Chilli peppers are surely one the world’s great mysteries. On paper, objectively, they are horrible. They burn the tongue, set the face on fire and bring to tears to the eyes. Yet, when experienced, they surely count among life’s truest pleasures. From hot wings to hot and sour soup, from pizzas and nachos to the very best curries, there is little, it seems, that cannot be made better by adding some variety of chilli pepper, the hotter the better.
Actually, it’s not such a mystery if you google it. With your tongue burning and your face ablaze, your hearts starts beating faster, your pulse quickens, and your body starts producing adrenaline, and then endorphins to block the pain. In short, chilles unlock the same chemical process as bungee jumping or a roller coaster ride. Sure, you start to shake and you can hardly speak, but you get all the stimulations of visceral danger, without the terror, for you are not actually in danger, you are simply having dinner. And it’s all the more fun when their served up with names like ‘double death sauce’ in a bottle shaped as a skull.
Chillies are thus a marvelously easy and cost-effective way to bring some excitement to dreary routines. I, for one, can think of no better way to liven up a tedious day at the office than to step out for an extra hot chilli burger over lunch; liven up the sense, get the heart pumping a little bit, before returning, dutifully to the computer screen. Human beings are, it seems, in their capacity to enjoy chilies in this way, pretty unique. Capsaicin, the thing that gives these delights their fiery quality, is an irritant, putting most animals off and those who do eat it do not feel the burn in the way that humans do. Our ability thus, not only to feel the burn but to relish it, to actively seek it out, is a core part of our humanity.
It is well that this so, for not only do chillies help one escape humdrummery, they also help one to escape one of the harshest laws of nature. I have often found it frustrating that the healthiness of food appears to be inversely related to its tastiness; making the likes of fish, kale and liver good for you while sausages, cakes and processed meats are apparently bad. Not so with chilies. Chillies are a flavouring. They make anything taste better and they are, it would appear, pretty good for you. Not only are they plant based, with all the nutritional qualities that implies, it seems that they may also improve heart health, help with weight loss, by reducing appetite and increasing energy expenditure, and even aid digestion. This is all based on studies, so obviously to be treated with some scepticism, but certainly a further reason, as if I need one, to add extra chillies to dinner.
The delights and benefits of chillies, many and varied though they are, do come with a fairly obvious warning. As with much so much else, the key is to know your limit and it is for this reason that one Wilber Scoville developed a scale to rate their pungency. At the lower end we have the likes of jalapenos (5000 scovilles) which add flavour to any meal and are to be enjoyed without a second thought. In the middle, we have the brutal bhut jolokia (1 million), an ingredient found in vindaloo curry, and in (non-lethal) grenades by the Indian Army. These are worth adding to your cooking – I liked it – but best enjoyed away from polite company as the results are not pretty. And close to the top, we have the grim Carolina Reaper, (1.5 million), which feels like eating molten lava, and put a man in hospital. I’ve yet to try this. And I don’t intend to.