Whether spelled chili, chile or chilli, this is the hottest spice in the world! Chili peppers have a persistent heat that can range from tangy to tongue torching. And, clearly, hot is "in": chili is the most consumed spice in the world – 20 times more than any other.
Chile peppers originated in the Americas. When Columbus bumped into the New World on his quest to find a short cut to the "land of black peppers" off India, he "discovered" the fiery fruits. He called them "pepper" because they added zing to food, reminiscent of black pepper. Perhaps he was also being politically astute in choosing the word "pepper" – not having found a route to Asian spices as commissioned by his sponsors, at least he was able to come back to Spain with some kind of peppers, which, upon his return, became known as "poor man’s pepper" and were an instant sensation. It took about two centuries for botanists to realize that chile belonged to the genus Capsicum, a totally different botanical family than black peppers (Piper nigrum).
The trademark fire in chile comes from capsaicin, its primary healing compound, concentrated inside the seeds and membrane. The more capsaicin, the more intense the heat, and it’s indestructible – neither cold, heat or water will douse the fire. The fire is so fierce that it can literally incinerate a variety of disease conditions. All chiles have healing properties, but the hotter the better, therapeutically speaking. In the last 20 years, thousands of scientific studies have been published on this spice, providing potent evidence of its effectiveness as a pain killer, a fat burner, in treating and preventing cancer, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, digestive disorders and much more.
Buying and Storage
There are over 3,000 varieties of chiles, available fresh, whole dried, crushed (flakes), powdered, canned or jarred and pickled. The taste difference between fresh and dried is considerable, though the heat and healing powers are of generally equal value. It’s like the difference between a fresh tomato and sun-dried. While fresh chiles have a distinct heat and sweetness, dried develop a more full-bodied, complex flavor with varying degrees of heat and smokiness.
Fresh chiles come in different shapes, colors, heats levels and sizes – less than an inch long to 8 inches or more. When buying, look for firm pods with smooth, glossy outer skin and good color. They should be dry and heavy, not limp, dull or discolored. Wrinkled skin means they’ve started to dry or were not fully ripened on the bush and are not desirable. Store fresh peppers in a plastic bag left partially open in the fridge about 2 weeks; they also freeze well in a freezer bag. Important: the smaller and redder the chile, the hotter it is.
Whole dried chiles can be found in vast variety, sometimes sold in plastic bags, or on a garland – the line on which they were dried. Look for still vivid color. If pale, the chile’s probably have lost some flavor, too. These keep indefinitely in a dry, dark storage area.
Ground chile comes in several incarnations and is very convenient for cooking. Generic "chile powder" is not pure chile pepper, but rather ground chiles mixed with spices like cumin, oregano, salt – most famously used in chile con carne. Cayenne powder is pure chile and fiery hot. Asian, Indian and Latin markets often sell other pure chile powders that range in temperature depending on the proportion of seeds used when the chiles are ground. The hotter varieties are more orange than red.
Pain killer. The more capsaicin consumed, the more tolerance is built up to nerve pain as the more somatostatin, a hormone that cools inflammation, is released. This is probably why "chile heads" can calmly down copious amounts of the spice, while neophytes writhe in an agonizing burn. Studies have found that capsaicin cream rubbed into the skin at the source of pain will at first produce a warm, burning sensation, but with repeated use (usually over 3 days) will numb pain and promote healing. Zostrix, an FDA approved capsaicin cream has been shown effective for some of the most painful events, such as nerve pain associated with mastectomy or post-operative amputation. The only downside might be the initial heat reaction that can cause skin redness and irritation in some people.
Research has found that the cream relieves osteoarthritis pain, as well as lubricates joints and increases flexibility. High dose capsaicin cream significantly reduces chronic, debilitating nerve pain associated with shingles, diabetic neuropathy, neck pain. For headaches, the cream can be effective applied to the nostril on the same side as the headache.
Fat burner. Capsaicin raises body temperature, thus increasing perspiration and boosting the metabolic rate which raises the rate at which calories are burned – an effect that can
last anywhere from 20 minutes to 6 hours after eating. A capsaicin supplement taken 1 hour before aerobic exercise can increase fat burn. Studies have also found that chiles, especially eaten early in the day, decrease appetite.
Heart health. Worldwide epidemiological studies reveal that people living in traditionally chile-eating countries have lower cardiovascular disease than those in countries with relatively bland cuisine. According to research, about an ounce of chiles daily works to prevent blood clots, lower cholesterol, reduce LDL ("bad" cholesterol), increase HDL ("good" cholesterol), reduce resting heart rate and improve performance on heart stress tests. Animal experiments have shown that capsaicin works like a calcium blocker to prevent arhythmias and reduce the damage of heart attack, stimulating nerves in the spinal cord which, in turn, activate important heart muscle nerves.
