What are chilli peppers ?
Peppers have been cultivated for thousands of years by peoples in central and South America from times back to around 7000BC. There are now around 2500-3000 known varieties ranging from a bell pepper with no heat right up to the amazing Trinidad Scorpion, currently the hottest variety in the world.
Chilli, pepper, chili, chile.... are all spellings for plants and pots of the Capsicum (from the greek “kapto” meaning to bite) genus. Chilli peppers are closely related to tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes!
Spellings vary, although its usually chili in America and chilli in Europe. We tend to use chilli as its the easiest to remember and the most common in the UK.
There are five domesticated species which are as follows : Annuum, Baccatum, Chinense, Frutescens and Pubescens. There are also 20+ wild species. As for varieties there are literally thousands as cross pollination is rife!
Capsicum Annuum – Annuum means “annual” which is a little incorrrect as chillies are short lived perennials. This is the most common species and includes the standard Bell Pepper, Cayenne, Cherry Bomb, De Arbol, Jalapeno, Numex (New Mexican), Paprika, Serrano, Squash and Wax pod types.
Most of the chillies grown in the UK are Annuums.
Capsicum Baccatum – Baccatum means “berry like” and includes varieties known as Aji's. Many of the baccatum varieties are tree like, tall plants with yellow spots on the flowers (corollas).
Capsicum Chinense - Chinense means “chinese” - However this species originated in South American. It includes the very hot varieties such as Scotch Bonnets and Habaneros. Very satisifying to grow but fairly temperamental as they are slow to germinate and take ages to fruit.
Capsicum Frutescens – Frutescens means “bushy”. These plants are compact and only grow to a few feet high so great for containers. Plants are extremely prolific and include varieties such as Tabasco, Bangalore Torpedo, Japones, African Birdseye, Apache etc
Capsicum Pubescens – Pubescens means “hairy”. These species is the rarest as it has no wild form and the domesticated species cannot cross pollinate with other species.. They are vine like and sprawling plants with apple shaped pods. Common varieties include “Rocoto's” from Peru. Can be difficult to grow in our climate and not very prolific.
How are chilli peppers measured for heat?
Chilli peppers contain a chemical compound called Capsaicin.
When you eat a chilli this chemical binds with the pain receptors in your mouth and throat which are responsible for sensing heat! The brain responds by making you sweat and your eyes stream! The heat of chilli peppers is measuring using the “Scoville scale” which was developed in 1912 by an American chemist called Wilbur L Scoville.
It basically measures the number of times a chilli extract must be diluted in water to effectively lose its heat. Bell peppers rank at 0, Jalapeno's around 4000, Cayennes at around 30000 right up to Habaneros and Scotch Bonnets around 300000. The hottest chilli pepper is the Trinidad Scorpion which measures over 1300000 on the scale.
On the different species Annuums measure up to 100000 Scoville units, Baccatum – up to 35000 units, Chinense – Up to 1000000!, Frutescens – up to 150000 and Pubescens – up to 50000 units. Pure Capsaicin measures about 15000000 units and is used in police pepper sprays! It has no flavour, no colour, odour and is extremely powerful.
In India, pods are sliced in half and rubbed on the tops of fences to keep wild elephants at bay!! Capsaicin does not effect birds though, only mammals.
The Capsaicin in a chilli is found not in the seeds but in the membrane or placental tissue that holds the seeds in place.
When preparing chillies (cutting/dicing etc), we would advise wearing gloves and preferably some form of eye protection. Cutting chillies with barehands will result in a feeling which can be best compared to sunburn on your fingers. Whoa be tide anyone who tries to touch sensitive areas such as the eye! (ouch).
If you have a mouthful of chilli fire – forget water/lager.. you need something containing fats such as milk, yoghurt etc. If you are vegan try Soya Milk, coconut milk or Cashew nuts. Capsaicin does not dissolve in water!
If you get chilli-hand then try scrubbing your hands with sea-salt and then wash them with milk or vegetable oil. You can also try using a comfrey / chickweed / Witch hazel lotion or cream which also dissapates the burn. Aloe Vera lotion/gel is by far the best thing we have ever tried but even then, it's not an instant fix! If you get chilli eye, this is far worse with no fast cure!
What other uses do chillies have?
Apart from their culinary uses, chilli plants are also grown for their ornamental uses ie. the beautiful Numex Twilight which has vertical growing pods in a variety of colours and is brilliant for livening up a dull border or container.
Red chilis contain high amounts of vitamin C and carotene. Yellow and especially green chilis (which are essentially unripe fruit) contain a considerably lower amount of both substances. In addition, peppers are a good source of most B vitamins, and vitamin B6 in particular. They are very high in potassium and high in magnesium and iron.
Pods are also dried and ground up and used in homeopathy to make a muscle rub for athletes as well as used for treating arthritus and headaches etc
Pods should not be eaten whole and not by people suffering from IBS or similar conditions.
Chilli pods are supposedly used to ward of evil spirits. Dont hold us to that last one though - (otherwise our chilli farm must be one of the safest places in the country!!)
Why are chillies addictive?
To put it simply, when you eat a chilli, your brain releases endorphins into your bloodstream (to combat the pain receptors). When it realises that you haven't lost an arm or leg, the pain subsides leaving the endorphins. This is known as the chilli high.
Unfortunately as you get used to chillies, you need more and more heat to get the "kick". This is largely the reason why chillies are addictive. It works in the same way as chocolate - another stimulant. This is probably why chilli chocolate works so effectively.