Samui Wining & Dining
It’s Chilli Here

But this infamous ultra-hot vegetable hasn’t always been around.

 

18But is it chilli? Or is it chili, or even chile? And let’s not forget chilly. Surely not the latter I hear you cry? Yup, early reference books did use this variant but it’s now considered obsolete, and funnily enough, now refers to cold weather conditions rather than the hot, pungent vegetable.

      Chili; well, prevailing consensus says it refers to the venerable hot and spicy American dish made from chillies, meat and beans. Chili is short for chili con carne. Chilli tends to be the favoured spelling in Australia, New Zealand and certain parts of Europe, to denote both the dish and the vegetable. It also pertains to the dried powdered spice which is a blend of dried chillies and other spices. However, the pedantic may point out that the Nahuati Indians, who have lived in Central America and Mexico for eons, called the plant ‘chilli’ and that was the original source of the word. Pepper remains, found in Tehuacan, Mexico, were dated to approximately 7,000 BC, clearly showing that chilli peppers were established there long before Columbus and his crew arrived.

      As for chile, that refers to the plant or fruit of the plant species Capsicum. This is the Spanish spelling for the plant and is in common use throughout the southwest USA. Of course, it also refers to that long, skinny, chil(l)i shaped, country in South America!

      Anyway, glad we’ve cleared that up! For the sake of argument, let’s forthwith refer to it as a chilli. So what is a chilli pepper? To many it is only the hot varieties of pepper such as the jalapeno or the serrano. Others include the milder varieties like the bell pepper. Webster’s Encyclopaedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language defines it as, ‘The pod of any species of capsicum.’ So there!

       But how did we get the word pepper? Well, it’s our old friend Columbus again. When he landed in the New World he mistook it for India, hence ‘Indians’. He also mistook the chillies as a relative of black pepper, ‘piper nigrum’, an unrelated plant from India. From piper came pepper. However, the seeds were brought back to Spain and from there Portuguese traders spread the chilli peppers to many far flung locations such as India, Indonesia, Persia and later Thailand.

      Okay, but what is it about some of them that can make your very eyes bleed. The agent responsible is an alkaloid called capsaicin and the hottest part of the chilli is not – as widely believed – the seeds, but the membrane which holds them, from which they can absorb capsaicin. So cut out the membrane, as well as the seeds, for much less potency. On saying that, some are bred hotter than others, and as a rough guide there is a handy measurement scale.

         Known as Scoville Units, a method of heat index developed by Wilbur Scoville in 1912, they measure the level of capsaicin in peppers. Ranging from one to ten, it starts with a one at 100-500 units (cherry peppers) and a ten at 100,000 to 300,000 units (habanero). Most people find jalapenos about as hot as they want to get, they rate a five, 2,500-5,000 units. Thai chillies can rate up to a nine, 50,000-100,000 units. So you have been warned!

         However, if you read this and think, ‘Ha! I laugh at Thai chillies’; perhaps you might want to take on the very hottest. And that would be a Trinidad Scorpion "Butch T" grown by The Chilli Factory in Australia. Tested in 2011, it had an astonishing 1,463,700 Scoville units!

         So, you’ve fallen for the old ‘I’ll bet you can’t eat one of those’ tricks and there’s something akin to nuclear meltdown going on inside your mouth. What do you do? Some things do help. Lipoproteins such as the casein in milk and yoghurt give some relief. Another remedy is to swish and gargle with vodka as capsaicin is soluble in alcohol. But be careful not to swallow though, as you’re likely to end up burning holes in your stomach lining. As a very last resort before passing out, you can swish your mouth with straight hydrogen peroxide, holding it without swallowing until it fizzles, then spitting it out. Repeat the process and the fire should at least be under control until the emergency services arrive!

         Of course nothing you eat here will be that hot. Thai people know that westerners aren’t as used to chillies as they are, and they can adjust dishes accordingly. In fact, you’ll often be asked how hot you want it and, if in doubt, request that the dish is mild. Order a few different items and try them out, you’ll soon get to know what’s right for you.

         And don’t forget, there are many health benefits to chillies. It is well known that they are good for circulating the blood and eliminating headaches. They are high in vitamins A and C, have very few calories and absolutely no fat. Also recently, researchers at Yale University School of Medicine devised a candy, composed predominately of hot chilli peppers, to ease mouth pain in cancer patients.

         Furthermore, on a sort of medicinal slant, a Canadian company now produces vodka called Inferno which contains chillies. The type is ‘911’ chillies, which rate about a five on the Scoville scale. It’s best drunk neat and it sends a pleasant river of lava through your veins. So grab a bar-stool first, get a cold towel second, and then thirdly - order!

         Enjoy all that this versatile vegetable has to offer and relax into its warm embrace. And don’t worry if the people on the table next to you have tears streaming down their faces, running noses and trembling lips. They aren’t getting emotional; they’re just getting acquainted with Thailand’s favourite vegetable!

         

Johnny Paterson


 


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