The Chilli Passion
There are so many herbs available it is impossible to know them all. Some have generated a lot of interest and passion over time. Plants like lavender and salvia have many followers in industry and the gardening community. One of those that generates the greatest level of passion is the good old chilli. There are chilli societies, growers and collectors all over the world. This humble little plant has become one of the more sought after flavourings across most continents. Due to its history there are also some major misconceptions and misunderstandings. Over the next few months I will go over some of the history of the chilli, the different types and cultivars and how to use them.
Chillies are in the genus Capsicum and refer to the fruits of five species and their hybrids although the genus has in ex cess of 25 species. They come from the Americas where several species have been in cultivation for over 5000 years. The five species cultivated around the world are: C. annum, C. frutescens, C.pubescens, C. chinense and C. baccatum. All species come from north, central or southern America so C. chinense is a misnomer. It was so named as an early botanist suspected that it cam from mainland China.
The genus Capsicum is a member of the family Solanaceae (the Nightshade family) which includes many staple food plants like capsicum, potato, tomato, egg plant and a couple of drugs; tobacco and Daytura. It also includes Petunia and the Belladonna. For some reason many of the plants in this family are high in a variety of chemicals that have strong affects on human physiology. Some are good and some toxic but most have some medicinal benefit in the right concentrations.
Indeed the chemical that gives Chillies their heat is called capsaicin. This is the key ingredient of the anti personal ‘Capsicum Spray’. It generally occurs in the septa in the fruit and in the white pith around the seeds. It does not occur in the seeds themselves and is present in smaller quantities in the flesh of the fruit. It is believed that the production of capsaicin (and a couple of closely related compounds) is a deterrent to herbivores and fungal infection. They react to certain receptors that are only present in mammals. As such birds can eat the fruit and the seeds without any irritation. This is perfect for ensuring survival and spreading of the species as birds are one of the best animals for seed dispersion.
Capsaicin is the ‘hot’ part of the chilli which is what so many fans are chasing. Many of us like both the heat and the flavour so it is wise to know how hot each cultivar is. This is really a subjective characteristic and what is hot for one person maybe mild for another. Hence there was a need for a rating system by which the heat of various chillies can be detailed.
In 1912 Wilbur Scoville an American pharmacist devised a system for rating the heat. He was working for a large pharmaceutical company in Michigan – Parke Davis. His rating system was originally called "The Scoville Organoleptic Test" but was eventually shortened to the ‘Scoville Scale’ and chillies are given a Scoville Heat Unit (SHU).
Cold milk and cold sugar solution are ‘antidotes’ to the heat of capsaicin. Wilbur Scoville used this property to test the heat of various chillies. He would mix up a sugar solution and then add a measured amount of capsaicin oil extracted from the relevant chilli until a panel of five taster could just detect the ‘heat’. This would give a dilution factor for the chilli. At the bottom, with a rating of zero is a sweet capsicum (or bell pepper) which has no capsaicin present in the flesh or septa. At the other end a solution of pure capsaicin has a rating of 15 million. Capsicum spray has a rating of 5 million.
Although this is a scientific based test and the results are reasonably accurate, measurable and consistent it is still a subjective test. Over the past few decades with the advancement of modern science and modern equipment there have evolved several other rating systems. Some are held by individual companies and have some conflict of interest issues. Others are too hard to use and others just have not found the acceptance of the Scoville rating.
In 2006 the Guinness Book of World Records accepted that the Chilli ‘Bhut Jolokai’ was the hottest chilli in the world with a rating of 1.1 million. Prior to that the accepted hottest chilli was the Habanero with a rating of 500,000. (Bhut Jolokai is now available through Renaissance Herbs). This is a huge jump in heat levels. It is a hot chilli from the Indian state of Assam where it used in the cooking. In February this year the Naga Viper was accepted as the world’s hottest chilli with a rating of 1.3 million SHU. However this is a hybrid of three species and thus can only be grown by cutting. Bhut Jolokai is still the hottest in Australia.
As a guide to what the heat level means the poor old Jalapeno has a rating of 5000 SHU. Below is a table with the heat level of some common chillies. These superhot chillis are actually dangerous in the hands of children and silly Aussie males. They are bred to be eaten in cooked food, sauces and pastes.
Chillies are great plants that are attractive to grow and have a lot of flavour. They do not need to be hot to be good. Indeed the majority of them have sensible heat ratings of 100,000 SHU or less. Use them in your cooking or in salads. They have definite health benefit and life to your food. If you find a dish is too hot try cool milk or cool yoghurt with some diced cucumber. Do not drink water as it does not really help. Beer tastes good but also doesn’t cool down the chilli heat. Whatever variety or heat you prefer they are always best grown at home.