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Everything You Need to Know About Chiles and Other Vectors of Hotness

Eating is a pleasure that can provide several well-known sensory effects. Any bite can be perceived as salty, sweet, sour, or bitter in differing proportions, or it may partake of the newly recognized umami. A piece of meat can be tough or tender; a cup of pudding smooth or lumpy. But what about heat?

Not the physical type of heat, but the heat that derives from chiles or black peppercorns, producing a sensation somewhere on a continuum from warm mellowness to outright pain. English — with its dearth of food words — is incapable of accurately distinguishing such a sensation from physical heat, calling a chile-laden dish "hot," even though burning your mouth with chiles is entirely different than burning your mouth with hot coffee.

Burning your mouth with chiles is entirely different than burning it with hot coffee

In fact, there’s not one but several types of gastro-heat. These vectors of hotness achieve their physiological effects in different ways, and the impact of, say, African grains of paradise has little in common with the burn of raw garlic or sweet heat of pink peppercorns. Here is a thumbnail classification of what ingredients taste hot, along with a selection of cuisines where the spiciest dishes can be found.


Why do we call them "peppers" in English? When they first arrived in Europe with Columbus, the burning effect was considered similar to a spice already available: black peppercorns. All chiles are fruits and members of the genus Capsicum, from the mildest bell peppers — which offer no heat at all — to the hottest ghost chiles. The heat exhibited is the result of the chemical capsaicin. It operates by irritating the mucous membranes, with the apparent botanic purpose of preventing humans and other animals from eating chiles and thus destroying the seeds needed for reproduction. Which is why seeds are the hottest part of a chile. Chile heat has been scientifically measured in Scoville Units since 1912, when the scale was invented by Wilbur Scoville. It now ranges from 0 to 2.2 million, the latter for a pepper hotter than a ghost chile called a Carolina reaper.

Types of chile include Anaheim, bell pepper, Cascabel, cayenne, cherry pepper, ghost chile, hot banana pepper, hot paprika, jalapeno, malagueta, marisol, New Mexico, paprika, pasilla, pimento, poblano, rocotillo, Scotch bonnet pepper, serrano, shishito, Thai bird chile. Many of these chiles are used in fresh, dried, pickled, or powdered form, or extracted into chile oil. They can be used unalloyed, or mixed into spice combinations. No cuisine uses as many different kinds of chiles as Mexican.


Sometimes called the world’s most popular spice, peppercorns (Piper nigrum) are the dried fruit of a flowering vine native to India and Indonesia. At one time, the peppercorn was one of the most expensive commodities in the world (Renaissance-era wealthy Europeans guarded them in "pepper safes" hung around their necks), and most expeditions that set off from Europe in the 16th century were going in search of ways to get more pepper. The flavor of peppercorns may be described as both hot and sweet, with some tasters detecting hints of camphor and mustard. It is said that the darker the peppercorn, the more pungent the flavor. Via its active ingredient, an alkaloid known as piperine, black pepper functions as a preservative in foods and an aid to digestion.

Types of black peppercorns: Black peppercorns are often identified by their point of origin, such as Tellicherry (India, on the Malabar Coast, now known as Thalassery) and Lampong (South Sumatra, Indonesia, now known as Lampung). White peppercorns are black peppercorns that have had the skins removed by abrasion before drying; green peppercorns are unripe berries, usually preserved by brining and canning, and sold still attached to the twig.


These are the dried berries of the Peruvian peppertree, closely related to cashew trees and native to South America. Pink peppercorns are sweeter than black peppercorns, but with nearly the same level of heat. They are also more expensive, and are available packed in brine or freeze-dried.


Also called melegueta, this spice with a poetic name is native to West Africa, known taxonomically as Aframomum melegueta. It is not to be confused with malagueta pepper, a type of chile found in Brazil once incorrectly identified as melegueta. What a difference an "A" makes! Grains of paradise also go by the common name of alligator pepper or Guinea pepper — the second identifying a point of origin in West Africa. The plant — of which the grains of paradise are seeds — blooms with purple flowers, is a member of the ginger family, and exhibits a flavor exceedingly aromatic, something like cardamom, with a substantial level of heat.


