Posted October 23, 2004 by Nick Lindauer in Peppers

Great Balls of Fire

It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you’ve done, or think you can do. There’s a confrontation with destiny awaiting you. Somewhere, there is a chilli you cannot eat.
Daniel Pinkwater, A Hot Time in Nairobi

A wise man, that Pinkwater. I have a pretty high tolerance for chillies, or so I thought. When an Andhra friend invited a bunch of us for a ‘genuine’ Andhra meal, I was pretty smug. But what unfolded would have been hilarious had it not reduced us to tears.

The spread had us (myself included) mopping our brows, dabbing at streaming eyes, and gasping for water, for that abandoned drink, for anything to alleviate our agony. Our hostess, smirking, finally handed us bowls of soothing yoghurt—consuming dairy is the only thing that counters the heat.

So it’s no coincidence that many ‘hot’ cuisine use butter, cream and coconut. Mexican recipes, for instance, make liberal use of sour cream, cheese and guacamole.

Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine are among the spiciest in the world. Ironically, until the 15th century, when the Portuguese brought chillies to these parts, cooks relied on black pepper. Once the more complex-tasting chilli arrived, however, it was quickly adopted and incorporated into traditional recipes, so that one forgets it was a Western import.

So what makes chillies the little bombs that they are?
Chillies contain capsaicinoids, which bind to a receptor in the lining of the mouth. This is the same receptor that registers pain from heat, thus causing that familiar burning sensation. But practice makes perfect, so repeated exposure to capsaicinoids depletes these receptors’ ability to feel pain, enabling one to eat hotter chillies. Simply put, the more chillies you eat, the more chillies you can eat.

Little wonder then that a few days after that flaming Andhra meal was over, and thankfully digested, I was tucking into a spicy Thai meal. But it did make me want to know why we keep coming back for more.

This tendency to pack away mirchi after malt is not entirely an Indian one. In the UK, after many pints at the pub, lager louts gain in machismo by eating the hottest curry they can find.

In Singapore’s Newton Circus, the eponymous Chili Crab is washed down with bottles of the popular Tiger Beer. We do pretty well on the mirchi-meter ourselves. Rajasthani Lal Maas, which literally translates into ‘red meat’, is a fiery good example. Emo Dashi, the Bhutanese national dish, also found in the Northeast, is a wonderful combination of fiery hot chillies cooked with yak cheese. Any self-respecting Maharashtrian, like myself, has a bottle or two of thecha—a staple in most ghati homes—in their fridge. This pungent paste of red chillies, garlic, salt and oil is used to spice up curries.

But not all chillies are dynamite. The slimmer and darker the pepper, the hotter it’s likely to be. The thickish pale green variety is fairly mild, while the tiny, dark green Thai Dragon chillies can raise a mushroom cloud over one’s head. Hungarian Paprika, on the other hand, is so mild as to be almost sweet.

In 1912, Wilbur Scoville developed a scale to measure the heat level in chillies. While there are other methods, the Scoville Scale remains the most respected and widely used (the US has chilli-eating contests and even a Scovie Award).

So the higher the Scoville units in a chilli, the hotter it is. On a scale of one to 10, a bell pepper rates a zero. The Mexican troika of Poblano, Serrano and the famous jalapeño is in the upper sphere of the scale.

More recently, the indigenous Tezpur chilli was rated the world’s hottest. The little devil from the Northeast defeated reigning champion, the Mexican Red Savina Habanero, by over 30 per cent on the Scoville Scale. Heartburn or no, it’s good to know that the title finally comes to India.

In the 19th century, at the height of the British Empire, the chilli brought that touch of Eastern mystique to the otherwise bland Victorian table. English companies like Crosse & Blackwell, Lazenby’s and, closer to home, good old Bolst popularised curry powder and hot sauce.

Anglo-Indian staples like Fish Moulee and Madras Lamb Curry specifically ask for a liberal dose of Bolst’s Curry Powder, so my kitchen cupboard always has a tin of Bolst’s.

And purists might shudder, but the next time you cook a typical angrezi shepherd’s pie or casserole, generously shake in some red chilli flakes or toss in a couple of jalapeños. It’ll become a hot favourite—trust me.

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog