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Galveston Monthly

Some Like It Hot

Sep 02, 2019 05:58PM

The spicy heat of chili peppers comes from a substance known as capsaicin along with several other chemicals contained in the fruit. The quantity of capsaicin in any given pepper depends on growing conditions and the quantity of water ingested by the plant. Low water amounts cause more concentrations of capsaicin in some parts of the fruit. Peppers also increase the volume of capsaicin in response to an attack of fungal damage to the seeds.

  Capsicum fruit has been a part of the human diet since 7,500 BC and is considered one of the oldest cultivated crops in South America. Origins of the fruit have been traced to northeastern Mexico and have self-pollinated across Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America. Peru and Bolivia have the largest diversity of capsicum peppers that have been continuously consumed by humans from pre-Columbian times to the present.

  Christopher Columbus and his crew discovered the capsicum fruit, calling them “peppers” because like black pepper used at that time throughout Europe, they had a spicy, hot taste which was unlike other types of food found in the Caribbean. The Spaniards carried the “pepper” fruits back to Europe as a fine delicacy.

  Portuguese traders promoted the marketing and use of the fruits through the Asian spice trade routes and into India towards the end of the 15th century. Today chili peppers are commonly used across varied regions of the world. 

  Red chilies contain large amounts of vitamin C, while other species have significant quantities of vitamin A and can be a rich source of vitamin B6. The leaves of capsicum chilies are edible, mildly bitter but not as hot as the fruit itself. Cooked as “greens” in the Philippines, the leaves are often added to soups for extra flavor.

  Chilies are considered a staple in many countries where they are often ground into powders or pastes. The dish called chipotle is the smoked, dried, ripe jalapeno. Another popular chili in Mexico is the Poblano. It has a tough outer skin that does not break down in cooking, thus leaving the flesh inside to be eaten whole as the skin usually slips off easily.

  The colors and contrasting foliage make chili peppers attractive garden plants as well, especially the Black Pearl pepper that sports small cherry-shaped fruit with dark brown to black leaves. Also of interest is the Black Hungarian pepper with its green foliage highlighted by purple veins, purple flowers, and jalapeno-shaped fruit.  In India, cooks use hot green chilies to flavor curries as well as dry dishes. Fresh or dried chilies are used to make commercially available hot sauces to add spice to home cooking. 

  Another attractive pepper plant is the Bishop’s crown pepper, called the Christmas bell pepper for its distinct three-sided shape that resembles a red bishop’s crown or a red Christmas bell.    

   The Thai Ornamental Hot Pepper produces large numbers of green fruit that mature to a “blazing red color with heat and flavor to match.” This variety grows well in hot climates and is compact in size, perfect for containers, with colorful peppers that last throughout the growing season.

  For more color, try the Chilly Chili that has long extended yellow and red “fingers” that shoot straight up from the plant, or the Aurora chili pepper that bears fruit in green, purple, orange and red on one plant.

  Capsicum chili peppers are used to add pungency, tang and a spiciness to foods; when consumed by humans or other mammals, the capsaicin binds to pain receptors in the throat and mouth sometimes inducing irritation in the brainstem and thalamus where heat and discomfort are perceived.

   Why do some humans crave and enjoy these burning sensations even seeking hotter and spicier combinations in the foods they savor and relish? One psychologist, Paul Rozin has stated that perhaps eating chilies might be considered a “constrained risk” akin to riding a rollercoaster, in which extreme sensations like pain and fear can be enjoyed while understanding that these stimulations are not actually harmful and are without significant risk of harm.

 Interesting Chili Facts

Capsaicin, the chemical in chili peppers that makes them hot is often used in topical heat patches, nasal sprays and ointments.

Capsaicin is used in the manufacture of pepper sprays and tear gas.

Capsaicin targets specific pain receptors in mammals but not in birds, so as birds consume chili peppers, the peppers are naturally dispersed in bird feces.

In some African and Asian countries, “chili dung bricks” are placed around fields and burned to discourage elephants from devouring the food crops.

Creating the world’s hottest pepper is considered a huge success so many growers continually work on crafting the next record holder.

Chili Dishes from Around the World

Some notable dishes from around the world that contain chili peppers include:

Paprikash (Hungary)- includes amounts of mild, ground dried chilies (paprika) in a chicken dish.

Sabal terasi (Indonesia)- hot condiment made with chili, garlic and shrimp paste

Arrabbiata (Italy)- a tomato-based sauce for pasta includes dried hot chilies.

Puttanesca (Italy)- a sauce made with chilies, olives, capers and anchovies.

Chilies en nogada (Mexico)- fresh mild chilies stuffed with meat topped with creamy nut sauce.

Mole poblano (Mexico)- dried chilies, nuts, spices and fruit in a thick dark sauce for poultry.

How Hot is Hot?

The Scoville scale measures the heat of chili peppers in units based on the concentration of capsaicinoids. The range of pepper heat as reflected by the Scoville score:

Pepper                                                                                                                                   Scoville Heat Units

Pepper X, Carolina Reaper, Dragon’s Breath*                                                               800,000 to 3,200,000

Red Savina, Chocolate Habanero                                                                                     350,000 to 800,000

Habanero, Scotch Bonnet                                                                                                  100,000 to 350,000

Malaqueta Pepper, Cayenne Pepper                                                                              10,000 to 100,000

Guajillo Pepper, Jalapeno                                                                                                   1,000 to 10,000

Banana Pepper, Cubanelle                                                                                                100 to 1,000

Bell Pepper, Pimento                                                                                                          0 to 100

 *The Pepper X and the Carolina Reaper were cultivated in the U.S. while the Dragon’s Breath is from Wales.

How to Stop the Burn

Capsaicin is an alkaline oil and does not dissolve in water; the key to stopping the heat is to neutralize the pepper oil.


On your hands:

Always wear gloves when chopping hot peppers

Wash hands with rubbing alcohol and dish soap

Wash hands with hand degreaser and dish soap

Soak hands in corn starch or vinegar

In mouth, tongue or throat:

Drink tomato juice or whole milk (the fat is a necessary ingredient)

Eat fresh lemons or limes, yogurt or sour cream (not fat free)

In your eyes:

Blink fast to tear up to help flush eyes

Apply whole milk

Use saline solution to flush while continually blinking

Pickled Hot Peppers

 Pickled peppers are great in salads or as a side dish. For less spice, remove the seeds and the white membrane from the inside of the peppers.

1 ½ pounds of banana peppers cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound of jalapeno peppers in 1-inch pieces

¼ pound of serrano peppers in 1-inch pieces

6 cups vinegar

3 cloves of crushed garlic

1 chopped onion

 Place peppers in a large pot, add remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium/low and simmer for 5 minutes. Ladle pepper concoction into sterile jars to ¼ inch from top of jar for headspace. To process the jars for a longer shelf-life, top the jars with two-piece lids (lid and ring-band), and place in rack of canning pot (a regular Dutch oven will suffice as well). Fill pot with enough water to cover jars 1-2 inches, and boil for ten minutes. Remove carefully, let cool, and enjoy!