They lend character to dishes and test the grit of even the bravest. When it comes to chilies you can’t help but shed a tear in sheer anticipation of its spicy taste. While they originated in South America, India is today, the world’s largest producer, consumer, and exporter of chilies. The chili pepper plant is from the genus Capsicum and members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Christopher Columbus is said to be one of the first Europeans to taste the chili pepper. Legend says that he called the spice as “pepper” because he was only familiar with the black and white pepper that also lent pungency to a dish.
Given the pungency of the spice, the chili has often been used in popular culture as a test of one’s “palate resilience”. There are numerous festivals across the world today that celebrate the different varieties of chilies- bringing producers together and introducing participants of the festival to different dishes that inventively use chilies. Of course, no festival is complete without a ‘chili eating contest’! Traditionally the Scoville scale is used as a measure of the ‘hotness’ of chili pepper or anything derived from chili peppers. The scale is actually a measure of the concentration of the chemical compound capsaicin. The scale or test is named after Wilbur L. Scoville (1865-1942), who developed the Scoville Organoleptic Test in 1912 while working at the Parke Davis pharmaceutical company. As originally devised, a solution of the chili extract is diluted in sugar water until the ‘heat’ is no longer detectable to a panel of (usually five) tasters; the degree of dilution gives its measure on the Scoville scale1. The more it has to be diluted, the hotter the chili is. The modern commonplace method for quantitative analysis of SHU (Scoville heat units) rating uses high-performance liquid chromatography to directly measure the capsaicinoid content of a chili pepper variety. Until recently the Guinness World Records had the world’s hottest chili pepper as the Red Savina Habanero. The Carolina Reaper variety cultivated in the USA is also popularly recognized as another tearfully hot chili variety.
Apart from its propensity to make people cry on ingestion, chilies have been noted by the scientific community for its health benefits as well. Chilies are excellent for your immune system because they are rich in both vitamin A (said to be the anti-infection vitamin) and vitamin C. Chilli peppers’ bright red color signals its high content of beta-carotene or pro-vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for healthy mucous membranes, which line the nasal passages, lungs, intestinal tract, and urinary tract and serve as the body’s first line of defense against invading pathogens. Just two teaspoons of red chili peppers provide about 6% of the daily value for vitamin C and more than 10% of the daily value for vitamin A2. Chilies can be used as natural pain killers, and topical capsaicin is now a recognized treatment option for osteoarthritis pain.
While in some cultures certain chefs will swear by the power of chilies in every dish, most people have a bitter-sweet (or rather hot-n- sweet) relation with the spice. Usually a classic case of biting off more than one can chew!