Thursday, November 15, 2007

Is there a chile you cannot eat?

November 15 …

This day in 1941 is the birthday of the immensely funny writer Daniel Pinkwater, who is unafraid of fat (as a body habitus), and to whom I am eternally grateful for making me understand that even in the most pedestrian life, there can be challenges.

In A Hot Time in Nairobi, he wrote:

“It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you’ve done, or think you can do. There’s a confrontation with destiny awaiting you. Somewhere there is a chile you cannot eat”

Chiles (or chillies, or chilli peppers or whatever you will) are hot because of the capsaicin that they contain. Capsaicin is a chemical that is so highly irritating to the tissue that it fools the brain into thinking that the tissue is on fire. It is presumed that this was developed to give an evolutionary advantage to the plants by discouraging animals from eating them. Clever humans of a certain occupational sort have in turn taken advantage of the plants and extrated the chemical and put it in a spray can to discourage (or at least seriously distract) other humans from uncivil or illegal behaviour. Other clever humans have adapted its use for medical purposes – some of those hot liniments that you rub on acheing muscles for example. It has other medical uses and potential uses too which are fascinating but outside the scope of this blog.

The “hotness” of a particular chilli is affected by various horticultural conditions, but if it is not too sweeping a generalisation, some varieties are hotter than others. The heat is measured in one of two ways. The Scoville scale was developed by William of the same surname in 1912. It is based on subjective assessments of a team of volunteers: the capsaicin being progressively diluted until it is undetectable. To give some idea of the scale, a capsicum (sweet bell pepper) rates zero, pure capsaicin, should anyone be able to eat it, would rate as 16,000,000 Scoville units. The hottest pepper on record was a habanero that rated 577,000: the fate of the volunteers in that trial is not recorded. A new sauce called “The Source” made by Juan Specialty Foods has been registeed at 7.1 million units, and purchase must surely require the possession of a weapons licence.

Scientists have no truck with subjective anythings however, so they applied the technique of high pressure liquid chromatography to the problem and came up with American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) units. An approimate conversion is to multiply ATSA units by 15 to arrive at Scoville units.

In spite of the common (mis-)conception that British food is bland, the Brits have had a love affair with chilli powder at least since the eighteenth century - thanks no doubt to returning colonials with a taste for foreign food. In old cookbooks it is usually called cayenne (or some related spelling such as chyan), and it is used in a wide range of dishes. Here is an eighteenth century take on that common staple – pea soup.

Common Peas Soup.
To a quart of split peas put a gallon of soft water, and a little lean bacon, or roast beef bones. Wash a head of celery, cut it, and put it in with a turnip. Boil it till it is reduced to two quarts, and then work it through a cullender with a wooden spoon. Mix a little flour and water, boil it with the soul, and slice in another head of celery, chyan pepper, and salt to your taste. Cut a slice of bread into small dice, fry them of a light brown, put them in your dish, and pour the soup over them.
[ The universal cook, and city and country housekeeper. Francis Collingwood; 1797.]

Tomorrow’s Story …

Milk and Custard.

Quotation for the Day …

‘Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp’, said Joseph, really interested. ‘A chili’, said Rebecca, gasping; ‘oh yes!’ She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported. From Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. (1853)

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