The Queen of Cuisine and I love hot chillies. We’re currently harvesting what will likely be the last of the peppers we grew over the summer: cherry peppers, Thai bird chillies, Thai sun chillies, Japanese Takanotsume peppers, long red chillies and serranos, yellow Scotch bonnets, orange/red habaneros, and the legendary ghost chilli.
Hot pepper enthusiasts understand that the burning in our mouth does not mean that we are being harmed. In fact, the pain inherent in chilli eating is an important part of the consciousness-altering effects of very hot food. Our brains respond to the tongue-tingling sting with a significant release of endorphins, resulting in in-a-gadda-davida quality alterations of consciousness.
Chillies are more than simple palate fryers. They’re full of enchanting sweet pepper fruit, citrus and bitter chilli powder notes. This is not always true of prepared chilli products containing added capsaicin oil. They’re hotter than they should be with no redeeming character or interest and should be avoided whenever possible.
The hotness of a given pepper was first quantified by the Scoville Organoleptic Test. The procedure was developed in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville, a chemist employed by the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical corporation. Wilbur ground up pure chillies, blended them with sugared water and fed the resulting mixture to a panel of tasters. The tasters were presented with increasingly dilute concentrations of hot pepper until they could no longer feel the heat, and the dilution factor was noted as the Scoville Heat Unit score (SHU) for the pepper being tested.
Today, capsaicin levels are determined by electrochemical techniques and high performance liquid chromatography, but the Scoville unit lives on in honour of Wilbur!
Our 2013 pepper crop spans the spectrum of chili heat. The cherry peppers have a nice bite at about 50 to 500 SHUs, not marked but enough to make them perfect for pickling whole. The Serrano and long red chillies score 8,000 to 22,000 SHUs, into authentically hot territory but not really scary. They’re all-purpose peppers for use fresh or dried to modulate mid-range heat in various dishes.
We cultivated three Asian chillies this year. They may get cooked into Asian dishes or, more likely, dried and flaked. Our Takanotsume peppers were hot (5,000 to 30,000 Scoville Units) with an attractive lime note. The bird chili was comparably hot with a chili-powder bitter aroma. The Thai sun chili was a bit hotter, again with ripe fruit and that bitter chili character.
Now we move into the exciting and specialized world of super-hot chili peppers. First up, the Scotch Bonnets, which are yellow this year. In perhaps the finest chicken wing hot sauce ever made this 90,000 to 325,000 SHU blast of white-hot heat and beautiful sweet pepper fruit is as tear-jerking as it is irresistible. Next, the red Caribbean habaneros, which came in red and orange. These babies score 120,000 to 400,000 SHUs and offer even more sweet fruit and bitter chili flavours. They’ll make another stunning wing and rib sauce and maybe sneak into chili con carne and curry.
Last but certainly not least come the ghost chillies, known taxonomically as Naga Bhut Jolokia. These plants grew like topsy from the day we planted them. They flowered quickly and prolifically and have been producing rapidly-ripening fruit ever since. If that weren’t enough, said fruit is stunning. At over 1,000,000 Scoville Units, our ghost chillies are scary hot. With intense chili bitterness and subtle bell pepper fruit, they’re also scary good. The Queen of Cuisine crafted a triple-hot sauce out of them which we pour on wings and chicken beyond the point where our faces are wet with sweat, tears and other secretions. It starts off with sweet tomato and vinegar flavours. The heat hits hard in about three seconds, increases for about ten or twenty, and hangs around for half an hour. (This is the point where those in-a-gadda-davida effects cut in.)
The current pepper literature suggests that ghost chillies are no longer the undisputed hot heavyweight champ. The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Chili has been rated at 1,200,000 to 2,009,231 and is reported to have great flavour. I’ll let you know at the end of the 2014 growing season. To get any hotter you’ll need pure capsaicin. It weighs in at 15, 000,000 Scoville units.
If any of this sounds more like fun than sheer lunacy to you, get yourself some pepper plants (many of ours came from local Chinese groceterias in the spring) or order seeds on-line. Choose your providers carefully. Our last source sent seeds that wouldn’t germinate and others that were mis-labeled. A friend suggested that we start our “exotics” on a heating pad to emulate their tropical origins.