Some like it hot
Chillies are one of my favourite ingredients, with their bold and addictive flavour ranging from soft and subtly sweet to so hot and powerful it results in long, lingering burning, hiccups and even tears. Originating in the Americas, chillies have been a part of the human diet from as early as 7500 BC, and eventually paved their way throughout the world. Travelling through Spain, they made it to Asia, in the 14th or 15th century, where they were quickly adopted and fast became an integral part of Asian cuisines. Eating hot foods laced with chilli forces you to sweat more, which, in turn, cools the body, thereby making it a wise choice to eat in sweltering climes.
Members of the nightshade family, chillies are the berries of the plant and grow on trees and bushes. Usually self-pollinating, the plants are happiest under hot conditions and can be either perennial or annual. Chillies can fruit several times a year, but, interestingly, the water content and actual heat of the chilli fluctuates wildly throughout the year. That’s why that innocuous long red chilli that one time gave you a sweet, gentle flavour can, on another day, morph into a hot demon.
Scoville scale and capsaicin
Start exploring chillies and you’ll discover a range of varied and particular flavours, from sweet to smoky to fiery – so many subtleties that can all be lost beneath the initial heat of a chilli. This intensity comes from capsaicin, found mostly in the seeds or internal ribs of a chilli, and is the active component that gives them their oomph. The Scoville scale is a method invented in America in 1912 as a way to measure the heat of chillies. Scoville units (SHU) are measured using water dilution and the addition of sugar until the capsaicin component from any particular chilli can no longer be detected. Relying on the tastebuds of a panel of testers, this method can give fluctuating results and is likely flawed by human subjectivity. Starting at 0 SHU for sweet peppers, cayenne measures in at about 40,000, whereas pure capsaicin comes in at 16 million SHU.
Hot and saucy
Another thing about chillies is they take on endless forms, such as dried, flaked, powdered, and infused oils. I have had a special life-long fondness for Tabasco – its vinegary tang truly makes me happy. When it comes to true Mexican hot sauces, you may uncover more sophisticated and even hotter flavours, such as the green habanero I’m eating at the moment, which'll make you gasp if you use more than a hint. Further across the globe, North Africa has its aromatic harissa, and nham prik is a gift from our Thai friends. One of my all-time favourite sambals would be Phillip Searle’s sesame version, which he used to make in the wood-fired oven at Vulcan’s in Blackheath NSW, sadly now closed. Each visit would see me buy at least four jars, the oiliness and crunch made it so addictive I would eat it by the spoon straight out of the jar.
Green chillies are, more often than not, merely un-ripened red ones and have a fresh, clean and crisp taste that, when cooked, is distinctly tangy. Red chillies often have a rounder, sweeter flavour.
There are many ingredients that match the drama of chilli. The oft-used Asian salty fish and hot chilli duo also makes an appearance in a great Italian pasta dish of orecchiette with anchovy, chilli and broccoli. Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino is perfection – oily and garlicky with a hint of spice. Southern Italian food is also rife with chilli and tomato partnerings, the tomato adding a sweet and slightly acidic balance to the heat of chilli.
Thrill of the burn
I once went hunting at Flemington markets in search of things to pickle, and a box of pretty red scotch bonnets caught my eye. I promptly bought them and explained my intentions – only to be met with a shocked expression and, “Oh love, you wouldn’t want to eat them”. I took this as a challenge, pickled them and six months later opened the jar to have a taste; the smell was so intense it felt like it was burning the inside of my nose, and then I sneezed. They were delicious, however, when used in appropriate amounts, and lasted a long time.
It can be dicing with danger when you encounter truly hot chillies, but the endorphins your body releases when you eat hot foods can become addictive, leading to chilli cravings and a greater tolerance. No matter how hot you can handle, it is often wise to use caution and sometimes kitchen gloves when dealing with chillies. Oh, and after any encounter, remember to wash your hands before using the bathroom.
Photographs by Benito Martin. Styling by Trish Heagarty.