The humble chilli – nature’s not so secret weapon

Many of the vividly coloured chillies on display in today’s supermarkets are fairly innocuous. Others are gastronomic time bombs with an extremely short fuse – the kind you don’t want to mess with.

Chilli peppers may have been the first plants to be domesticated in Central America, where there is evidence that they were being consumed as far back as 7500 BCE. After Columbus the fruit spread throughout Europe and the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires.

Generally speaking, the smaller the chilli and the thinner its flesh, the more elongated its shape, and the sharper its end, the hotter it will be. The most common varieties are the ancho (which includes the poblano), the bird’s-eye, the cayenne, the cherry, the habanero or scotch bonnet, the honka or lombok, the jalapeño or chipotle, the mulato, the pasilla, the serrano, the tabasco, and the togarashi. There are many more.

In some parts of India, chillies are believed to have supernatural powers. It is customary to hang a few chillies with a lemon over the threshold of a residence to deter evil. A handful of chillies together with curry leaves and a little ash from the hearth can be waved over a person’s head to create a shield against curses and bad spells.

The pseudo-scientific explanation for people’s liking for chillies is that the sensation of pain releases endorphins in the body which cause a “high”. This pain/pleasure equation means that some chilli addicts think the hotter the better. But heat is not all. The complex flavours in chillies offer a range of tastes and fragrances.

ScovilleChilli heat is measured on the Scoville scale, named after its creator, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville (photo left), who devised it in 1912. The number of Scoville heat units (SHU) indicates the amount of capsaicin present – a chemical compound that stimulates chemoreceptor nerve endings in the skin, especially the mucous membranes. To get a sense of the range, imagine that the sweet pimiento peppers found in Spanish stuffed olives have a rating of SHU 100 to 900.

The Number Five Hottest Chilli in the world is the Dorset Naga (SHU 660,000 to 1,032,000), whose lethal effects include burning eyes, streaming nose, uncontrollable hiccups and worse. Number Four is the Bhut Jolokia or Ghost Pepper (SHU 800,000 to 1,041,000). It is perhaps the best known chilli in the world after Tabasco and Jalapeño. A hybrid cultivated in the Indian states of Nagaland and Assam (good job they don’t put it in their tea) the Ghost Pepper was once recognized by Guinness World Records as the hottest pepper in the world.

Number Three in the league of hottest chillies is the Infinity (SHU 800,000 to 1,067,000) created in England by Fire Foods in Grantham, Lincolnshire, previously only known as the birthplace of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the town where Isaac Newton went to school. For two weeks in February 2011, the Infinity held the Guinness World Record title for the world’s hottest chilli with an SHU of 1,067,286.

Naga-ViperNumber Two is the appropriately named Naga Viper (SHU 800,000 to 1,382,118), described as the Grim Reaper in chilli form. In comparison, a jalapeño pepper measures between SHU 2,500 and 10,000. The Naga Viper (left) was created in England by the Chilli Pepper Company in Cark, Cumbria, and is a three-way hybrid produced from the Naga Morich, the Bhut Jolokia and the Trinidad Scorpion.

Trinidad-Moruga-ScorpionFinally, weighing in as the current world champion with an impressive SHU 900,000 to 2,000,000 is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion (right) from Trinidad and Tobago. In February 2012 the New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute identified the Trinidad Scorpion as the latest hottest chilli pepper. According to one grower, the beauty of the peppers is they’re not only the hottest in the world, but they’re also among the most flavourful. You have been warned!

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