Written By Chef Peter Martin
It all starts with a slight tingling in the mouth that quickly turns into a light burning sensation. Your nose starts to run and perspiration beads on your forehead as your eyes turn blurry with tears. By now your mouth has become a raging river of molten lava, or so it seems. You have just swallowed a powerful alkaloid that has caused your brain to release neurotransmitters telling your body you are in big trouble. So who is this insidious poisoner so intent on seeing you suffer? You are, and mostly likely you will attempt this feat again, for you are a Chile head, the masochists of the food world. But what are chilies? Where did they come from? And why do people continue to torture themselves with them?
Chiles have a long history in the Americas. The word, chilli itself, is from nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs though that came late to the chile’s history. "Aji" is the word that the South American peoples used originally and, in many areas, still use, though chile and chilli (or chili) is now the common word around most of the world. Archeological evidence shows that the peoples of Peru have been eating wild chilies since about 7000bc and have been cultivating them since around 6100bc, making chilies one of the oldest foods domesticated in the Americas.
Fast forward many hundreds of years, to Columbus’s voyages. Columbus was introduced to chilies by the Arawaks. Convinced that he was in the orient and fooled by the chilies long red pods and fiery bite he mistakenly called the fruits "pepper." Of course Columbus was wrong. Chiles are in no way related to Piper Nigrum, but belong in a class, Capsicum, all by themselves. This didn’t matter to Europeans who took to chilies with relish most often drying and grinding them to use as they would black pepper, whose price had become so outrageous that it was often used as currency itself. Best of all, it could be grown in Europe’s cool, short growing season, unlike Piper Nigrum.
Though chilies share their family tree with tomatoes and potatoes, all part of the nightshade family, Europeans did not consider chilies poisonous like they originally did with tomatoes and potatoes. In fact, they took to peppers so quickly that evidence shows that within 50 years of being brought back to Spain, from the Americas, they had spread throughout all of Europe and most of the Mediterranean. Soon after that Portuguese explores had introduced it to Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China and Japan, all cultures that quickly absorbed chilies into their own cuisines.
Today, far from its humble beginnings, chilies flourish throughout the world. There are now hundreds, if not thousands of cultivars in existence. A recent survey of online seed stores and nurseries showed many of these places offering from 200 to well over 500 different chilies and cultivars, ranging from the sweet and mild to the blisteringly hot.
Chiles get their heat from a group of alkaloids called "capsaicinoids", the most powerful of which is "capsaicin." Different chilies have these compounds in differing levels and ratios which is why different chilies create different sensations when eating. When it comes to pure heat though capsaicin is the compound we are most concerned with. Heat, in chilies, is measured by "Scoville Units" named after Wilbur Scoville, the first scientist to attempt to measure a chile’s "heat." In this test he ground up chilies and diluted them with a water-sugar mix, adding to the solution until the testers could no longer feel the "burn." Thus a sweet bell pepper that has no heat would rate a "0" while a jalapeno might rate a "5000" because the pepper to sugar water ratio was 1:5000. In the years since is experiments, in 1912, science has come up with more accurate, less subjective ways to measure the "heat" of a pepper, but Scoville Units are still the measure that is mostly commonly used. As you can see, from the chart below, most chilies have a rather wide range that they can fall into. This is due to many variables, including the pepper’s lineage (some jalapeno plants just produce hotter jalapenos due to breeding) and its growing conditions (the amount of light it received, the amount of rain, whether it was a hot or cool season, etc.). All of these conspire to make the job of rating chilies somewhat of a "crap shoot."
Here is a chart of some of the most popular chilies and their scoville ratings:
Sweet Bell Pepper
Chipotle (10,000), Serrano(20,000), Crushed Red Pepper
Cayenne, Piquin, Dunicut, Aji
African Birdseye, Jamaican (200,000), Scotch Bonnet (325,000) Habanero (350,000)
Red Savina Habanero
855,000 currently world’s confirmed hottest pepper
Common Pepper Spray
Police Issue Pepper Spray
Chiles produce capsaicin and the other caspsaicinoid only in the placenta, or what we commonly call the "ribs." No other part of the chile produces these compounds but can absorb them, so parts of chile closer to the ribs are hotter, as are the seeds. You can remove a good portion of the heat of a chile by removing the ribs and seeds before you dice it up.
Capsaicin works on the body by tricking the brain into releasing something called "substance P." This neurotransmitter makes the body think it is in trouble and causes the body to react by turning on the "waterworks;" the runny nose, the watery eyes, the sweat and saliva. The other thing it does, it tells the body to increase heart rate and to release endorphins. This is the cause for a "Chile head’s" rush. Yes, Chile heads catch a buzz!
While capsaicin might trick your body into thinking it is being attacked, it really causes no harm, in the amounts found in chilies, the concentrated forms in pepper spray being altogether different. One myth associated with chile peppers is that eating them in great amounts will cause stomach ulcers. This has been proven to totally false. A number of studies have been done in cultures that traditionally eat lots of chilies and it has been shown that they do not suffer any greater incident of ulcers than any other culture. In fact, capsaicin has proven to be a rather good topical anti-inflammatory and is used by arthritis sufferers the world over. Capsaicin has also been shown to be somewhat effective as an anticoagulant and may possibly help in the prevention of heart attacks and strokes. In addition chilies are high in Vitamin C, 2-4 times greater than in oranges, and red chilies and red bell peppers are also high in beta carotene.
So next time you are suffering through those extra hot buffalo wings, or that searingly hot curry remind yourself that through the pain you might actually be doing your body some good and go ahead and have another helping. I dare you!