Is Chilli an Often Much Misunderstood Spice?

June 20, 2024 posted in Behind the Scenes

I awoke to the alarming news that the food regulator in Denmark has banned several varieties of a popular instant noodle brand due to it being too spicy!

The regulator’s head of the Chemistry and Food Quality Division stated that the capsaicin levels were exposing consumers to chilli ‘poisoning’!

Now, let’s think for a moment about what is going on here, and understand a bit more about chilli.

Sometimes more than media likes to sensationalise, without a full understanding of the subject.

Chillies are fruits that form on plants native to the Americas, that are members of the capsicum family.

Oh, goodness me – but capsicums (aka bell peppers) are not hot!

Why is this so?

Fresh chillies (and capsicums) are green until they ripen, after which the colour may be red, yellow, brown, purple or almost black. The aroma and flavour of fresh chillies is distinctly capsicum-like, fresh green chillies having the same ‘green’ succulent flavour as a green capsicum. Ripe chillies have a more full-bodied and fruity flavour from the sugars that develop naturally on ripening.

Heat levels range from non-existent in capsicums to mild and fruity, and deliciously tingling to threateningly scorching in chillies. The intensity of heat perceived on eating is determined by the amount of capsaicin present. Capsaicin is a crystalline substance, contained in the highest concentration in the seeds and the fleshy placenta material that is joined to the seeds and is also in the fleshy skin of the fruit.

Capsaicin is picked up by receptors in your mouth that sends a message to the brain that says “hot” and releases endorphins. These are substances that create a sense of wellbeing and stimulation, as experienced by athletes and those of us who jump into the surf in the middle of winter. Similarly, like exercise and cold swimming this can become addictive.

Now we understand why chillies are hot, and many a testosterone loaded adolescent has taken on a dare to eat the hottest chilli he can find (yes ‘he’ as it is mostly a boy thing).

This obsession with hot chillies has spawned a group of chilli eaters who search for ridiculous heat levels. While a good hot ‘normal’ chilli like a Bird’s Eye may have 80,000 SHU (Scoville Heat Units) varieties like Carolina Reaper, Trinidad Scorpion, Ghost Pepper and Naga Viper may have up to 1,300,000 SHU’s and above.

Dear readers, these are basically inedible, and in my opinion have nothing to do with taste and flavour. At worst they can dull all other food appreciation experiences.

Let’s think about flavour.

Chillies have a wonderful pantheon of fruity flavours and comforting aromas, many of which are enhanced with a sensible frisson of excitement through agreeable levels of capsaicin. Among these we have versatile Aleppo Pepper, and Urfa Biber from Turkey. Deep red wrinkle-skinned Kashmiri Chillies, very fruity and warm.


Then we have the deep-dark red, almost black chillies such as AnchoPasilla and Mulato. These are categorized as mild, and have comforting flavours reminiscent of raisins and sultanas, with the slightest hint of heat balancing with their fruity flavours.

Herbie’s Chilli Rule #1

Primarily enjoy chillies for their flavour, and if you like a little heat, go for it.

We have chilli in ratings of mild, medium and hot to suit your preference, and follow an easily understood rating of 1 to 10, 10 being the hottest (on average 80,000+ SHU’s).

And if you don’t want to add chilli heat to a recipe, substitute fresh green or red chilli with green or red fresh capsicum. Replace chilli powder with sweet paprika. Voila! You have maintained the flavour balance and not compromised the recipe by just leaving the chilli out.

For some more chilli insights, also see this Blog:

Further spice secrets are there for you to discover in:

The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian & Kate Hemphill, published by Robert Rose Inc. Canada.

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