Chilli peppers are the annual fruit of the capsicum bush and originated in Central and South America. So they hail from the same family as red/green/yellow peppers, also called capsicums in Australia. Chillies mature from green to red, becoming hotter in flavour as they mature, which is a handy thing to remember in life. (Also, in general, the smaller the chilli variety, the hotter they tend to be – so beware the small red ones!)
You’ve got that burning feeling
Chilli heat comes from natural chemicals called capsinoids (the main one being capsaicin) that are found mainly in the inner white pith of the chilli (rather than the seeds). There are different types of capsinoids, which is why different chillies set off heat sensations in different parts of your mouth. And – in a fabulously clever, but slightly horror-movie twist – the capsaicin cells are under high pressure, so when the chilli is cut or broken open, they burst and spray their mouth-burning chemical around the place.
The jalapeño of pleasure and pain
Capsinoids act on the pain receptors in our mouths to produce a burning sensation. And why on earth do we seek this in a food, we hear you ask? Because the burning makes our body produce endorphins – those feel-good chemicals that produce a natural high, which is why some people get addicted to spicy food. Capsaicin isn’t very soluble in water, but it IS soluble in oil and alcohol – which is why a glass of milk or a beer really DOES help more than water when your mouth is burning. Great news – spicy chicken mole and an ice-cold Corona really IS the way to go!
The Scoville scale
Anyone who loves chillies knows about the Scoville heat scale, invented by pain-curious American chemist Wilbur Scoville in 1912 to measure the heat experienced by people tasting hot chillies. There are dozens of varieties of chilli, ranging from sweet and mild to ‘help-me-Wilbur-my-taste-buds-have-burnt off’ (not a formal Scoville ranking).
MEET THE CHILLIES
Banana chilli: a mild, sweet, long and large chilli, usually orange-red or yellow. Also known as the yellow wax pepper. Often split, stuffed with meat or cheese and grilled. 0–500 Scoville Heat Units (SHU)
Ancho chilli: a dried poblano chilli, used a lot in Mexican cooking, especially in mole sauces. Dark red and mild. 1000–2000 SHU
Jalapeño pepper: red or green and very hot if not deseeded, this is a big favourite in Mexican cooking. Oval-shaped, small and shiny with thick, juicy flesh. When cut, the slices look like wheels. Dried jalapenos are called chipotles. 2500–8000 SHU
Serrano chilli: again, popular in Mexican dishes, especially salsas. Long, cylindrical and red or green. You’re getting hotter! 10,000–23,000 SHU
Bird’s eye chilli: also called Thai chilli. Originated in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and surrounding countries but now grown all over the world. Very small and very hot. Comes in red or green and is often used in Thai curries or sliced onto Asian salads. 50,000–100,000 SHU
Habanero chilli: the hottest used in general cooking (unless you’re going to seek out the temptingly named Carolina Reaper, at 2.2 million SHU). The habanero is a bulbous lantern-shape and comes in red, green or orange. Used in Mexican salsas and marinades. 100,000–350,000 SHU
To remove most of the heat, slice the chilli in half lengthways and cut out the white pith and seeds.
Wear rubber gloves while slicing.
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap after cutting chillies (and always before touching your eyes, mouth or nose!).
If you get chilli burn on your hands, run them under cold water, then rub them against stainless steel (hopefully, your sink) or hold in a bowl of milk for a few minutes.
Cooking a chilli whole in a dish, rather than chopping it, will produce less heat.
If you do find a finished dish is too hot, add yoghurt, coconut milk or cream.
If you burn your mouth on spicy food, take a mouthful of yoghurt and hold it in there for a while (tricky in a restaurant – just nod and smile) or have a piece of bread and drink of milk.
Drying chillies is a great way to store them if you’ve grown your own or bought a load when they’re in season. Thin-skinned varieties work better than thick-skinned for drying. Put them somewhere warm and well ventilated and leave until they’re firm all over, then store in a jar or tin in a dark, cool cupboard.