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Scoville inferno.

Spicy ingredients are getting hotter and hotter, pun intended. From the curries of South East Asia to the chili pastes of China and from the garam masalas of India to the salsas of Latin America, hot and spicy foods are common, but never banal. Because chili peppers thrive in very warm, hot climates, equatorial regions seem to have the heaviest concentration of pungent cuisine. Strangely enough, northern areas of Europe have never really caught the fever for the flavor of hot pepper quite as much as the rest of the world.

Different cultures have their own unique interpretations to bring out the flavors of their respective chilies. Whether it's kimchi in Korea, harissa in Tunisia, or achar in India, spicy condiments remain constant in the daily meals of very different countries. Everyone has his or her favorite hot sauce or special spicy dish, and truly, the heat can be addictive. A New World ingredient, chilies were introduced to us by Columbus. The use of the word "pepper" came into existence when it was observed that chili evoked a similar response to that of black pepper. The pepper misnomer came into existence by the simple mistake of confusing the chili plant for a black pepper plant.

The moniker "chili" often refers to the fruit or plant species, while "chili" specifies a combination of beans and/or meat stewed with spices. On the other hand, "chilli" is often, the English spelling and refers most commonly to the spice pastes or powder mixes.


Chili peppers are actually fruits, or more specifically berries, much like tomatoes. Generally, the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is; the redder the pepper, the sweeter it is. The pungent heat factor in chili is called capsaicin. This chemical actually survives cooking and freezing. Capsaicin is concentrated in the cell membranes and seeds of the pepper. Those areas are the most potent, and if removed, will lessen the punch.

There are many different types of peppers. Just as trying to spell the word "chili" can be confusing, many types of chilies have two names or more, each. For example, a poblano can also be called pasilla, unless it is dried; then it is sometimes an ancho, adding to the chaos.

In choosing chilies, certain factors should be considered. The quality of fresh chilies is obvious upon inspection, but when choosing dried chilies, avoid the brittle ones. Brittleness can signify old age or improper storage, and probably lack of characteristic, essential oils. For powdered or ground chili, it's best to make your own chili mixes or try to blend your own chilies from the dried form to a variety of combinations.

Aside from the many names and varieties, what keeps chili-lovers coming back for more is the addictive, mind-blowing physical reaction to capsaicin. This chemical causes the burning sensation, which actually fools our brain into producing those beloved endorphins to ease the pain. This euphoria is what keeps us biting back for more.

Turn up the heat!

So, how hot does it get? Explaining the heat factors in chili can be as complex as rocket science, but there are two tests to determine the intensity of the peppers' heat. The most accepted index of measurement is the Scoville Unit.

Pharmacist Wilbur Scoville developed the Scoville Organoleptic Test in 912. Simply stated, the test designates a number based on the level of dilution required to completely disarm a pepper. Diluted measured amounts of chili pepper, with measured amounts of a sugar-water mix, are combined until the burning sensation is gone. A panel of tasters perform this test. The Scoville heat scale is measured in multiples of 100 units.

Because it uses subjective human criteria to evaluate results, the Scoville test is considered too imprecise. Its accuracy is disputed and even considered archaic. While the test methods have been modified, Scovilles are still the accepted unit of measure. Many official organizations have scrutinized this method for its accuracy.

There is another way to measure heat intensity, the Gillett Method. This procedure, using High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC),is the most accurate and rapid means of measuring heat. HPLC requires the chili to be dried and ground; the capsaicin is extracted and analyzed with highly sensitive instruments, making the determination of the intensity of the chili peppers more exact and impartial.

Some like it hot:

The common bell pepper measures 0 Scoville Units. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Red Savina, a type of habanero, is the hottest at 577,000 units. However, reports exist of an even hotter pepper called the Naga Jolokia which grows in the hills of India. With a scorching rate of 855,000 Scoville Units, there are explorations of its use as a possible component in teargas. But to judge a chili pepper strictly by Scoville units is to miss the layers of flavor that a pepper can bring to a dish. These qualities range from citrus to coffee, to tobacco and prune, not to mention the smoky, almond quality of dried peppers.

Unofficially, we coin names to describe the heat of a dish through word association; fire, degrees of heat, alarms, and so on. However, despite the pain and fearful reactions by some, it is possible to create and balance flavors in piquant foods. Asia and Latin America riddle their spicy foods with coriander, sour or sweet ingredients, giving a yin yang effect that calms the heat.

Too hot to handle:

The volatile chili pepper is simple to use but can inflict pain if not handled correctly. People's sensitivity levels will determine their reactions. Capsaicin leaves a residue on any surface it comes in contact with. When using chilies, wear gloves if your skin is sensitive. Never rub your eyes or face. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water when you are done; this is especially important for gentlemen before a trip to the bathroom!

Bite your Tongue

Everyone's tongue has different sensory areas. There is one area that detects salt, another sweet, and so on. Black pepper is sensed in a different area of the tongue than chili. Interestingly enough, in nations like Africa or Korea where hot chili is commonplace, but black pepper seldom used, a dish spiked with black pepper can incite tears.

To eat chili takes some learning. At first, it can be painful, but later it becomes addictive. If you've eaten something too hot, the natural assumption would be to drink water, or better yet, an icy, cold beer to douse the fire. In actuality, milk products or fatty items will coat the mouth and help neutralize the burn more effectively. Lassi, a yogurt based drink common in India, is a delicious accompaniment that lessens the sting of a spicy dhal. Remember, whatever part of the vessel you drank from for relief will probably be coated with capsaicin. If you drink from the same contaminated area, you'll "re-infect" yourself.

Eating fiery food often will build up tolerance and allow the palate to appreciate the many complex flavors deep within each chili. Learning to identify the flavors and individual qualities of different peppers takes time and patience, much like learning to appreciate wine.

Like firecrackers, some peppers are full-out duds, with no pep whatsoever. The truth be told, different plants of the same pepper species can have unequal degrees of heat.

There is constant development of cross breeding and hybrids coming out, so the chili is constantly evolving into even a hotter species. There is a macho misconception that "he who eats the hottest is most manly (grunt!)."

Fiery foods have been around for a long time, in every form possible--sweet, savory, liquid, and dry. As the chili pepper's popularity and availability expand, the potential variety of sauces and condiments incorporating this fiery fruit has no limits. The dedicated chili pepper fan can't ever seem to get enough.
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Title Annotation:Wilbur Scoville; chili peppers testing
Author:Cash, Johnny
Publication:Art Culinaire
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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