Whether it’s a hot Indian curry, eye-watering malatang or a spicy Seattle hot dog that makes you reach for the tissues to blow your nose or wipe sweat from your brow, spicy food has found a home in the hearts of many around the world. Tastes differ according to continent and personal preference, but there is no doubt that favourite recipes and dishes take on a character of their own when one or two (or more) chillies are added. Although opinions are often divided on the presence of chillies in the kitchen and the ideal level of spiciness, this little fruit has changed cuisine around the world.
The chilli is a fruit of the plants from the genus Capsicum, which are members of the nightshade family Solanaceae and are related to tomatoes, cherries, and eggplant. Chilli is a word that comes directly from the Nahuatl language which was the language used by the Aztecs. In Nahuatl chīlli means ‘hot pepper’ so it is the Aztecs that we have to thank for the modern day terms of ‘chilli’ and ‘pepper’ to describe this spicy fruit. Although there is a debate about whether chillies originated along the Andes of western/north-western South America, in the Amazon basin or in Mexico, experts agree that chillies spread throughout Central and South America via birds who would eat the seeds (and not be affected by the heat as they do not have the same receptors as humans) which were then carried to various places in the droppings of birds and on wind currents. Most of the chillies currently cultivated for consumption come from the Capsicum annum which was grown in prehistoric times in Mexico. There are currently more than 400 chillies in the world and over 60 of these are grown in Mexico. However, Brazil boasts the greatest number of wild chillies in the world.
Until 1493, the Capsicum annuum was unknown to the world beyond the Americas even though it had been used in the cuisine of the native peoples of Central America for around 7,000 years. It was Christopher Columbus who took the chilli back to Spain and presented it to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel after his first voyage to the Americas in 1492. He remarked in his journal that ‘The pepper which the local Indians used as spice is more abundant and more valuable than either black or melegueta pepper.’ In his journals that documented his second voyage he notes that; ‘In those islands there are also bushes like rose bushes which make a fruit as long as cinnamon full of small grains as biting as pepper, those Cribs and the Indians eat that fruit as we eat apples’.
From its origins in Central and South America, the chilli has been transported around the world and has become part of the cuisine of many countries on three continents. Interestingly, when contemplating spicy food in the world, there are no countries in either Europe or Oceania that are famous for spicy food, even though Europe was the first continent that the chilli travelled to outside of Central and South America. From there, it has been taken around the world and there are many countries in Africa and Asia that have incorporated the chilli into their cuisine. For example, both Tunisia and Ethiopia are known for their spicy food in Africa. In Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Laos, China, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia are all famous for their spicy cuisine and use of the chilli. The countries with the spiciest food, however, are all located in Asia and Central and South America. The top ten in order of the spiciness of their cuisine are; Thailand, India, China, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Korea, Mexico, Laos and Indonesia.
Given the great quantity of chillies in the world, there is also a great deal of difference in the spiciness of each chilli. In order to measure spiciness, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville created the Scoville Organoleptic Test in 1912 which categorises each chilli according to spiciness. To determine how spicy a chilli pepper is, the alcohol extract of capsaicin oil (the element which makes the chill hot) from a dried chilli is mixed with a solution of water and sugar until a panel of taste-testers can barely detect the heat of the chilli. The spiciness of the chilli is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) and measurements range from 0 SHU for a capsicum to 2,200,000 SHU for the Carolina Reaper, which is the hottest chilli in the world. The number signifies that the capsaicin oil from the chilli has been diluted so many times before a panel of testers could just barely detect the heat of the chilli. For example, the Ghost chilli measures 1,042,000 SHU which indicates that it has been diluted 1,042,000 times before tasters could not detect any heat in the chilli. Some of the hottest chillies include the Moruga Trinidad Scorpion which measures at 2,009,000 SHU and the 7 Pot Douglah which measures 1,854,000 SHU. The remaining top ten spiciest chillies in the world are not for the faint hearted and pack a powerful punch of nose-blowing, brow-wiping and watering eyes. They are:
- 4. Primo 1,469,000 SHU
- 5. Butch T Trinidad Scorpion 1,464,000 SHU
- 6. Naga Viper 1,349,000 SHU
- 7. Ghost 1,042,000 SHU
- 8. 7 Pot Barrackpore 1,000,000 SHU
- 9. 7 Pot Jonah (Red Giant) 1,000,000 SHU
- 10. Red Savina 500,000 SHU
Although many chillies originated in Mexico, Mexico is currently the second largest producer of chillies in the world and in 2020 produced 3.44 million tonnes (3.79 million tons). Turkey - the world’s third largest producer of chillies - produced 2.56 million tonnes (2.82 million tons) in 2020, but it is China who has become the world’s largest producer of chillies and whose production in 2020 was 18,535,308 tonnes (20.43 million tons) of chillies. This accounts for 45.2% of the global production of chillies worldwide.
Aside from spicing up food and adding a unique punginess in terms of heat, chillies and spicy food are very good for your health. They contain Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, Vitamin K1, Vitamin A, potassium and copper. They also have high levels of antioxidants and are used within many countries as a method of fighting fungal infections, colds, the flu and inflammation. The heat of the capsaicin has been linked to weight loss as well as lowering the risk of type II diabetes. It is recommended to add chillies to all dishes if one is trying to lose weight. A recent study by the Chinese Academy For Medical Sciences studied 500,000 participants and their intake of spicy food for a few years. Those who ate spicy food once or twice a week had a mortality rate that was 10% lower than those who ate spicy food less than once a week and for those who ate spicy food six or seven times per week, the risk of death was reduced even further. It was also observed that those who ate fresh chilli had a lower risk of death from cancer, Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) and diabetes.
In spite of all of the benefits not only to one’s health, but also to favourite dishes, some are still reluctant to incorporate chillies into their cuisine. There are many countries where spicy food is not popular or is interpreted as the presence of garlic. However, given the fact that the chilli has only been used outside of its native homes in the Americas for around 500 years, it has spread rather quickly to be incorporated into the cuisine of many countries.
Here at Lovejoy’s, spicy food is an essential part of life and personal experimentation by the team with Lovejoy’s Burn YO Face Hot Sauce and favourite recipes is an ongoing journey of discovery. However, whatever the preference, this unique sauce in a bottle is sure to add a character of its own and turn well known dishes into something special. My personal experiments with Lovejoy’s Burn YO Face Hot Sauce continue and I look forward to sharing my discoveries in a new blog in the not-too-distant future. Until then, whatever dish you may be preparing in the kitchen, try adding a few drops of this special sauce… Spiceheads like hot stuff!