Our expert Dr Paul Bosland is a Regius Professor of Horticulture at New Mexico State University and the world’s leading authority on chillies and spice. Here’s what you need to know if you want to follow in his hot food-slaying footsteps...
The battle to be named the world’s fiercest chilli is hotly contested. It was thought to be Northern India’s Bhut Jolokia, but our institute recently discovered the Moruga Scorpion. It’s grown in Trinidad and, in controlled trials, it has reached over 2 million on the Scoville heat scale (Tobasco Sauce weighs in at 2,500). Moruga Scorpions can be consumed, but unless they’re chopped up into extremely small pieces, they will cause extreme pain and suffering. We know this; people have tried and uploaded the videos to YouTube.
Spicy foods cause distress because chillies contain an alkaloid compound called capsaicin, which binds to the taste receptors in your mouth, prompting them to send a ‘hot’ signal to your brain. If this happens, reach for some milk or yoghurt. These dairy products contain a protein called casein, which overrides the capsaicinoids and tricks your brain into thinking ‘not hot’. Honey, sugary drinks and bread could also help, but water won’t. It can’t dissolve or block the capsaicinoids, so doesn’t have any effect.
A chilli’s heat comes from the veins where the seeds are attached to the placental tissue. Subsequently, smaller chillies tend to be hotter than larger ones, because their compact nature means that they have a greater ratio of placental tissue to wall tissue.
There is no relationship between the colour of a chilli and the heat it contains. The difference between the colours is taste. Red chillies are mature fruits, which makes them slightly sweeter than green chillies, which are immature fruits. Originally, this meant people preferred red peppers, but times have changed. Green pepper consumption is now eight times higher than it was in the 1960s.
There are several health benefits to eating spicy food. The heat in chilli peppers speeds up your metabolism, making it easier for you to burn off fat. Green chilli peppers provide up to three times your daily requirement of Vitamin C. And finally, one teaspoon of red chilli powder gives you your daily requirement of Vitamin A.
A person’s ability to cope with hot food revolves around the number of heat receptors they have in their mouth. Some people have a lot, some people have a few and I know of three people who don’t have any. The more receptors you have, the more difficult you’ll find eating spicy food. That said, you can habituate your body to the sensation, so if you start at a mild level and eat chillies every day you’ll soon be able to take a medium level of spice.
One side effect of eating spicy food can be looser stools. This mainly happens because the compounds in chilli peppers move through your body so quickly they irritate your intestines and make you go more regularly, but it can also be because green chilli peppers can upset people’s stomachs. If the latter keeps happening to you, try red peppers – they’re more mature and shouldn’t have the same effect.
Finally, before you make a fool of yourself, be warned: different types of spicy dishes contain different compounds, so they affect people’s palate differently. In other words, just because you can master a hot Indian curry doesn’t mean that you’ll definitely be able to down 100 wasabi peas, a green chilli enchilada or a jar of strong mustard.
If you’re a chilli newbie, begin your spice journey via hot sauce or jam. Add a couple of drops to a dish to get used to the heat and flavour, then move onto eating actual chilli peppers.
_ Words: Stuart Hood _