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A Reading List for Chilli Pepper Addicts and Wannabees

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Sami signs the guestbook after eating the spiciest dish in a Paris restaurant

My office mate Sami is addicted to chilli peppers. But in a good way. We often have lunch all together in a common room, and no meal would be complete for him without a chilli pepper to chomp on. But when, and how did his addiction begin?

“I must have been 12 or 13 and I tasted a bell pepper paste that was slightly spicy. In Syria [where Sami grew up] it’s eaten for breakfast in the country sometimes and it’s called muhammara. But I wanted it to be spicier. I kept looking for something more fiery but I was often disappointed because in Syria the food’s not very spicy. Then I discovered Tabasco sauce but I didn’t like the vinegary taste. I was looking for a certain sensation but couldn’t put my finger on it until that blessed day when I discovered Vietnamese cuisine as a student in Montpellier.”

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Thai chilli

What Sami discovered was bird’s eye chilli pepper, also known as Thai chilli, which is used in most Southeast Asian cuisines. It measures about 100,000 Scoville Heat Units, a way of measuring the heat level of a chilli pepper. Its heat profile, which takes into consideration how you feel when you consume a chilli pepper—development, duration of heat, where you feel it, how you feel, and its intensity—is considered medium. Still, Thai chillis are pretty hot. Since the fateful day when he discovered chilli peppers, Sami has been playing around with sensations, dosing the heat.

“I start with one bite and then I add more, little by little. In some dishes such as African and Caribbean ones, chilli is integrated to the entire dish so each mouthful is spicy but that’s not what I am looking for. I like to manage the chilli, I like to begin with certain flavors and then blast them with a dose of chilli and then start over again.”

Vietnamese cuisine was his entry point to the chilli pepper, then he circled back to “Middle-Eastern dishes such as grilled lamb. With French food, chilli goes well with gruyère or cured meats.”

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scotch bonnet chilli

His favorite chilli is the scotch bonnet when it has reached the maturity level of the color orange. This chilli, 100,000-350,000 Scoville Heat Units, “is perfection for me,” declared Sami. “The taste is very concentrated, high and fruity. It has a metallic aftertaste, very specific to this chilli. I don’t use it every day, my basic chilli is Thai, and the scotch bonnet is for a treat.”

Sami happily admits that he feels like an addict. But mainly it’s because he likes to play with flavors, and give them a boost. Capsaicin is the chemical in chilli peppers that makes them spicy and produces a burning sensation. It is also said to stimulate the production of endorphins, and could also indirectly, because of the sensation that your mouth is on fire, stimulate adrenaline. But food historian Dave DeWitt, dubbed “the pope of peppers”, concludes in an article that, “While people definitely do not develop a physical addiction, they do become habituated to chiles because of their flavor, their stimulating properties, and their healthfulness.”

So Sami is not an addict in the true sense, moreover, according to a recent scientific study it looks like he’ll live longer than the rest of his office mates to boot. The moral of the story is, eat chilli peppers joyfully. Here is a list of recipe books to help you do so.

The Complete Chile Pepper Book: A Gardener's Guide to Choosing, Growing, Preserving, and Cooking

The Complete Chile Pepper Book, by world-renowned chile experts Dave DeWitt and Paul W. Bosland, shares detailed profiles of the one hundred most popular chile varieties and include information on how to grow and cultivate them successfully, along with tips on planning, garden design, growing in containers, dealing with pests and disease, and breeding and hybridizing. Techniques for processing and preserving include canning, pickling, drying, and smoking. Eighty-five mouth-watering recipes show how to use the characteristic heat of chile peppers in beverages, sauces, appetizers, salads, soups, entrees, and desserts. 

The Field Guide to Peppers

In this fiery guide, experts Dave DeWitt and Janie Lamson help you identify hundreds of the most popular chile pepper varieties. The 400 profiles include all the major types of peppers and are packed with information on culinary use, interesting facts, and chile nomenclature. Photos of each variety make for easy identification. Includes popular varieties such as ancho, bell, jalapefio, and New Mexican. Each entry gives the cultivar name, origin, pod size and color, plant height, days to harvest, and heat level.

Peppers Of The Americas

From piquillos and shishitos to padrons and poblanos, the popularity of culinary peppers (and pepper-based condiments, such as Sriracha and the Korean condiment gochujang) continue to grow as more consumers try new varieties and discover the known health benefits of Capsicum, the genus to which all peppers belong. This visual reference to peppers showcases nearly 200 varieties (with physical description, tasting notes, uses for cooks, and beautiful botanical portraits for each). There are more than 40 Latin recipes for spice blends, salsas, sauces, salads, vegetables, soups, and main dishes that highlight the big flavors and taste-enhancing capabilities of peppers.

Hot Sauce Cookbook

Here are dozens of recipes for homemade pepper sauces and salsas—including riffs on classic brands like Frank’s RedHot, Texas Pete, Crystal, and Sriracha—plus step-by-step instructions for fermenting your own pepper mash. Recipes for Meso-american salsas, Indonesian sambal, and Ethiopian berbere showcase the sweeping history and range of hot sauces around the world. Walsh also serves up more than fifty recipes for spice-centric dishes—including Pickapeppa Pot Roast, the Original Buffalo Wing, Mexican Micheladas, and more. 

The World's Best Spicy Food

The Lonely Planet presents 100 spicy dishes with historical and cultural information, as well as instructions on how to make it at home. Every dish is illustrated with evocative photography. 

The Vietnamese Market Cookbook

This list wouldn't be complete without a book of Vietnamese recipes, the cuisine that allowed Sami to discover the chilli pepper. Salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and spicy: these are the flavorful tenets of Vietnamese cuisine. That's the message that authors Van Tran and Anh Vu wanted to bring to a hungry crowd when they opened their banh mi stall in London. The recipes are simpler than you might think but explode with the purest flavors of vegetables, seafood, lean meats, spices, chiles, and treasured Vietnamese condiments like fish sauce.


Journalist, globe trotter and food lover