Hot quotient: Take a chilli pill – and feel the burn

Some won’t touch it, let alone taste it, while others can’t do without its zing: the chilli comes in many shapes, sizes and colours, packing a punch. After early Portuguese seafarers and colonisers spread it across continents, it has become a symbol of identity, culture and cuisine.

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 17 Feb 2022, 11:23 PM

Last updated: Thu 17 Feb 2022, 11:30 PM

It was my first visit to England and, by the end of the first week, I had become something of a zombie, moving unfeelingly around the college in Cambridge where I was on a fellowship. Darkness around 3.30pm during the grey, snowy days of January had something to do with it, but the real reason was in the college cafeteria and the dining hall, where I was supposed to go for formal and informal meals.

The cafeteria staff was always enthusiastic, but being a lifelong veggie (by choice), most of the dishes were out of bounds, leaving me to choose between bland and blander fare: soup, boiled vegetables, chips, bread and yoghurt. That was the time I realised how close the link is between a sense of being alive, being on top of your game, and the food that you grow up on. You don’t realise its value, usually take it for granted, until you don’t have it for days on end.

By the end of the first week, I was fraying in the cold environs, the mind frozen, desperate to find some spicy Indian food to bring back some normalcy. I am at the low to middle level on the chilli lovers scale, but do need the punch. One evening, through knee-high snow, I trudged in darkness quite a distance and literally dashed into an Indian restaurant, one of the few in the university town. It turned out to be one run by Bangladeshi chefs who customise dishes to suit British palates, again bland and different compared to the fare back home.

After devouring what was supposed to be ‘tarka dal’ and ‘aloo gobhi’, leaving rubbery rotis alone, I insisted to the sympathetic waiter to bring me some chillies to go with the dishes, inviting amusing glances from nearby tables. Only chillies could compensate for the lack of zing… and they soon hit the right spots and I felt life returning to mind and body.

That was a lesson learnt the hard way, but underscored the key role of chillies and spices in sustaining everyday life for millions of people across the globe.

I later discovered the delights of ‘desi’ fare in London and elsewhere in Britain, where one can easily enjoy authentic dishes as well as a range of international cuisines. A chillies-spiked hot ‘Indian curry’ is a favourite among the Brits, particularly on weekends, when ‘going for an Indian’ — taking on the challenge of a spicy hot curry after a boisterous evening of revelry — is something of a ritual among the young. Several restaurants in Brick Lane, Birmingham, Edinburgh and elsewhere offer the ‘hottest curry’ challenge, cooked by chefs wearing gasmasks with dozens of high-intensity chillies such as the Carolina Reaper, Scotch Bonnet and Bhut Jolokia. The Clifton Chilli Club in Bristol and the Fiery Foods UK Festival are among many groups that organise contests and celebrate the chilli.

British tabloids often splash stories of customers signing health disclaimers before taking on the chilli challenge, of confident challengers being felled by the chilli and rushed to hospitals, of farms growing hot chillies, or of reporters trying uber-hot dishes and narrating excruciating experiences.

Reporter Dan Hall of Mirror, who recently tried a dish called Crocodile Inferno in a restaurant in Staffordshire, wrote: “What happened to me…was profound and humbling…There are over 20 chillies included in the £30 dish, including some of the most formidable on the planet…Before he (the waiter) even takes the lid off the dish, the spice is so pungent that my eyes start to water…As soon as the sauce touches my lips, the burning sensation is instantaneous and incredible, roughly akin to what I imagine it would be like to be flamethrowered in the face. When the heat reaches my throat, I feel like I’m swallowing a chainsaw, and I start to hyperventilate as I’m consumed with agony. For some sick reason, I decide to persevere with the ordeal, hoping I might adjust to the Saturn V rocket launching on my tongue. But I don’t — it just keeps getting worse the more mouthfuls I have, with the searing pain intensifying until my vision blurs and my hands start to tingle…I would’ve happily necked a pint of liquid nitrogen had there been one to hand. After about 10 minutes of heaving in a truly undignified manner and with the harrowing prospect of tomorrow morning in mind, I decide to throw in the towel.”

The travelling chilli and other stories

The chilli’s history is fairly well documented. There are records suggesting use of chilli pepper dating back to 7000 BC in Mesoamerica. Until 1492, chillies only existed on the American continent, but later spread far and wide when the Portuguese and Spanish set up trade routes, with Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama playing key roles. Portuguese sailors landed at the mouth of the Pearl River in China in 1516. Historians say it is likely that the port city of Macao had a great influence on the spread of chilli in Asia. Chilli quickly became popular in China. It first came to Hunan and Sichuan via the Silk Road, and via the trade routes it continued to Thailand, India, Turkey and Hungary. From Hungary, the chilli arrived relatively late in eastern Europe and Germany. It took more time to reach England, where it was initially known as ‘Madras curry’, when English soldiers who served in India learned to appreciate Indian cuisine and convinced others of the advantages of spicy cuisine. Initially considered to be unpalatable, the chilli, now available as fruit or powder throughout the year, has become accepted as a basic part of the diet in many parts of the world, with some regions developing a reputation.

