If you think there are only three types of chilli -HOT, HOTTER and HOTTEST, then maybe the “Doctor” can put you right. With the many varieties and countless hybrids, we feel that the following will go a long way in helping you to understand chillis, chiles, chilis, peppers a little more.
Where and when did chillis originate?
Doc: The chilli is such an indispensable ingredient in most Asian cuisines that it comes as a surprise to learn of its relatively recent arrival in Asia. Like the potato, the aubergine and the tomato, to name just a few imports from the same region, the chilli is a native of Mexico where people started using a wild variety as long as 9,000 years ago.
So doctor, how did chillis get to introduced to the rest of the world?
Doc: The Spaniards and Portuguese introduced the chilli to the rest of the world in the mid-15th century. It proved easy to grow in most climates and was readily assimilated into the varied regional cooking styles.
How does one identify what and how hot a chilli is?
Doc: Each chilli has its own characteristic, which aficionados can identify without hesitation at first bite, or sometimes even by its smell. A simple rule of thumb is that the longer the chilli, the milder the flavour. If you are unsure of the hotness of a chilli, the only way to be safe is to sample it. The tip is the mildest point, so cut it first and then taste it cautiously.
Will each Jalapeno be exactly the same hotness no matter how or where it has been grown?
Doc: Not at all Dave! Soil, weather and many other factors make it difficult to produce a standard chilli. Poor soil and dry conditions make a plant fight hard to survive, sprouting chillis that are smaller but hotter than those found on a plant grown from the same batch of seed in more pampered conditions. Pick two chillis from the same plant, and very possibly one will be hotter than the other.
How does colour affect the chilli. Should I pick green ones for a mild dish and red for a hot dish?
Doc: Chillis do change their nature as they ripen. They can change from green to yellow and then to red, when the higher sugar content can add a fruity note to the sting. A green Habanero will most certainly out-burn even the most ferocious red Jalapeno. However, a green Jalapeno will most certainly lose the fight against his red brother.
Why do chillis burn the way they do?
Doc: A great question! Nature, as always, is wonderful! The most obvious reason for why they burn, is that the plant wants to disperse its seeds in the most efficient way. Birds! Birds don’t have trigeminal cells in their mouths throats or noses, as do mammals. The seeds pass through a bird’s digestive tract very quickly, and are dispersed unharmed by digestive juices over a large area relatively quickly. A mammal on the other hand is quite different. The seeds hardly ever make it out whole and unscathed, because of the powerfully acidic gastric juices needed to break food down during digestion. In a nutshell, chillis are trying their hardest to stop us and other herbivores from eating them by producing capsaicin oil as a repellent.
Doc: The ferocity of a chilli lies in the capsaicin content of the membranes to which the seeds cling. Contrary to popular belief, capsaicin has neither flavour nor odour. It is an irritating alkaloid made up of a number of different chemicals, each of which affects a different area of the mouth, nose and throat.
Is there a measure for this capsaicin oil’s intensity?
Doc: Indeed there is. In 1912 a chemist called Wilbur L. Scoville devised a dilution method to calculate how hot chillis were. He added equal parts of sugar water to the capsicum oil until the burn could no longer be detected. The very mild chillis could take as much a 1000 units before the burn disappeared . Can you imagine the exercise when working out the rating of the Red Savina Habanero, which achieves a rating in excess of 500 000 scoville units. Nowadays chillis are measured using a separating technique called High Pressure Liquid Chromatography. One gives the machine a sample, and under high pressure, the machine tells you how much of the sample it separated from your total volume of liquid.
Are chillis good for you?
Doc: Scientists say that chillis add more than just flavour to the diet.. They are rich in vitamin C and also provide vitamin A and calcium. Capsaicin stimulates the appetite, helps to clear the lungs, improves circulation and acts as a painkiller for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. Capsaicim, once ingested, causes the brain to release endorphins into the blood-stream creating a natural feeling of well being similar to that achieved by athletes.
Can one become addicted to hot food?
Doc: Without a doubt! Some chilli-heads become so addicted, that they say ” If it isn’t hot, why bother eating it!
We love to tell people that we have done it!