They lend character to dishes and test the grit of even the bravest. When it comes to chillies you can't help but shed a tear in sheer anticipation of its spicy taste. While they originated in South America, India is today, the world's largest producer, consumer and exporter of chillies. The chilli pepper plant is from the genus Capsicum and members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Christopher Columbus is said to be one of the first Europeans to taste the chilli pepper. Legend says that he called the spice as "pepper" because he was only familiar with the black and white pepper that also lent pungency to a dish.
Given the pungency of the spice, the chilli has often been used in popular culture as a test of one’s “palate resilience”. There are numerous festivals across the world today that celebrate the different varieties of chillies- bringing producers together and introducing participants of the festival to different dishes that inventively use chillies. Of course no festival is complete without a ‘chilli eating contest’! Traditionally the Scoville scale is used as a measure of the 'hotness' of a chilli pepper or anything derived from chilli peppers. The scale is actually a measure of the concentration of the chemical compound capsaicin. The scale or test is named after Wilbur L. Scoville (1865-1942), who developed the Scoville Organoleptic Test in 1912 while working at the Parke Davis pharmaceutical company. As originally devised, a solution of the chilli extract is diluted in sugar water until the 'heat' is no longer detectable to a panel of (usually five) tasters; the degree of dilution gives its measure on the Scoville scale1. The more it has to be diluted, the hotter the chilli is. The modern commonplace method for quantitative analysis of SHU (Scoville heat units) rating uses highperformance liquid chromatography to directly measure the capsaicinoid content of a chilli pepper variety. Until recently the Guinness World Records had the world’s hottest chilli pepper as the Red Savina Habanero. The Carolina Reaper variety cultivated in the USA is also popularly recognised as another tearfully hot chilli variety.
Apart from its propensity to make people cry on ingestion, chillies have been noted by the scientific community for its health benefits as well. Chillies are excellent for your immune system because they are rich in both vitamin A (said to be the anti-infection vitamin) and vitamin C. Chilli peppers’ bright red colour signals its high content of beta-carotene or pro-vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for healthy mucous membranes, which line the nasal passages, lungs, intestinal tract and urinary tract and serve as the body’s first line of defence against invading pathogens. Just two teaspoons of red chilli peppers provide about 6% of the daily value for vitamin C and more than 10% of the daily value for vitamin A2. Chillies can be used as natural pain killers, and topical capsaicin is now a recognized treatment option for osteoarthritis pain.
While in some cultures certain chefs will swear by the power of chillies in every dish, most people have a bitter-sweet (or rather hot-n- sweet) relation with the spice. Usually a classic case of biting off more than one can chew!