Hot hot peppers have become chic and the people enjoying this new surge in chic heat surely have a gene I do not possess. I vaguely remember the days of recklessly eating jalapenos on my nachos, but then I moved to the Caribbean where I tangled with the scotch bonnet pepper. Where some of my most vivid memories of those hot peppers (or chilies) goes like this, a roll of Charmin in one hand and a good magazine in the other. Still I'm drawn "like a moth to a flame" and I'll bet you are too. So let's start at the beginning. Chili peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BC. There is archaeological evidence at sites located in southwestern Ecuador that chili peppers were domesticated more than 6000 years ago, and is one of the first cultivated crops in the Central and South Americas. Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to encounter them in the Caribbean, and called them "peppers" because they, like black and white pepper they were used to, had a spicy hot taste. Chilies were cultivated around the globe after Columbus. Diego Álvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus' second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, brought the first chili peppers to Spain, and first wrote about their medicinal effects in 1494. (He also invented toilet paper I think.) From Mexico, at the time the Spanish colony that controlled commerce with Asia, chili peppers spread rapidly into the Philippines and then to India, China, Indonesia, Korea and Japan. They were incorporated into the local cuisines. Chili peppers journeyed from India, through Central Asia and Turkey, to Hungary, where it became the national spice in the form of paprika.
The five domesticated species of chili peppers are:
- Capsicum annuum, which includes many common varieties such as bell peppers, wax, cayenne, jalapeños, and the chiltepin
- Capsicum frutescens, which includes malagueta, tabasco and Thai peppers, piri piri, African birdseye chili, Malawian Kambuzi
- Capsicum chinense, which includes the hottest peppers such as the naga, habanero, Datil and Scotch bonnet
- Capsicum pubescens, which includes the South American rocoto peppers
- Capsicum baccatum, which includes the South American aji pepper
The Scoville scale is a measurement of the spicy heat of a chili pepper. The number of Scoville Heat Units (SHU) indicates the amount of capsaicin present.
All hot peppers contain capsaicinoids, natural substances that produce a burning sensation in the mouth, causing the eyes to water and the nose to run, and even induce perspiration.
Capsaicinoids are found primarily in the pepper's ribs and seeds, making them hotter than the rest of the pepper. You can reduce the amount of heat in a chili pepper by removing the ribs and seeds. Capsaicinoids have no flavor or odor, but act directly on the pain receptors in the mouth and throat. The primary capsaicinoid, capsaicin, is so hot that a single drop diluted in 100,000 drops of water will produce a blistering of the tongue. Capsaicin is the heat factor in chilies that is used medically, to produce deep-heating rubs for treating sports injuries. Hot peppers can cause burning if your hands or fingers come in contact with your eyes or other sensitive parts of the body. When using Hot Hot Hot chili peppers, wear disposable gloves to protect from spreading the heat as it is very oily. If chilies come in contact with your bare hands, wash thoroughly with soapy water. Here's a little vid on some of the many health benefits of hot peppers:
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