naga Jolokia from north-eastern India weighs in at an incendiary 1 000 000 SHU, and the Naga Viper pepper, a hybrid created by British chilli farmer, Gerald Fowler, tops the list at a staggering 1 359 000 SHU, certified as the world’s hottest chilli by the Warwick Horticultural Research Institute in December last year.

Chillies thrive in the summer, and are fairly widely available in supermarkets, although the range is not great. I find it best to grow my own – well at least dear wife Eppie takes care of that department – and as a result we have two or three varieties available much of the time. We’ve successfully grown habanero, Scotch Bonnet, Thai (my personal favourite), serrano, cayenne and jalapeño chillies – more or less in descending order of heat – in our garden. If you have too many, most of them dry rather well, and can be stored for a good deal of time.

To dry them lay them in a cool dry place, away from direct sun, on kitchen paper towel. Once they’ve dried completely store them in a sealed bottle.

Home dried red serrano and Thai chillies.

They can be used dried, or rehydrated in boiling water. I make a Harissa paste, the chief ingredient of which is rehydrated cayenne and Thai chillies. It just would not be the same with fresh chillies.

Capsaicin not only burns the mouth, it can also be extremely painful if it comes in contact with other delicate parts of the anatomy. I’ve had some excruciating experiences that I cannot recount here!

I always use disposable rubber gloves when working with chillies in quantity, or if it’s just one or two, rub a teaspoon of oil into your hands before starting, and wash them thoroughly as soon as you’re done.

If you forget, scrub your hands thoroughly with damp salt then rinse them in full cream milk, wash with soap and water, and if that still doesn’t help soak your hands in alcohol such as a cheap brandy or cane spirits for 10 to 15 minutes, then wash well with soap and water.

When adding chillies to a dish, do so with caution, and be aware of the type of chilli you’re using. You can always add more, but you can’t take it out! Adding full fat yoghurt, however, does help to tone down the burn.

The capsaicin is concentrated in the pips and septa – the spongy bits inside the chilli – so removing both reduce the heat of the chilli. I prefer to always use more chilli flesh and to exclude the pips and septa, which gives you more chilli flavour with less heat.

Dealing with a chilli burnt mouth isn’t easy. The best solution is to drink full cream milk or eat full fat yoghurt. Capsaicin is an alkaloid which dissolves in fat, but not water. Another solution is to drink an alcoholic beverage, but that could of course lead to other dire consequences!

Finally, chillies are high in vitamin C and anti-oxidants, and although they can cause heartburn, it is usually other meal factors such as portion size, fattiness, and acidity that are the villains.

I’ll be cooking with chillies in a few future recipes and also re-visiting some old favourites. Enjoy!

In the meantime if you have any chilli stories or favourite recipe which uses chillies, drop me a line at norman@maninthekitchen.co.za and tell me about them.

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  1. March 5, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Damn interesting article. I have a brother who’s a chilli head and he ate himself into a bleeding ulcer from all the hot stuff, chillis, hot sauces, peri peri extra hot and the like.

  1. February 2, 2011 at 8:24 pm

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