Ever since man discovered chillies thousands of years ago, we have had a love affair with this fantastic gift from nature. When considering that the burning sensation one experiences when eating chillies is evolutionary – a ruse by the plant intended to prevent mammals (humans included) from eating them – it is incredible that we enjoy them so much. In this post, we explore the reasons for our love for the chilli.
Chillies contain a substance called capsaicin – the hot peppery stuff that tricks the mind into thinking that the mouth is on fire. The capsaicin stimulates the areas of the tongue (and skin)- where the pain is felt- into passing a message to the brain that discomfort is being experienced. The brain releases an endorphin to provide relief, which creates a feeling of happiness to neutralise the pain. Feeling happy is undoubtedly a reaction that we experience when we eat foods that we enjoy. Happiness translates into enjoyment (and vice versa).
The second part of the equation is in the taste. Chillies have a distinct flavour that is difficult to define, but yet very identifiable as being just that. They have a character of their own that is unmistakable. Describing the taste can best be done using terms like sweet, peppery, mustardy and savoury. This excellent flavour is further enhanced by grilling, drying and smoking.
Finally, it is when chillies are added to other ingredients that the magic is boosted exponentially. They combine particularly well with sour flavours like lime, lemons, vinegar, tomato-based dishes, and savoury ingredients like onion and garlic. Italian, Mexican sauces and Indian curries would not be the same without the addition of chilli.
Other examples include Peruvian cooking, where a combination of caramelised onion, Chilli and garlic form the foundation of the umami taste much of this country’s cooking, Korea where a pungent fermented condiment (Kimchi) is made by combining cabbage and red Chillies, and Hunan in China, where the cuisine is known for its liberal use of Chilli, shallots and garlic to create wonderfully appetising dishes.
Chillies are increasingly becoming popular in the Western world, and it isn’t easy to find a country where they are not used at all. When considering that chillies were only being introduced to the wider world by the Portuguese in the late 15th century and have now become mainstream, it surely means that they have something special to offer. But what? Clearly, it is the whole experience of combining their addictive pungency, distinctive taste, and the ability to combine exceptionally well with other ingredients that has resulted in chillies finding that special place in our hearts.
Long live the Chilli!