As the story goes, during the 15th Century, black peppercorns were so valuable that the Catholic Kings of Spain sent Christopher Columbus off on a mission to find a new and quicker route to the pepper source in the Spice Islands, via the West. Of course, we all know that he didn’t make his way around and “founded” America instead.
He first landed in the Bahamas Archipelago and from there he ventured his way along the islands of the West Indies and came across an indigenous fruit that set his tongue on fire. Either he tried to deceive himself and in turn deceive the Kings waiting for him back home, or he was truly mistaken, we would never know…but he did duly named them pimiento which means pepper. These were in fact the red chillies we know of today, and not the pepper he was looking for.
Thanks to him, I now have a buffet of lip-smackingly spicy dishes from all over the world to sample from.
Some of you might omit chillies from recipes because of the uncomfortable burning sensation but here are a few reasons to start adding them into your dishes while being able to thoroughly relish its heat.
The medical benefits of chillies are well documented, from making you slim (increases metabolic rate), making you happy (endorphins), lowering your cholesterol, to relieving joint problems (reduces inflammation).
Even if you don’t believe in such a direct link, the humble looking fruit is packed with healthy properties the likes of antioxidants, vitamins A, C, and B-complexes; it’s also a rich source of essential minerals such as iron and potassium.
Then again, I’m a fervent lover of chillies more because of how they enliven all my favourite dishes. I quote Amy Fleming, “The world would be a far less delicious place without chillies.”
Its feistiness provides dynamism to otherwise mundanely rich foods such as cheese-y Tex-mex toppings and thick, meaty stews, bean sauces, and is cooked with creamy coconut milk and yoghurt in Asian curries. Many pâtissièrs now love adding a touch of chilli to cut through heavy chocolate desserts as well.
Chillies also add dimensions to sweet sauces like chutneys and barbeque glazes, giving birth to chilli jams and sweet chilli sauces; the sour and spicy is a favourite pairing too, packing a punch to citrusy salad dressings, ceviches, and the creation of tabasco sauce. Try adding some lime, salt and chilli flakes to chopped fruits like your tangy pineapples and mangoes to create a real buzz.
Of course at times, my tongue has to pay dearly for it.
What Causes The Burn?
The burning sensation we get from eating chillies are caused by a chemical called capsaicin present mainly in the seeds and pith, which stimulates our nerve endings which we perceive as heat or pain.
The Scoville Scale measures and the amount of capsaicin content in chillies by heat units. A bell pepper for example has no capsaicin at all and has zero heat units. The Cayenne or Tabasco peppers have 30 – 50,000 heat units, and even higher on the scale is Bird’s Eye Chilli and Piri-piri with 50 – 100,000 heat units; the Habanero chilli has up to 580,000 units whereas the spiciest edible chilli of all at around 855,000 - 1,463,700 heat units is the Naga pepper. Anything higher is used for pepper sprays.
How To Slowly Adapt to the Heat?
Some people are born with higher chilli tolerance than others but such ability is definitely acquired in many. Children in South-East Asia get accustomed bit by bit from having fresh chillies or chilli paste on the side so they could add it onto their dishes as and when they wish.
It’s totally unnecessary to charge on and kill hundreds of taste buds until you get there, the best way is always start in small doses: add a little cayenne pepper flakes into a bowl of pasta, spike your mayonnaise with a few drops of Sriracha sauce or accompany sweet chilli jams with your roasts. Eating your dishes slowly also ensures that a manageable amount of capsaicin is being taken in.
Bit by bit, you could start increasing the quantity of chillies or move higher up the Scoville scale. All it takes is just practice, and sure, patience is required, but by pacing yourself, you savour the wonderful taste that chillies bring and how it enhances the flavours of your dishes.
There are bound to be some chilli emergencies, just remember to consume foods that absorb the capsaicin rather than those that just cool your tongue, i.e. beer or iced-water don’t really work.
Anything sweet or contains dairy helps douse the flames such as milkshake or sweetened tea; as capsaicin oil is alkaline in nature, you can balance it by something acidic like orange juice or lemonade. It’s a good note to make too whenever you’re cooking spicy dishes and you find yourself wanting to tone down the heat, add more yoghurt, coconut milk, sugar or lemon juice.
Carbohydrates like bread, rice or potatoes are effective in mopping away the capsaicin too, so always have more of them handy!
But a relatively unknown cure is something I recently discovered at a Sichuan restaurant - the aloe vera juice. It's easily found in oriental supermarkets. The painful heat magically disappears instantly, try it for yourself!
Are you a fan of chillies? What's your favourite spicy dish? Let us know in the comments below!
You may also like:
Make Your Own Velvety Velouté Sauce
What Everyone Ought to Know About Pasta
10 Important Things You Should Know About Sous-vide Cooking