The Hottest Thing You’ll Read All Day: A History of Chilli Peppers
It’s easy. You need a can of tomatoes, some onion and garlic, beans (I like black), a bell pepper (hated by Mexicans), and a chilli pepper of your choice. You’ll need minced beef, too. For seasoning, I go for chilli powder, obviously, some paprika, and cumin.
I don’t know if these spices actively enhance the taste of my homemade chilli con carne, because my homemade chilli con carne always tastes hot. Hotter than the sun, in fact.
These ingredients are available at my local supermarket — a place I was once laughed out of for asking if they stocked craft beer — so they’ll be at yours, too. It’s not as if you’re shopping for kale.
Whack them all in a pan, simmer for 30 minutes, and you’ve just cooked dinner.
There’s a type of scorpion called the Deathstalker. The thing is an uncanny yellow-green in color and can be found in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East. Its venom contains a combination of top-tier neurotoxins, meaning if you’re stung, you might die.
No, you don’t want to be messing with the Deathstalker. Because you don’t want to be messing with anything that possesses a sting, especially when that something has the word “death” in its name.
Now, not all scorpions are as dangerous as the Deathstalker, but you’ll probably want to avoid putting any of the 2,000 varieties in your mouth. And this, basically, was the argument made by my wife when I brought home a bottle of SCORPION CHILLI SAUCE.
“But it’s not made of scorpions,” I said.
I didn’t use this sauce in the chilli con carne I made for her (recipe above). I may be a masochist, but I’m no sadist. Not massively, anyway. Yet even then, with what I thought to be the faintest traces of chilli powder, she broke into a sweat before abandoning the plate and proclaiming the food too hot to eat and what was wrong with a nice spaghetti Bolognese, anyway?
“It hurts,” she said, and she was right. Because that’s how spicy food works.
My only mistake was to misjudge my wife’s pain threshold.
The heat of chillies, as any self-respecting fan of Man v. Food knows, is measured by the Scoville scale. The pungency of the pepper is recorded in Scoville heat units (or SHUs, to those in the know). The system was devised by an American pharmacist called Wilbur Scoville back in 1912.
Dena Kleiman, writing about heat in the New York Times, explains the procedure:
Under this method, a dried pepper is dissolved in alcohol, diluted with sugar water and then given to a panel of tasters, who, sipping increasingly diluted concentrations of pepper extract out of shot glasses, are asked to determine the exact point at which it no longer burns the mouth. The hotter the pepper, the more water required, and the higher its score on what is now called the Scoville scale.
Jalapeños have a Scoville rating of between 1,500 to 4,000. Tabasco sauce falls in a similar range. My (unused at the time of writing) chilli sauce is made from the Trinidad moruga scorpion chilli, which scores 1.2 million SHU. It’s a hot one. Paul Bosland, director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, describes what it’s like to eat a scorpion chilli: “You take a bite. It doesn’t seem so bad, and then it builds and it builds and it builds. So, it is quite nasty.”
I reckon I could handle it.
Chillies originated in South America. Linda Perry, a postdoctoral fellow in archaeobiology at the Smithsonian Institution, reported in Sciencethat her team found evidence that Ecuadorians were eating chillies some 6,250 years ago. That’s 6,226 years before the first Chipotle restaurant opened. “For whatever reason, a lot of people really liked them,” Perry said (of chillies, not Chipotle). “Once they were domesticated, they spread very quickly around South America and into Central America.”
It was Columbus who first brought the spice to Europe. It wasn’t initially popular. In Spain, instead of being eaten, chillies were grown as ornamental novelties. Yet they would eventually go viral: As Simon Robinson writes in Chilli Peppers: Global Warning, “Within 30 years of Columbus’ first journey, at least three different types of chilli plants were growing in the Portuguese enclave of Goa, on India’s west coast. The chillies, which probably came from Brazil via Lisbon, quickly spread through the subcontinent, where they were used instead of black pepper.”
The new plant was cheap, and it was spicy. Within a century, it could be found in every corner of the world. Bosland considers it “probably the very first plant that was globalized.”
My father once grew some tiny peppers for us. He’s retired, so he has the time. As we live in England, this took some doing. Proudly, he brought the fragile plant, snug in a ceramic pot, to our house. We thanked him, and, after he’d left, we abandoned the thing in the garden, forgetting about it until the next time he visited.
It withered and perished.
“How are the peppers going?” he asked, months later.
My wife and I exchanged looks. He saw us exchange looks. We didn’t need to say anything.
It’d be nice to use home-grown chillies in my chile con carne. It’d be something to boast about at dinner parties, if I ever attended dinner parties. I don’t think Dad’s chillies would have changed the taste, however, described by my wife, as you remember, as “too hot to eat.”
Capsaicin is what does this. It’s the chemical element of the chilli pepper that creates the sense of burning by binding to the taste receptor that produces the same fiery sensation we’d feel if our mouth actually were on fire.
