Updated: Apr 18
Piri-piri pepper brings memories from my childhood. This chilli was the most popular in Madeira in older times; besides being a favourite seasoning for roasted chicken, chillies had another use: parents rubbed it on the fingernails of their children to dissuade them from biting their nails. Today a special varnish with a bitter taste is used instead.
Thank God I escaped this punishment. I never had that compulsion!
There are five domesticated chilli species, which gave origin to the many varieties and cultivars we find today in the market.
Capsicum frutescens – Includes Malagueta, Tabasco and Piri-piri.
Capsicum baccatum – Includes Bishop’s crown, Aji amarillo (Lemon drop)
Capsicum pubescens – Includes my favourite chilli, Rocoto.
Capsicum annuum – Includes the mildest and most moderated of all chillies such as bell pepper, jalapeno and cayenne.
Capsicum chinense – Is the species with the hottest peppers – Habanero, Scotch bonnet and Naga
Chinese five colours
It is mostly their diversity in colours, shapes and heat intensity that seduces me.
What use is a herb garden without these magnific plants? Their flashy, red, yellow, brown, purple or orange colours, threaten anyone who dares to take a bite of their ‘flesh’.
Depending on the species, the heat intensity varies, from sweet to mild, to intensively hot. Bishop’s crown is the mildest of all, here the heat intensity is not the main goal, instead its fleshy succulent pulp is full of flavour and is a good choice for beginners who want to start exploring the world of spicy food.
Chillies produce capsaicin, the chemical that makes them hot. This compound protects plants from their enemies, namely herbivorous animals. Capsaicin causes a sensation that imitates pain from burning, as a protection. Any herbivorous will avoid repeating such an experience. Birds, however, don’t feel the heat from chillies and these fruits are even one of their preferred foods. Although it looks like a failure, this is actually very clever. Birds are the ones that spread chilli seeds to far away places. This strategy allows chillies to colonize new places in the world.
As a gardener it’s not uncommon to get bitten by insects. The very first thing I do when that happens is to pick up a chilli pepper and rub its inside on the bite. It is a fact that we can’t feel itching and pain at the same time: we either feel one or the other. Capsaicin in chillies is a first aid remedy to treat the infection. It reduces the swelling and stops the itching, thus the annoying and continuous scratching of the skin is prevented.
Eating chillies can become addictive and some people are always searching for the hottest chilli that would ‘blow their heads off’. The hotter the better! There are chilli-eating contests with the sole goal of finding who can endure the hottest pepper. The reason why these people enjoy eating chillies so much is because capsaicin, in chillies, triggers the release of the pain killer endorphins from the brain, giving a sensation of satisfaction, excitement, happiness and euphoria.
Stuffed Rocoto chilli
In some tropical countries, where sometimes food is scarce, chilli is a favourite spice, for it reduces hunger spikes and gives a faster feeling of satiety. The preference for chillies as a condiment in these countries also serves another purpose: it has a thermogenic activity, cooling the body in the days of more intense heat.
As a condiment, chilli has the ability to change the intensity of flavours in food: With sweets, chilli reduces the perception of sweetness and food seems to have less sugar. On the other hand, sugar reduces the heat intensity of chilli. We get first a sensation of burning that dissipates very fast. A good way to combine these two sensations is by blending apple jelly with chilly, a recipe I have been perfecting over the years, and always a guaranteed success. To prepare this recipe simply add chopped fresh chilli to a recipe of apple jelly. The sweet-spicy combination offers an unparalleled experience to the palate.
By contrast, when used with salt, chilli has an opposite effect: it intensifies saltiness to such a point that the amount of salt must be reduced. Using chilli as seasoning is a clever way to reduce the intake of salt.
ROCOTO – Capsicum pubescens
Capsaicin in chillies is useful to reduce pain to treat injured muscles. Rubbing a lotion of capsaicin before doing exercises, intensifies exercise endurance, reduces fatigue and helps to heal from muscle injury much faster, without pain.
This property helped me recover from a frozen shoulder (Adhesive capsulitis) – the most painful experience I have had in my whole life. I prepared my own lotion by macerating a chopped rocotto chilli in alcohol. Every time I made the exercises my physiotherapist recommended, I rubbed the chilli lotion on my back.
In spite of all the benefits of chilli, we must be aware that capsain, in high concentrations, causes burning of the skin. To be on the safe side, it is important to know how to eliminate it from the skin. The very first mistake people make is to rinse the skin with water, but that will only make things worse: water is a vehicle that helps to spread capsaicin even more. I learned from experience that a mixture of milk and sugar is the quickest and most effective way to remove capsaicin from the skin. Capsaicin spreads through the skin in several layers, that is why it is important to wash the skin multiple times, until all layers are removed. Casein (a protein in milk) binds to capsaicin and removes it from the skin. Sugar reduces the perception of heat intensity.
The euphoric feeling from eating chilli peppers is well described in the next poem.
I Ate a Spicy Pepper (author unknown)
I ate a spicy pepper From my brother on a dare. The pepper caught my head on fire And burned off all my hair.
My mouth erupted lava And my tongue began to melt. My ears were shooting jets of steam. At least that’s how they felt.
I ricocheted around the room. I ran across the ceiling. I dove right in the freezer To relieve the burning feeling.
I drank a thousand soda pops And chewed a ton of ice To try to stop the scorching Of that spicy pepper’s spice.
At last, the flames extinguished, I admitted to my brother, “That pepper was the best one yet. May I please have another?”