To spice and beyond!

If I could take three ingredients with me, on my quest to explore life in other galaxies and to boldly go where Captain James Kirk, Admiral Bill Adama and Commander John Crichton have gone before, it would be ginger, garlic and chilli. Oh, and coriander (even though it makes it four by Earthly count). The emphasis being on chillies! Chillies galore! It’s one ingredient that almost has a cult following the world over – you can almost bond with someone just on the basis of being in love with chillies.

Now, I’m not one of those foolish people who tries to size up my masculinity, manhood or machismo by engaging in chilli eating duels. Oh no! I do quite like my taste buds and my stomach to romance the million other flavours out there as well. But I do love chillies. All sorts. I also make my own chilli relish, Mojo Risin’ which has gained favour with all those who’ve tried it – not the hottest you can find, but definitely hard hitting on the fire and the flavour.

So, what it is about chillies?

Chillies seem to be almost synonymous with Indian food, yet ironically, Indians never knew about even the existence of such a thing as chilli until, 1498 when Vasco de Gama knocked on India’s gate, bringing the magic ingredient from the Caribeean! It does seem a long time ago, but India was quite happy using black pepper until then whilst the Mexicans had been eating it since 3500 BC!

How hot is it really? Wilbur Scoville’s claim to fame in 1912 was the invention of the scale by which we measure chilli heat. It is a bit geeky and because it extends into 6 figures for the spiciest chillies, it doesn’t really make much sense to most of us. Nevertheless, on the top end there is the Naga Jalokia at 1 million Scoville and on the other end at 0 Scoville, its the humble bell pepper/capsicum.

Here’s some of my favourites at different levels of the Scoville scale.

Naga Jalokia. Origin: India

At an astounding 1 million Scoville, there is nothing nice about this Indian chilli. It’s angry, full of rage and relentless. In terms of flavour, there’s very little to take notice of as the fire soon consumes you. My experience of the Naga came in the form of the world’s spiciest curry from The Cinnamon Club in London. The recipe of the dish went something like: 1 kg lamb mince, cooked with 2 kg scotch bonnet chillies. This mix was then stuffed inside roasted scotch bonnet and naga chillies, with a raw paste of Naga drizzled on top. 6 stuffed chillies a portion, with rice, a shot of lassi and a thumb of jaggery. You can pretty much guess the effect. My mouth went numb after about 5 minutes and whilst I couldn’t taste anything in the dish itself, was the only chef in the kitchen who actually finished a whole portion. Now, whilst it took about 30 minutes to recover from the ordeal in my mouth, it took me an astounding 36 hours of pain, agony and hell to recover from the effect it had on my insides – and that’s just the pain and discomfort INSIDE me.

The website www.chillipepperpete.com sells Dragon’s Blood and Satan’s Shit – two sauces made from this diabolic chilli. I quite like the Dragon’s Blood – in carefully monitored quantities, naturally!

Habanero. Origin: Mexico
350,000 Scoville.

 Another big burner. I’ve only ever had the dried and powdered versions and they taste deliciously smoky, with a slight tang. A tiny teeny weenie pinch goes great with chocolate

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Scotch Bonnet. Origin: Caribbean
100,000-350,000 Scoville.

 My favourite chilli! By far. Intense burn, incredible aroma, multi-layered flavour – astounding! The bonnet is dangerous though. Not every chilli is similar. A fellow chef and I once ate half of every bonnet in a kilo without losing too much life force, while another time, just one bite gave me the hiccups! I make a chilli sauce from these beautiful little jewels, The Fiery Tiger, which as those who’ve tried it will confirm, is rather addictive. The bonnet also goes amazing with citrus fruits and pineapple!

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Birds Eye. Origin: South-East Asia, India
50,000-100,000 Scoville.

 These tiny elongated beauties pack a lot more punch than one realises. I quite like the green ones as they impart a rather nice and grassy/herbal flavour and leave a warm glow in your mouth. It’s what’s used in most Thai food and a variety of Birds Eye is also quite commonly used in Indian food. It’s great fried with just a little oil and salt.

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Cayenne Pepper. Origin: Latin America (French Guinea)
30,000-50,000 Scoville.

Most of us have encountered this one in it’s powdered form – typically in a lot of European cuisine where a little pinch is called for in most recipes. It’s great for adding a little zing to dishes if one doesn’t normally keep a stash of fresh chillies in the fridge.

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Jalapeno. Origin: Mexico 
3500-8000 Scoville.

 Quite a mild one, usually finding its way on tacos, pizzas and the sort. Has a short and pleasant sting and is nice pickled, roasted or just raw with a bit of salt.

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With chillies, often comes the need to soothe and comfort. As any chilli aficionado will tell you, water is about as useful as a chocolate tea pot when it comes to chilli. As the active ingredient, capsaicin is an oil and, contrary to popular belief is most concentrated in the white pith of the chilli rather than the seeds making milk and yoghurt the best extinguishers for chilli burns. And as we’ve all found, spicy food makes us feel rather happy and good about life – owing to the release of endorphins. That is, until we accidentally rub our eyes after handling chilli, when it’s more feel-bloody-awful, or in my case, whilst making my chilli relish, being attacked by a stray splash of chilli to the eye! And capsaicin is even used in homeopathy as a medicine to treat, amongst other things, hypothermia!

Oh, and don’t get me started on chilli martinis!

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