I grew up unaware that across Australia, people cut chillies in half and scraped out their seeds. When I told my Sri Lankan family I was writing a story about ‘deseeding chillies,’ I had to explain the practice, so incomprehensible was the idea. Dad watched a YouTube tutorial and declared it “a joke”.
Chillies are not deseeded in many Asian countries that use them extensively - Sri Lanka and the rest of the Subcontinent, but also across South-East and East Asia. They are chopped, sliced or pounded and added to dishes or used as condiments, seeds and all. If you want less heat, you would simply use less chilli.
Yet many recipe magazines and cookbooks published in Australia call for chillies to be “split, seeds scraped”, “deseeded” or “seeded”, even in otherwise authentic recipes for Asian cuisines. The process likely stems back to when these recipes first began to be published here and were modified for local palates. Charmaine Solomon’s 1976 bible The Complete Asian Cookbook calls for chillies that are “slit and seeded”, though the practice is laughable in her birth country of Sri Lanka and it’s unlikely she’d have done this at home.
Forty years and several waves of migration on, I think we’re ready to start assuming that the average Australian can handle some chilli on their banh mi (pork roll).
Love chilli in your roll? Try Luke Nguyen's pork terrine banh mi!
Recipes that call for chillies to be deseeded as the default position are assuming that liking chilli is the exception. That you probably don’t like spicy food. Or that you don’t like the look of the seeds in the final product of your dish.
And from this stems the ridiculous logic of using multiple, deseeded chillies, something I’ve never understood. More effort and more chillies required to achieve any decent level of heat.
Deseeding a chilli is a fiddly job. You don disposable gloves, slice the chilli in half lengthwise and then scrape out the seeds and importantly, the attached white ‘placenta’, sometimes called the membrane.
This is actually the hottest part of the chilli, but the term manual placenta removal doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as deseeding and was already taken (do not Google this). The heat in chillies comes from capsaicin, a chemical compound that forms on the surface of those innocent-looking white bits and coats the seeds. Only a small amount of capsaicin seeps through to the flesh, so you’re removing most of the heat if you get rid of everything else.
Palisa Anderson, director of the Chat Thai restaurant group, says deseeding chillies is “unheard of” in Thai cooking. So why do we do it?
“I think chillies entered the [Australian] national consciousness, and people wanted to cook with chillies, but they couldn’t really handle the heat,” she says.
"You can’t kid yourself and pretend you are adding chillies if you are taking the seeds out."
Ajoy Joshi, chef and owner of Sydney’s Nilgiri’s restaurant, would never deseed a chilli. “You can’t kid yourself and pretend you are adding chillies if you are taking the seeds out.” His only advice for those that do? “Don’t bother adding it.”
Growing up in India, he was taught that the seeds are the most important part of the chilli, and worries this traditional knowledge is being lost. “Eat the seeds, and you won’t need to take vitamin C pills,” he says. “The seeds also help to produce saliva, which is so important for the human digestive system.”
In sweltering Hyderabad, southern India, Ajoy’s mum would feed him chillies as a child to cool down, because the seeds promote perspiration. “Why would you tell your kids not to eat chillies? The whole of India would be vacant if kids died from eating chillies and there’s 1.2 billion of us!”
From the perspective of a chilli fiend, cutting down that punch of heat in a dish also changes the finished product altogether. Is a Sri Lankan dish authentic if you’ve stripped it of its fire?
And if you’ve neutered its heat, is it worth adding the chilli at all?
Ian Hemphill, the spice expert behind Herbie’s Spices, says it is. He often deseeds chillies and explains that it’s not just about adding heat, but flavour. “The flavour is mostly in the flesh of the chilli,” he says, suggesting the seeds don’t really add much in that respect, “maybe a slight bitterness.”
“If you want to substitute a fresh chilli in a dish, add some fresh capsicum and that maintains the flavour balance without the heat.”
Accredited practicing dietitian, Themis Chryssidis also says the majority of vitamins and minerals, especially antioxidants such as vitamin C, are found in the skin, so a deseeded chilli is certainly worth adding from a nutritional perspective.
But capsaicin, found in the placenta and seeds, has its own benefits. It can be an irritant (laksa is a pleasant burn, capsicum spray, less so), but it’s also responsible for increasing the body’s metabolic rate, in other words, burning fat.
Chewing down on a chilli seed tricks your brain into thinking your mouth is touching something physically hot – that you’re licking a hotplate, for instance – and your body responds accordingly for approximately 15 minutes. All mammals feel the burn (but birds don’t, an evolutionary trick to enable them to spread the seeds). It causes an increase in body temperature, which prompts sweating, a slight metabolism boost, and the endorphin rush that chilli-lovers crave.
The effects of capsaicin on the body are still being studied, but it is commonly used in pain relief creams, because the perceived pain actually works to block your pain receptors. Studies have suggested it may also suppress appetites, destroy certain bacteria and potentially even kill prostate cancer cells, though more research needs to be done.
So whether in the interests of cultural authenticity, hedging your bets of the benefits of capsaicin, or just because it’s a waste of time and good chilli, stop and think the next time a recipe calls for chillies, deseeded.
“Don’t just do it because a chef tells you to,” says Ajoy. “A recipe on its own has no meaning. You have to know why each thing goes into the dish.”
Or in this case, why it’s being left out.
Lead image by Andreas (Flickr).
Chilli image from Getty.
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