Chili Peppers and Globalization

How has the chili pepper found a home in almost every cuisine in the world?

September 29, 2005

How has the chili pepper found a home in almost every cuisine in the world?

In Thailand — where restaurants rate their dishes by placing one, two, three and sometimes four little red chilis on the menu next to the dishes’ names to alert diners — I am tolerated. Barely.

A longtime friend, who is a Thai chef, used to bring home food purchased at street stalls and as she placed it on the table, she pointed to one container and said, “Mine,” then to another, saying, “Yours.” As if to say, “Poor dear.”

Chili peppers are not exclusively Thai, but I can’t imagine life in Thailand without them.

Thailand cannot claim to be the birthplace of the Capsicum — the chili was imported, along with much else in the national diet — it only acts as if it does. Surely, the per capita consumption of the small, fiery fruit is as high or higher than anywhere else.

The truth is, it’s an international phenomenon. There’s even a bimonthly magazine published in the United States, “Chile Pepper” (there is no agreement on the spelling), and a wide variety of products are available, including pepper-shaped wind chimes, bells and strings of Christmas tree lights.

There is a Hot Sauce Club of America, where members receive two new hot sauces and a newsletter every month. There’s even a popular American rock and roll band that calls itself the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Yes, the band is hot.

Chilis are hot because they contain capsaicin (pronounced cap-SAY-a-sin) an irritant alkaloid found mostly in the interior tissue to which the seeds adhere. (Thus, removing the seeds helps lower the temperature.)

Capsaicin has at least five separate chemical components. Three delivering an immediate kick to the throat at the back of the palate and two others conveying a slower, longer-lasting and less fierce heat on the tongue and mid-palate. Mmm-mmmmmm-mmm, say my Thai friends, who have had decades to get used to it.

Belonging to the same family as the tomato and the eggplant, they were introduced in Europe by (some say) Christopher Columbus or early Portuguese explorers, originating either in the Caribbean or Brazil. Magellan is credited with taking chili peppers to Africa, the Portuguese with taking them to Asia.

Today, chili peppers play a significant role in many cuisines — from Mexico, where they are used in ragouts and sauces (moles), to the Middle East, where they are pickled whole, to North Africa, where they are used to season couscous with garlic.

More chili is added to South Indian curries, while the Chinese make a purée calledra-yiu that is mostly oil-based, with fried soya bean and chili as additional ingredients. So popular is chili in China that each province has its own brand.

Koreans use a chili paste to make kimchee and hot spicy soup. In Singapore, chili sauce must include garlic and ginger. In Malaysia and Indonesia, it is called sambal and often includes shrimp or dried fish.

In Thailand, only a short walk from my flat, there are street vendors mixing and selling som tam, a five-alarm green papaya salad with lime juice and tomato and as many chopped peppers as you can stand. This dish once was a staple for the poor in Thailand’s impoverished northeast, but nowadays it’s hard to find a Thai menu anywhere worldwide that doesn’t include it.

In Hawaii, “chili peppa water,” which is a blend of what it sounds like, is found on every local restaurant table next to the pepper and salt.

Throughout the United States, chili pepper sauce has a large following, mainly through the sale of Tabasco sauce, manufactured in Louisiana and sold in tiny bottles internationally, and used to season meat, egg and red kidney bean dishes, sauces and a number of cocktails, including the ever-fashionable Bloody Mary. Not long ago, for a year or so, chili sauce even out sold ketchup in the States.

Just as different ingredients are added to the peppers from place to place, there are widely varying ways of preparing the sauces.

Tabasco is fermented in barrels for three years or longer, while in Thailand, the major ingredients — chili, flour and tomato paste — are merely blended together and there is no fermentation involved.

Tabasco tastes somewhat sourer and, in fact, is hotter. It’s in the use of unprocessed, fresh, ripe chilis where Thailand rings all the loudest bells.

Thais also like their sauce free-flowing, where in other countries around the region, the thicker and slower, the better.

Chili peppers are now believed to be a possible medical miracle. Not only does the consumption of a single pepper provide a full day’s supply of beta-carotene and nearly twice the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C for an adult, but also that magic ingredient called capsaicin, a compound found in the vegetable, controls pain and makes you feel better. What’s that? Makes me feel better?

Consider what happens when you bite into a chili pepper. You think you have Shock and Awe in your mouth, with smart (dumb) bombs going off from lips to gums to tongue and throat. You’re certain that your taste buds have been defoliated. You break into a sweat and reach for your water glass to put out the fire. (A futile exercise, because capsaicin is barely soluble in water. Best thing is to drink milk because casein, one of the proteins in milk, specifically and directly counteracts the effects of capsaicin. Others swear by water mixed with a dash of salt.) Your eyes water and your nasal passages flood.

At the same time, there may come a strange relief, a beneficial side effect. The messages sent to your brain are similar to those which mark pain and the brain responds to these by stimulating the secretion of extra endorphins, natural opiates that give pleasure. The endorphins then sooth or reduce existing pain not only in the mouth, but also throughout the body.

So far, studies suggest capsaicin reduces pain associated with arthritis, diabetes, muscle and joint problems, cluster headaches and phantom limbs. A study done at the famed Mayo Clinic in the United States further suggests that it reduces pain from post-surgical scars.

Thus, many people who suffer from chronic pain are now being advised to eat spicy food, either as an alternative or as a supplement to analgesics. It is, then, quite literally, fighting fire with fire.

Chili peppers possess other medicinal advantages. They alleviate symptoms of the common cold by breaking up congestion and keeping the airways clear. (Did you notice that your nose and eyes started running when you broke out in that initial sweat? A capsaicin nose spray is now being considered to relieve headaches and migraines.)

Chili peppers also increase your metabolic rate — contributing to the success of a weight-loss program — contain an anti-oxidant that lowers the “bad” cholesterol and scientists at the famed Max Planck Institute in Germany confirm Capsicum can prevent the formation of blood clots by lengthening the time it takes blood to coagulate.

My Thai chef friend, who is reading over my shoulder as I write this, is calling me the Thai equivalent of wimp. She keeps a jar of dried seeds in my kitchen and casually dumps them into soups and onto noodle and rice dishes in a manner that seems suicidal.

“Getting to like chili peppers is like playing with fire,” said Dr. Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States. “Humans tend to put themselves voluntarily in situations which their body tells them to avoid — but humans tend to get pleasures out of these things, such as eating chili peppers or going on roller coaster rides. We are the only species that enjoys such things. No one has ever found an animal that likes to frighten itself.”