Chilli heat and the Scoville Scale
The fiery sensation of Chillis is caused by capsaicin, a potent chemical that survives both cooking and freezing, but apart from the burning sensation it also triggers the brain to produce endorphins, natural painkillers that promote a sense of well being.
Chilli heat is measured on the Scoville scale, which is named after Wilbur L. Scoville (1865-1942), who developed the Scoville Organoleptic Test in 1912. As originally devised, a solution of the pepper 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 scale.
Nowadays, capsaicin concentrations are determined using more scientific methods, typically High Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). The Scoville scale begins at zero with mild bell peppers and ends with chillis over 1Million in strength. Several chillis are vying for supremacy at the moment; Bhut Jolokia, Naga Viper, Dorset Naga and Infinity, to name but a few.
Contrary to popular opinion, it is not the seeds that are the hottest part of a chilli, but the white pith that surrounds them and runs in thick veins through the pod. Fresh red chillies are two to three times hotter than green fruit, and dried pods are between two and ten times hotter than fresh pods.
The best antidote to chilli heat is either patience, or a dairy product such as milk or yoghurt. Drinking beer or water is the worst thing you can do, as the it washes the heat further into your taste buds. When cooking, remember the golden rule, you can add but you can't take away.
Capsicum terminology can be confusing. Pepper, chili, chile, chilli and capsicum are used interchangeably to describe the plants and pods of the genus Capsicum. Capsicum comes from the Greek verb kapto, 'to bite' and there are five species:
• annuum, includes most of the common types like Cayenne, Jalapeño, Cherries and Waxes.
• baccatum, meaning "berrylike," which consist of the South American Chillis known as ajís.
• chinense, meaning "from China," (which is not correct) this species include the habaneros.
• frutescens, meaning "shrubby or bushy," includes the tabascos
• pubescens, meaning "hairy," and includes the rocotos.
A brief chilli history
Chillis and peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas for nearly ten thousand years and according to archaeologists they are one of the oldest crops to be farmed by man. It was the Mayan Indians who are first known to use Chillis in a sauce, some three thousand years ago. Capsicum became an important part of the diet and culture of the Aztecs in the centuries to follow.
Both the Mayans and the Aztecs combined chocolate and chilli which today remains a potent combination and the basis of Mexican ‘mole’ sauces. It took the return of Columbus to Europe in 1496 to begin a rapid spread around the globe, where they are now an integral part of cooking styles from all over the world.