Hot red chillis. | JESUS CARRILLO


In most countries, it’s the people of the sweltering south who prefer their food to be really spicy hot in order to perk up tastebuds jaded by summer temperatures. But Spain is different in so many ways and it’s those of the north who are more likely to spike their cuisine with hot chillis.The Basques, for instance, love to find snippets of red hot chillis (fresh or dried) in some sauces and also sprinkled over certain dishes.

And in Mallorca, the people of Sa Pobla (on the north of the island) are really hooked on green and red chillis and you’ll find them in a considerable number of local recipes. But the average Mallorcan and mainland Spaniard prefers hot spices to be kept well in the background. That is one of the reasons why Indian and Mexican restaurants have never been very popular here.

Two Indian restaurants that were a success built up a good customer base over several years because they used only aromatic spices in their recipes. Those who wanted a bit of spicy heat in their food were served it separately in sauces and side dishes. It was a policy that worked very nicely because the customers got what they wanted.

All peppers, hot and sweet, belong to the genus Capiscum annum or Capiscum frutescens of the Solanaceae family, which takes in the potato, tomato and the aubergine. Columbus brought them back from the New World where they had been cultivated in the Valley of Mexico for some 9,000 years.

In the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs they were called chillis but the Spanish word became ‘chiles’. Most mainland Spaniards refer to them as ‘guindillas’ and most Mallorcans I know call them ‘picantes’, from the adjective that means spicy hot. If a pepper is extremely hot it is said to be ‘picantísimo’. At Mexican markets you’ll find a choice of more than 100 varieties. Some are sweet and cool, others can burn the skin off the palate of the uninitiated.

Chillis can be fat and round or long and thin — and sometimes extremely tiny and thin. These can be so hot they are like little bullets of fire. An American pharmacologist called Wilbur L. Scoville (1865-1942) proposed a method of measuring the relative pungency of a chilli pepper against that of pure capsaicin. This produced what in the 1960s became known as the Scoville Heat Unit. The unit was originally based on the number of dilutions required before the chilli in a solution was undetectable by a majority of tasters. The quantity of capsaicin in a chilli pepper is now measured directly by gas chromatography. Pure capsaicin scores 16 million units on the Scoville scale, which is used to calculate the rating of each hot pepper.

The well known Mexican jalapeño varieties, which are too hot for most of us, have a rating of 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHUs) per chilli. But some are so fiery their SHU rating is in the millions.
These include the Carolina Reaper (2.2 million SHUs) and the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion (2.09 million SHUs). Seven others are well over the one million mark.

These chillis can give people hallucinations and leave them unable to walk for 20 minutes. They are not recommended for adding to a frito mallorquín or a Sicilian pasta. When we eat anything that has been perked up with hot chillis, most of us have burning sensations on the tongue and sometimes the whole mouth. We can get drops of perspiration on the forehead and even a few tears can escape from the eyes.

But soon afterwards a kind of inner peace descends and we can feel as if we are floating on air. I suppose it’s similar to what drug addicts call ‘flying’. For most of us these after effects are a pleasant experience. What causes these sensations? There’s a chemical in hot peppers that activates nerves on the tongue. These send an urgent message to the brain that shouts “Fire!” This triggers the brain into firing a small dose of endorphin, the body’s natural painkiller.

The endorphin puts out the fire caused by the hot peppers and so induces a few minutes of delightful serenity. This feeling can be so enjoyable that some people want to repeat it again and again. By then we are on our way to becoming capsaicin addicts. This chemical can burn us on the tongue, on the lips or at the back on the throat. These differences are due to the variations in the make-up of the capsaicinoids, the chemical structures that constitute capsaicin.

Sometimes the zigzagging carbon chain that connects the hexagonal structure is too short and cannot reach the tongue’s receptors, but will touch the lips and burn us there. The carbon chain can also be too long, in which case it jumps over the tongue’s receptors. The tongue then stays cool and the back of the mouth ignites. As with most chemicals of this type, the body can get used to capsaicin, so there comes a time when the nerves on the tongue stop sending alarm signals to the brain. That means there is no dose of endorphin and no state of mild ecstacy.

If we want the pleasant after effects of eating hot peppers, this is when we have to up the quantity of peppers or buy those with a higher SHU rating. This is when we have become really hooked on the chilli fix. Sometimes the unwary get a mouthful of fire that is too much for them and they feel they will go mad unless the fire is put out immediately.

You will get cooling results not from cold water but from a glass of milk, a banana or spoons of fridge-cold yoghurt. If these aren’t available, some soft dry bread will help. Hot peppers have volatile oils that can irritate and even burn the skin or eyes. You should play safe and always wear rubber gloves when handling hot chillis, especially the fresh ones. It’s also very easy to get hand burns and if this happens it helps to rub the burned area with sugar, or give it a long slow wash with soapy water.