Why do people like this? Social media aside, there’s nothing else in my weekly routine that I actively seek out with the full knowledge that it will cause pain. The developmental psychologist Jason Goldman steps into the gap left by food science. He suggests that it’s to do with something called “benign masochism,” a term coined by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin and defined as the enjoyment of:
[I]nitially negative experiences that the body (brain) falsely interprets as threatening. This realization that the body has been fooled, and that there is no real danger, leads to pleasure derived from “mind over body.”
It’s not only chilliheads who engage in this behavior. Rozin includes “a liking for sad experiences (music, novels, movies, paintings)” in his study, which pretty much covers my entire teenage cultural experience. Apart from the paintings.
I experienced a different form of pain a few years ago, after throwing out some birdseye chillies (100,000 to 225,000 Scoville units) that were left after dinner.
Reader, I went to the toilet.
Generally, men have it easier than women. You only need to check out the past few thousand years of oppression for confirmation of this. The ease with which a man can pop to the bathroom is one example of a practical advantage. However, this particular evening, I had cause to curse my masculine genitals. I’d washed my hands — I’m not an idiot — but clearly the quick rinse was insufficient to wash clean all the chilli essence.
What began as a dull sensation of heat soon overwhelmed my glans. My eyes watered as my very manhood felt as if it had been set alight.
(I checked. It hadn’t.)
I fell into the shower, uncaring that I was fully clothed, and sprayed cold water on my private parts until my wife came upstairs to ask what the hell I was doing.
“What does it look like?” I replied
She rolled her eyes.
I didn’t die. But in 2008, an amateur chef did. He’d bet his friend that he could make the hottest sauce. It’s no consolation that he won the bet. He collapsed the following morning. His heart had failed.
A New Scientist article on the death, the only reported chilli overdose on record, suggests that Andrew Lee, 33, suffered an allergic reaction, as it was reported that he experienced an intense itching sensation following his consumption of the sauce. The piece goes on to note, however:
Rats in toxicity studies of capsaicin, the active chemical in chilli, have keeled over, apparently from shock. In addition, capsaicin has a range of direct toxic effects in high enough doses. It opens calcium channels in nerves — one reason it tastes “hot” is because it triggers nerves that are normally heat sensors in your mouth. It would not be a good idea to short-circuit calcium fluxes in heart muscle.
The fear of death hasn’t dented the popularity of chilli-eating competitions. (I mean, people still smoke cigarettes, so…) In Bath, England, competitors move through 17 rounds of increasingly piquant peppers. Those left in the final round compete for the championship by eating the 7 pot habañero (1 million to 1.2 million Scoville units) as quickly as possible.
Hatch, New Mexico, is home to the Hatch chilli, which has around the same SHU as the jalapeño. Every year, there’s a festival at which an eating competition is the main attraction. The contest favors quantity over quality in Hatch — entrants compete to eat as many Hatch peppers as possible.
The prize for winning? A 40-pound bag of Hatch chillies.
Every time I make chile con carne, I end up Googling: “How long can leftover chilli stay in the fridge?” And I always land on the same Huffington Post article from 2015, which quotes liberally from Jen Tong, global managing director of integrity and process excellence for a division of the public health and safety organization NSF International. (I’d love such a long job title. I’d also love a job that qualified me to be quoted in articles.)
Tong reckons that, once refrigerated, you can continue to “enjoy” these meals three to four days after they were first cooked. Not that I ever do. I place the leftovers in perfectly appropriate containers, proud that I’m not adding to the world’s waste. And three to four days later, I throw them out.
To my wife, who won’t eat my dinner, to my friends who boast of their subtle palates, to anyone who has ever raised their eyebrows at my ordering a vindaloo (the UK’s very spicy national dish), I say this:
I WILL LIVE LONGER THAN ANY OF YOU BASTARDS.
And there’s science to prove it.
Researchers from the University of Vermont College of Medicine compared data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1988 and 1994 against a large sample of adults who ate hot red chilli peppers. The results may encourage you to add a little heat to your next meal:
Consumption of hot red chilli peppers was associated with a 13% reduction in the instantaneous hazard of death. Similar, but statistically nonsignificant trends were seen for deaths from vascular disease, but not from other causes. In this large population-based prospective study, the consumption of hot red chilli pepper was associated with reduced mortality.
This is all fine as long as you avoid consuming the world’s (current) hottest chile: the Dragon’s Breath, supposedly created accidentally by Welsh fruit grower Mike Smith. (He was trying to produce a “pretty” pepper.) It measures 2.48 million SHU. That’s substantially spicier than the 2 million SHU used in pepper spray.
The Daily Telegraph article reporting on the pepper states: “Experts believe that anyone who attempted to swallow one of the chilli peppers would be at risk of death from anaphylactic shock.”
So, in conclusion, eating peppers can extend your life. Unless, of course, it kills you.