Hot & Healthy Chilies

by Christy Burne

They send your body wild and keep you warm at night. They leave you red-faced and panting. They’re chiles, and they’re red hot.

Munch down on a chile and you’ll do more than cause a meltdown in your mouth. Chilies can boost your metabolism, control your cholesterol, reduce fat deposits, and lower your blood pressure. All this, and they taste great too.

Turning up the heat is a natural chemical called ‘capsaicin’, which works by aggravating pain sensors in your mouth. The pain sends your entire body into overdrive, opening blood vessels, increasing blood flow, and flooding your system with endorphins.

Endorphins are your body’s natural painkillers and are also associated with that feeling of pleasure. Regular chile-eaters become addicted to the endorphin release, but must eat spicier chilies to trigger the rush.

Hot for Health
Chiles have twice the vitamin C of citrus fruits, and also contain vitamin A, vitamins B1, B2 and B3, beta-carotene, folic acid and potassium. Studies have shown that capsaicin reduces the amount of fat stored in the blood cells, reduces fat deposits in the liver, and helps you burn more calories after a meal.

Chiles have been used to treat coughs, colds, asthma and laryngitis, and creams containing capsaicin have been reported to reduce the pain associated with shingles, arthritis, and diabetic neuropathy. Yale University School of Medicine has even devised a chile candy to help ease mouth pain in cancer patients. There are also reports that eating chiles can assist with cold sores, cold feet, nosebleeds and varicose veins.

Worried about stomach ulcers? Research from the Central Food Technological Research Institute suggests that far from irritating a sensitive stomach, chiles can help to improve digestion, reduce gas, and even help to prevent stomach ulcers.

Results from a number of trials show capsaicin has potent anti-cancer activities, sometimes reducing tumors by half. One study, conducted at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, showed up to 80% of cancer cells could be induced to suicide upon eating the equivalent of three to eight fresh habanera chiles, three times a week.

Turning up the Heat
Not all chiles are created equal. In 1912 a chemist named Wilbur Scoville invented a way to determine just how hot different chiles could be. The test involved a panel of tasters sipping sugared chile juice until their tongues stopped burning. The unit for chile spiciness, is called the Scoville unit.

Ordinary capsicums rate a lackluster zero; Jalapenos hit you with around 5,000 Scoville units; Cayennes are around ten times hotter than Jalapenos, and Habaneras provide up to 350,000 Scoville units. To put this in perspective, one teaspoon of Habanera chiles should be mixed with half a gallon of sugar water for you to avoid its heat.

Did you know that capsaicin is used in pepper sprays, which rate around two million Scoville units. The hottest chile in the world is rumored to be India’s Naga Jolokia, at a fiery 855,000 Scoville units.

Cooking with Chilies
Beware! Chiles may put a love-buzz on your tongue, but they cause deep regret when near your eyes. Always wash your hands, chopping boards, knives, and immediate vicinity after handling chiles. Consider wearing gloves or coating your hands with cooking oil before handling chiles.

Overdosing on chiles won’t kill you, but if the pain is all too much, try a nice glass of red wine. Capsaicin will wash away in fats, oils or alcohol. A glass of iced water won’t make any difference because capsaicin won’t dissolve in water.

Growing Your Own
Chiles need to be outdoors. The secret is a good soil, full sun, a weekly feed of seaweed solution, and a high-potash organic fertilizer to help them fruit more. You can pick them while they’re green, or wait until they go red. If you pick them regularly they’ll flower and fruit through spring, summer and autumn.

Leave chiles in the sun until they’re crunchy dry, then put them in a bag and roll them with a rolling pin. You can also put them in a coffee grinder or food processor: they’re better a bit coarse than too powdery.

There’s more to chiles than heat. Start to explore the sunny colors and sparkling flavors, and you’ll find a whole garden of tastes just gasping to get on the plate. Fresh chiles should have a shiny smooth skin — dried chiles should be flexible enough to bend without breaking.

Scrumptious chiles to look out for include:

ANCHOS: Just a whisper of heat and a sweet mellow flavor, these chilies are great in mole sauces to add body and texture.

ANAHEIMS: Large, mild, and perfect for stuffing or roasting, they make delicious stews and sauces; usually eaten green.

ARBOLS: Add some zing by popping one of these punchy numbers into an entire soup or stew; don’t forget to remove before serving.

BIRDS EYES: Great in Thai and Asian cooking; super-hot so use sparingly.

BLACK PRINCES: Some say these look too good to eat; black fruits that mature to red with a mild, crisp flavor.

CAYENNE PEPPERS: Hot, sweet and best eaten red, they are great in Hungarian and Mexican cuisine, or can be used whole in Szechwan cooking.

HABANEROS: Proceed with caution, these may be the world’s hottest chiles; best fresh rather than dried.

JALAPENOS: Small, fleshy and packed with attitude, these old favorites are great raw in salsas or salads, or cooked in sauces and soups.

SERRANOS: Similar to Jalapenos but with more bite, these meaty chiles also suit salads and salsas, and are also delicious when roasted. •

from the November-December 2007 issue



Birds Eyes


Name .......... Scoville
Pepper ..... 0
Pepperoncini ..... 100-500
Anaheim ..... 500-2,500
Anchos ..... 1,000-3,000
Jalapenos ..... 2,500-8,000
Serranos ..... 8,000-23,000
Arbols .....15,000-30,000
Cayenne ..... 30,000-50,000
Black Princes ..... 80,000-100,000
Birds Eye ..... 100,000-225,000
Habaneros .....100,000-400,000