Out of the more than 30 countries and five continents I have visited, I have not come across a single one that does not cook with chilies. It is not that I am a heat-seeking missile; it is just that the world loves chilies.
Chilies originated in the New World and have been eaten since at least 7500 BC. The domestication of chilies occurred more than 6,000 years ago.
There seems to be some ambiguity about just how chilies became a global food. The first and most commonly held theory holds that the global spread of chili started with Christopher Columbus and continued as Portuguese traders traveled the globe. They brought chilies to India (via their presence in Goa) and from there, it spread to the rest of Central and South-east Asia. It is plausible that it was the Portuguese who brought chilies to Africa.
Spanish historians present a different theory. They claim that it is the Spanish who brought chilies from Mexico to the Philippines (both were Spanish colonies at the time), and from there it found its way to the rest of Asia.
The most recent theory suggests that there is archeological evidence in Europe that dates the presence of chilies in Europa to the 13th century, i.e. to times before Columbus. Archaeobotanist Hakon Hjelmqvist argues that Asia is the most likely source of origin.
Chilies are part of the plant genus Capsicum and as such part of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. There are at least five species of domesticated chilies: Capsicum annum (includes bell peppers, cayenne and jalapeños); Capsicum frutescens (includes Thai peppers, piri-piri and Malawian Kambuzi); Capsicum chinense (includes naga, habanero and Scotch bonnet); Capsicum pubescens; and Capsicum baccatum. Of these the Capsicum chinense are the hottest variety.
The heat in chilies comes from the substance capsaicin and a few related chemicals, collectively called capsaicinoids. These potent substances forms part of the plants defense against animals. Elephants, for example, are extremely sensitive to capsaicinoids and everywhere in Africa chilies are commonly employed as protection for gardens and crops either by planting chilies around gardens and fields, or by mixing dried chili powder with cow or elephant dung to form a “chili-bomb”. These are set alight and left to smolder when and as needed.
Birds on the other hand are not affected by the capsaicinoids and are drawn to the plant by the fruit’s bright colour. Thus, birds are essential for the natural dispersion of seeds.
Much of the capsaicinoids occur in the placental tissue that holds the seeds and in the white pith that surrounds the seeds, which is why some recipes recommend you remove the seeds prior to cooking.
The heat in chilies is traditionally measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). In 1912, American pharmacist, Wilbur Scoville devised a method to standarise the method for assessing the amount of heat produced by different varieties of chilies. With this method a single unit of capsaicin is diluted with a water and sugar mixture until the heat is barely discernable to a panel tasters. The ratio of capsaicin to water/sugar mixture – i.e. how much the capsaicin has to be diluted to neutralize the heat – is the SHU reading. The world’s two hottest chili peppers are the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion and Carolina Reaper, which measure between 1,500,000 and 2,000,000 SHUs! Bell peppers have no heat (0 SHUs). The original red Tabasco sauce (which I assume most chili lovers in this country know and use) has between 3,500 and 8,000 SHUs).
Many chili lovers claim they are addicted to chili, and although there is no physiological evidence for chili addition, it is true that the body’s natural painkiller – endorphins – might have an effect on your mood. So, if eating chilies makes you feel good, I suggest you continue eating the meals that blow your hair back.
In my quest to learn more about the food of our world, I have had some very painful experiences with chilies. One night on the streets of Phuket I encountered an old lady with two large buckets with blanched baby shrimp, fresh coriander and loads of chili. Not being in sober mind I insisted she dish from the bowl she’d been desperate to hide from me. By the second bite I was convinced I was going to meet my Maker. When she grabbed her baskets and shuffled to the opposite end of the street, all the while mumbling what to me sounded like a final prayer, I had reinforced visions of a protracted, lonely death.
Off-course I did not die, but for a very long time I avoided all contact with old ladies selling anything that looked like food.
Many years ago, on the night that Mike Tyson chomped on Evander Holyfield’s ear, I had my first encounter with our dish for this week: jerk chicken. It was also my first encounter with the Scotch bonnet chili. And whilst Evander Holyfield lost a sizeable chunk of his ear that night, I experienced a far more wholesome pain.
In the wrong hands the Scotch bonnet can be lethal, so be careful. But do not omit it, for jerk is just not jerk without it.