A Reading List for Chilli Pepper Addicts and Wannabees
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.”
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.”
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.