Chillies are the fruit of plants belonging to the genus Capsicum. This genus includes mild sweet peppers like bell peppers and capsicums. Like tomatoes, peppers, capsicums and chillies are a member of the nightshade or Solanaceae family.
Chillies originated in the Americas and were first domesticated as a food more than 6,000 years ago in Mexico. Chillies were only introduced into India around 600 years ago by the Portuguese, yet now India is the world’s largest producer of chillies.
The characteristic flavour and aroma of chillies are due to a group of compounds called pyrazines. The heat associated with chillies is because they contain a family of compounds called capsaicinoids. Many different capsaicinoids have been identified in chillies, but two compounds, capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin, account for most of the heat, both having similar potency.
These capsaicinoids are produced in the white pith and migrate to the nearby seeds. Capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin have been shown to bind to a specific receptor in the mouth that detects pain. This pain is a chemesthetic sensation that also applies to touch and is different to taste or smell.
The receptors react first to warn you – this is the pain – then they turn off, making your mouth feel numb. This numbing is the body’s defence mechanism to protect itself against the pain induced by the compound. This is temporary and the receptors go back to normal soon, unless, of course, you have actually managed to kill these receptor cells. Highly unlikely, but if you have, then they will grow back in around two weeks or so.
It is this pain response that makes Indian food so addictive to many. It makes the body produce endorphins, a natural opiate that can be highly addictive. When people say they need a “chilli hit”, they are really saying is they want an endorphin hit.
As a general rule, green chillies tend to be hotter than red chillies. Small, pointed chillies are usually hotter than larger, more rounded varieties. Green chillies are called hari mirch, and red chillies are called lal mirch.
Whole chillies can be de-seeded to make them a little less hot. Split the chilli down the middle, and using a sharp knife, scrape off the seeds and white pith, then wash the chilli. Remember that the heat of the chilli comes from this pith.
In most recipes, the fresh chillies are added early in the cooking process, and this tends to lessen that first chilli bite, but certainly doesn’t take away the effect. A garnish of finely sliced chilli, usually of the red variety, can add that initial bite back.
The flavour of a fresh chilli is quite different to the dried version, and the two cannot be interchanged. Chilli powder is also not a substitute for fresh chilli.
Chillies are available from supermarkets. Buy as few as you need, because they don’t keep well, even in a refrigerator, and they lose their pungency quite quickly. Fresh chillies should have smooth, firm, glossy skin with no soft spots or shrivelling. They should have green stalks, not brown or black.