Monday 27 October 2008

Cooking with Chillies

Chillies, also known as chilis, chilé and ají are the fruit of members of the Capsicum genus of flowering plants (all members of the Solanaceae (deadly nightshade) family of plants and range from sweet bell peppers (no heat) to the Naga chilli (currently the world's hottest).

They all originate in the Americas, where they have been cultivated for at least 7500 and they were probably probably an essential component of the Mesoamarican diet (which relied on maize and beans as a staple) as the high vitamin C content of red peppers increases the uptake of non red blood cell iron in diets containing little or no meat. For this very reason they are a crucial component of the West African diet today.

Christopher Columbus encountered them on his first voyage to the Carribean in 1492 and though he did not bring any back on that voyage (they were taken to Spain on his second voyage) he does wirte of a 'pepper' that the natives called Ají which was better in taste and nature that ordinary peppers. However, it was the Portuguese who, in 1498 took the chilli pepper (most notably the piri-piri chilli) back to Portugal and the Cape Verde islands. But as they sought to exploit their foothold in the Americas they brought chillies to West Africa and African slaves to Brazil. Chillies, most notably, the piri-piri did so well in West Africa that they became wild and naturalized and now the piri-piri grows wild in West Africa (which is why, even to this day it's often mistaken as an African native). Between 1498 and 1549 the chilli spread eastwards both over the silk route and through Portuguese conquests in India, the Spice Islands, China and finally Japan so that by 1549 the chilli was known as far as Japan. See this article on the history of the spread of chillies to learn more about how chillies moved across the Old World.

Of course, what's amazing about chillies is that, when dried, they have pure 'heat' but no bitterness and only very little flavour. As a result they can be used to enhance a dish without affecting it's flavour in any way. The actual 'heat' effect of chillies is created by the chemical, capsacin. These are hydrophobic (water-hating) chemicals and this is why they tend to bury themselves into the surfaces of the palate and the mouth causing irritation (the burning sensation; indeed the chemical is produced by the plants to deter predation by animals). This is also why drinking water is ineffective as a way of eliminating the burning sensation. The capsaicinoids do not dissolve in water and are simply spread by it. However, foods rich in fat such as milk and yoghurt will eliminate the chemical (this is why yoghurt is served with many Indian dishes).

As a fruit, there are five species of chillies: Capsicum annuum, the largest group which contains sweet bell peppers as well as Jalapeño chillies, Thai birdseye chillies and cayenne peppers; Capsicum frutescens which includes African birds-eye chillies and Tabasco chillies; Capsicum chinense, which includes some of the hottest chillies, Scotch bonnet chillies and habanero chillies; Capsicum baccatum, which contains some of the rarer but more flavoursome chillies such as the ají 'hot lemon' and Capsicum pubescens which contains chillies such as the rocoto.

he 'heat' of foods is measured by special units, called Scoville units. Bell peppers rank at zero Scoville units, jalapeños at 3,000–6,000 Scoville units, and habaneros at 300,000 Scoville units. The current official Guinness Book of Records record for the highest Scoville rating for a chilli pepper goes to the Red Savina Habanero, measuring 577,000 units. Reports of a hotter pepper have circulated for many years, though and a recent report was made of a pepper from India called the Naga Jolokia measuring at 855,000 Scoville units but the validity of this claim is disputed. However, in April 2006 a report of the Naga Dorset pepper, a variety of the Naga Jolokia pepper cultivated exclusively by the Peppers by Post company in Dorset, England who claimed their pepper measured 923,000 SHU [note that pure capsaicin rates at 15,000,000 Scoville units].

In the fruit itself, it's only the stem end of he fruit that contains the glands to produce capsaicin. This chemical then flows down the membranes inside the fruit and into the seeds. This is why removing the seeds and membranes as well as the stem effectively reduces the heat of the fruit. (To learn more about chillies see this chilli spice page.)

Of course, the real point of chillies is to use them in cooking, whether you use the raw fruit or use prepared chilli powders such as cayenne pepper, paprika or hot chilli powder. Or you can use dried chillies (chillies dry well and retain their heat, which is one reason that, globally, they became a desirable spice).

One of the hottest chilli dishes I know is the West African 'pepper soup' and below is a recipe for this very fiery stew:

Pepper Soup with Chicken

20 Scotch Bonnet chillies
4 ripe tomatoes
Juice of 1 lime
200ml chicken stock (or 1 chicken stock cube in 200ml water)
450g chicken thighs
2 onions, roughly sliced
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
vegetable oil
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped


First take five of the chillies and pound to a paste in a pestle and mortar. Then roughly chop the tomatoes and add these to the pestle and mortar and pound in.

Add about 60ml vegetable oil into a large stock pot, then add the chicken and fry until golden brown on all sides. At this point add the remaining chillies, onions and garlic and fry for about 5 minutes. Add the chilli and tomato paste, season with the salt and pepper then add the lime juice, 200ml of chicken stock and 1.5l water. Bring to the boil, reduce to a slow simmer, cover and cook for 45 minutes.

The soup can be served as it is (the guest would mash the chillies with the back of a spoon before eating) or, alternatively mash the chillies with a fork and then serve in soup bowls.

(This recipe, reproduced, with thanks from the Celtnet Chicken Pepper Soup Recipe page.

For a collection of several hundred chilli recipes from all corners of the globe check out the Celtnet Chilli Recipes pages.

If you truly like chillies then here is a link to an article (with recipes) for the word's three hottest chillies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello i read your post its very useful for me thanks for sharing this one.
Chef Course

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