Cancer prevention. Many studies have found that capsaicin kills tumor cells in test animals and human cell cultures. At one time it was suggested that chile might be implicated in stomach or colon cancers, but new research concludes the contrary: chilies are kind to the digestive system. Over 100 test tube and animal studies noted a strong correlation between eating chilis and cancer prevention, including breast, esophageal, stomach, liver, prostate, brain and leukemia. Very promising research is underway with prostate cancer.
Stomach friend. Chiles have been mistakenly believed to cause irritations in the digestive tract, such as ulcers or hemorrhoids. However, scientific research has confirmed that capsaicin in chiles actually helps heal and prevent ulcers, as well as protect the gastric lining from alcohol-related damage or excess aspirin stomach problems. Italian researchers reported in New England Journal of Medicine that chili powder reduced symptoms of functional dyspepsia, chronic digestive disorder.
Psoriasis. Capsaicin cream helps reduce the redness and itching of psoriasis, an inflammatory skin condition.
Type 2 diabetes. People who regularly eat meals containing chiles have lower blood sugar after the meals than those who eat a bland diet.
Nutritional powerhouse. Chiles have, ounce for ounce, over 9 times more Vitamin A than green pepper, twice as much Vitamin C as an orange. They’re also a rich source of minerals, especially potassium and magnesium. Red chiles are full of beta carotene.
Mood booster. Some people experience a perfectly safe "high" when eating hot chile- spiked foods. Scientists theorize that in response to the discomfort produced by the chile "burn," the brain releases endorphins, substances that, at high enough levels, can create sensations of pleasure.
In the kitchen
People are passionate about chiles! Consequently, a huge hot sauce industry has developed producing myriad brands claiming all manner of unforgettable "hot," along with clubs, magazines, and, of course, websites all devoted to the spice.
Chiles play a key role in the cuisine of India, Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Mexico, Central American and the U.S., especially South and Southwest. In India curries contain chiles with an infinite variety of flavor, aroma and hotness – from mild to "bird peppers," arguably the hottest on earth, usually tempered by the cooling side dish raitas with yogurt and cucumber. One of the hottest dishes in China is Kung pao chicken in which chile plays a key role. Cajuns and Creoles in the deep American South and Jamaicans claim to make the most searing hot sauces, but Mexicans are probably best known for their advanced chile culture, elevated to an art! Mexico is home to over 150 varieties of the pepper. In the 1980’s, thanks to Mexican influence in the U.S., salsa has surpassed ketchup as the favorite condiment. In the hot countries of the Caribbean and Africa, chiles are added to starchy staples like rice and peas, beans, grains, yucca, producing a sweat which works like a natural air conditioner in the relentless heat.
Never use chile alone as a spice. It’s best as background to other spices that add flavor to the heat. You can turn down the heat in fresh chiles by discarding some or all of the seeds and cutting away membranes – the hottest parts. Dried chiles should be soaked: cover in warm water about 20 minutes or until soft, pliable. Chip and use. Seeds can be removed from a dried chile by breaking it and tapping it on its side to knock out seeds. When cooking, heat can be toned down by adding fat or oil, as in coconut milk or cream to the dish. Sweetness also tames the heat, as does the starchiness of a chopped potato added for a half hour, then removed. Or, just allow the dish to mature, i.e.,"calm down," in the fridge overnight.
On guard! Capsaicin in chile is volatile and can burn on contact. (This is why capsaicin is the major ingredient in pepper spray, which can cause intense stinging and temporary blindness if aimed directly at the eyes!) Sensitivities vary and it’s best to be on the safe side. Consider using a paper towel or wearing thin plastic gloves when handling, making sure to keep your hands clear of your eyes, lips or other sensitive body parts. Some chiles, like the habanero, are so intense, they’ve been known to cause blisters in the skin of sensitive individuals. Avoid breathing the fumes. Many cooks have a special cutting board and knife just to work with chiles, as, even after washing, some capsaicin residue remains. If you’re disposing of chile seeds and parts in the sink garbage disposal, be sure to run it with very cold water. Hot water will give you a backlash as heat diffuses into the air.
If you’re not intimidated by all this, then, YOU are ready to experience the joys of cooking with chile peppers. Go for it!
Encyclopedia of Spices
Healing Spices by Bharat Aggarwal, PhD (Sterling Publishing)
The Healing Powers of Peppers: With Chile Pepper Recipes and Folk Remedies for Better Health and Living by Dave Dewitt, Melissa Stock, Kellye Hunter