The seedpod and seeds of the prickly ash tree native to the Sichuan province of China constitute this spice. It is sometimes called fagara, flower pepper, anise pepper, or Chinese coriander (referring to the ground spice coriander rather than its herbal counterpart). Sichuan peppercorns were outlawed in the United States from 1968 until 2005 on the grounds that they might carry the bacterial disease citrus canker. Now peppercorns imported to this country are heated to 70 degrees Celsius prior to shipping to discourage diseases. Foodies often argue over the frankly surreal flavor of the spice; some emphasize its numbing or tingling properties, others describe a near-hallucinatory effect, which causes a sip of cold water to taste hot in the minutes following consumption. Used whole, crushed, or ground up.


This Japanese spice belongs to the same genus (Zanthoxylum) as the Sichuan peppercorn, so the culinary effects are nearly the same, and two different varieties grow on the archipelago. It is used in pure powdered form on a few dishes (most especially eel), but is more commonly a component, along with six other ingredients including dried red chiles, in the shichimi blend of spices, often found in a small shaker on the tables of Japanese restaurants.


Horseradish is the root of a plant native to Eastern Europe; it is a traditional element of the Passover seder and is now grown all over Europe and in the United States. Horseradish can be used fresh, or preserved in vinegar (white horseradish) or beet juice (red horseradish). It can also be preserved by drying and powdering, and thereafter must be reconstituted with water for use. Depending on its form, the effect of horseradish is primarily aromatic, with a flavor that operates more on the nose than the mouth or throat, and produces a burning or tingling sensation when used in quantity. Vinegar preservation accentuates this quality.


Akin to horseradish in its effects but not from the same plant, wasabi (Eutrema japonicum) grows low to the ground with heart-shaped leaves and a deep woody root. It’s related to mustard, cabbage, and horseradish, and exceedingly hard to grow, hence the high price of the condiment. Another contributing factor to the expensiveness: Only the stem of the plant is used, dried and powdered to make wasabi as we know it. The chemical that causes the burn is uncommonly volatile, and loses its flavor rapidly once the paste is reconstituted. That is why wasabi is spread between the rice and the raw fish in sushi. The spice in any quantity produces a sensation as if a small animal is rapidly crawling up your nose and down your throat, a feeling that quickly dissipates. Its widespread popularity lately has resulted in wasabi being incorporated into ice cream, snack chips, and bloody marys — it’s not just for sushi anymore.


Prepared yellow mustards often contains vinegar, and the combination of the crushed mustard seeds and acid can confer a burning taste. Cheap and adulterated wasabi often contains mustard mixed in, and Western mustards sometimes come with chiles or horseradish to give them extra authority. Mustard seeds and oils are extensively used for their piquant properties in South Asian cooking, and, especially in West Bengal and Bangladesh, mustard oil used as a cooking medium is valued for its corrosive properties. (Imported mustard oil is not strictly legal for human consumption in the United States, and is often so labeled.) Mustard oil produces a yellowish cast in food cooked with it, and produces a burning sensation in the throat when that food is swallowed.


There are other plants and their seeds that produce pepper-like effects: red peppercorns (a berry native to Cambodia usually used fresh, it spoils quickly and is not imported into the United States); negro peppers (brown seed pods found in Malawe and Ghana and used in dried form); and pepperleaf (aka cubeb, native to Argentina and Peru, said to taste like a cross between black pepper and cilantro).


Green onions, garlic, and other plants in the allium family can be perceived as spicy — and even burn the lips — if used raw in a dish. One spectacular example is Greek skordalia, a bread dip of mashed potatoes, olive oil, lemon juice, and raw garlic that leaves your mouth singed. Another example is the Lebanese white condiment called toum, similar to French aioli, which also burns the lips. All serve as vectors of hotness in cuisines not normally considered spicy. Green onions in Cajun and Creole cooking often serve the purpose of providing hotness as well an oniony pungency.


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