Says Satyashree Gandham, a journalist-turned-café entrepreneur in Goa, “They say that people from Andhra Pradesh have more chilli in their blood than haemoglobin. Born into an Andhra family in New Delhi, I can vouch for that. Food didn’t taste right without red chillies, and a lot of it. I began travelling abroad in the late 90s. On my first ever flight, to John Wayne airport in southern California, I was excited but the sheer awe of the first flight could not mask the lack of spice in the food served. I felt most cheated when I discovered that chilli in American English meant beef and ‘pickled’ anything was anything that was soaked in vinegar. I thought Europe was left out of the spice revolution and I was convinced that people there can die if introduced them to the Andhra chilli. The upside of being a rolling stone is that you adapt for survival and eventually start appreciating the natural taste of food which strong chillies suppress. A couple of decades, several habitats, and countless white hair later, I have now come to enjoy the entire spectrum from completely bland to the food cooked in Bhut Jolokia with equal joy. Guess I owe it to my Andhra roots.”

The chilli’s heat comes from its active ingredient called capsaicin which, when ingested, triggers pain receptors whose normal evolutionary purpose is to alert the body to dangerous physical heat. Experts say that since capsaicin is a member of the vanilloid family of molecules, it binds to a receptor on the tongue called the vanilloid receptor subtype 1. Upon binding to the VR1 receptor, the sensation produced by the capsaicin molecule is the same sensation that heat would cause, which explains capsaicin’s burn. When scientists discovered that the VR1 receptor was a member of the larger family of TRP ion channels, the VR1 receptor was renamed TRPV1. Signalling to the brain by TRPV1 makes us feel like perhaps our mouth is on fire, but there isn’t any tissue damage: the brain is tricked into thinking our tongue is on fire.

Besides adding zing to food, the chilli is known to have medicinal benefits; recent research suggests its regular use could promote longevity and weight loss. Why millions of people across the globe love the burn caused by chillies is the focus of study by psychologists. The chilli is also considered a feel-good ingredient because as the body defends itself against the heat sparked by capsaicin, it releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. This leaves you with a ‘high’, which explains why there are so many lovers of painfully hot curries.

A (benign) masochistic pleasure

Psychologist Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania believes about a third of people around the world eats chillies every day. Calling it ‘benign masochism’, which is to say that we learn to like things that our body rejects, and benign because it doesn’t hurt us, he writes: “If the oral receptors are sending the same message to the brain in the chilli liker and the chilli hater, then the chilli liker must have come to like the very same sensation that the chilli hater, the infant, and non-human animals find aversive. One gets to like the burn…The experience of eating it a lot somehow converts what was an aversion to a preference. What’s going to the brain is the same; there’s no change in the tongue or the mouth, so it’s what we call a ‘hedonic reversal’.”

Bob Holmes, author of Flavour: A User’s Guide to Our Most Neglected Sense, adds: “We don’t take pleasure in eating food that’s still searingly hot from the oven, even though that delivers exactly the same sensation we get from chillies: same receptors, same nerves. We don’t choose to chemically burn our tongues with strong acids. So why do we happily, even eagerly, inflict pain by chillies? Whatever the secret is, it seems to be unique to humans. No other mammal on the planet has a similar taste for chillies. (Birds eat them enthusiastically, but only because they lack receptors that respond to capsaicin. To a parakeet, the hottest habanero is as bland as a bell pepper.) One possible explanation is that chilli lovers simply don’t feel the pain as intensely as those who shun hot peppers…Genetics may play some part, too…Some people may have more sensitive TRPV1 receptors.”

The chilli’s intensity is mostly measured by the Scoville scale that determines the number of capsaicinoids in it, devised by American pharmacist by Walter Scoville in Detroit 1912. A chilli sample is repeatedly diluted and given to a panel of five expert tasters until a majority of them can no longer detect the heat. The dilution level gives a number that describes the strength of the chilli. The hotter the chilli, the more you need to dilute it to wash out the burn. For example, the Jalapeno has a Scoville rating of between 2,500 and 8,000, while the Bhut Jolokia — the world’s hottest chilli until recently — is rated at over 1 million units, only to be overtaken by Carolina Reaper (2.2 million units) and others in recent years. Chilli powder has long been used to deter elephants, while India’s defence scientists have developed teargas canisters and hand grenades by mixing Bhut Jolokia to control riots and combat separatists.

Not surprisingly, the accuracy of the Scoville Test is dependent on the tasters’ sensitivity to capsaicin. Experts at the University of Oxford say it is possible to measure capsaicin content using more consistent scientific methods. They have devised a simple, hand-held device to test a chilli’s strength. Called the ChilliPot sensor, it is based on principles of electrochemistry: molecules of capsaicin stick to a sensor covered in carbon nanotubes, and the more that stick, the stronger the signal, and the hotter the chilli, giving its strength reading in less than a minute — quicker, cheaper and more accessible than the Scoville Test.

Riyaz Timol, an academic at Cardiff University whose research into food choices and British Muslim identity includes the consumption of chilli, writes that younger generations are less tolerant of the heat than their parents, since the former’s time in England has diminished their capacity to enjoy hot chillies: “Just as people’s aesthetic or artistic preferences are determined in no small measure by social factors, so too are the proclivities of their gustatory glands. In other words, socialisation has a physiological dimension. I call this the sociology of the palate…The type of food dished up on a plate can tell us more than just the culinary preferences of the diner then. It can offer a window into human identity.”

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