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« K.O. in Kabul! | Main | If You March, The Messiah Will Come... Or, Who Is John Frum? »

August 01, 2007

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Ruchira,

Sorry, but I must correct you here. Even the mildest of habaneros measures at LEAST 200,000 Scoville Units, and can be much higher (up to three or four hundred thousand), not 20,000, as you suggest. Thai peppers even are around 100,000, I think.

Thanks, Abbas. I have corrected it.

I consulted the Monsanto Scoville chart at the bottom of the post in which the Habanero values are missing a zero. The Wiki Scoville figures for Habanero (as also for serrano) are much higher.

Enticingly painful sounding, if you ask me. The father of a buddy of mine cultivates peppers. One day my buddy brought me a baggy of Habaneros, fresh from the vine (or whatever peppers grow on). It was early morning at work. I plucked one from the bag, popped it in the maw, and gobbled it up. Yum. Fruity, spicy, hot...and a spontaneous demonstration of real machismo. Two weeks later the peppers sat on my desk in the open air, so I thought I'd present an encore performance. Mistake. The heat had intensified in the dry pepper. I wanted to cry. (Perhaps I did.)

I can't conceive of a pepper three or four times as hot. But if it has a flavor to match the incendiary power, and if I have had a beer or two...

I've heard that the taste buds get duller, less sensitive, or perhaps less numerous with age (well, actually, this last claim I think I invented), which would account for becoming more "heat-proof" as you grow older.

However, in my case it's not the taste buds that protest when I eat spicy foods now that I've gone over the edge of fifty, it's my stomach and whatever else is down there in the old gastro-intestinal dungeon.

My father-in-law had an unpleasant experience in French Guiana with a nasty little yellow pepper that he thought looked like an innocent enough candidate for ingestion; it took an hour or so for him to recover, and lots of ice water. They laid him out on some kind of couch. He'll never make that mistake again.

Live and learn.

For generations, though, the pepper has been loved in India's northeast, eaten as a spice, a cure for stomach troubles and, seemingly paradoxically, a way to fight the crippling summer heat.

I realize that the foods we consume sometimes have benefits which appear counterintuitive or paradoxical. Given that I sweat profusely and want to jump into a bathtub filled with ice water after eating a particularly pesky pepper, the claim of "a way to fight crippling summer heat" seems like a joke that the villagers are playing on unsuspecting outsiders. But who knows, perhaps a sizeable bite of the Bhut Jolokia is painful enough to be anesthetizing. You don't really care what the thermometer outside reads when your innards are burning like hell fire!

I ate a Habanero at lunch today. It was delicious. But it was also small and I was armed with several juicy lime wedges and a tall glass of ice water. Unlike Curty's father-in-law, I am cautious with my peppers.

Dean, you chewed on a Habanero once ... twice? Should I take anything you write on A.B. seriously again? I mean, lovely as the orange devils are, that was pure insanity or should I say masochistic machismo? And oh, you'd need something a bit more mind numbing than a couple of beers to handle the Bhut Jolokia, I should think. But what do I know, with my relatively wimpy palate? A fellow blogger just boasted to me (via email) that he can handle pure capsaicin - Scoville rating = 15,000,000–16,000,000 ! I asked him to put it in writing here in the comments section.

As part of the mechanism by which the body acclimates to heat through lowering core temperature, heat stress lowers metabolism. A side effect of this is lethargy. Capsicum raises metabolism (I actually first researched studies on this subject as a thinness-obsessed teenager, and went through a phase of adding cayenne pepper to just about everything I ate). So, while it may be counter-productive to the body's efforts to fight off the dangers of over-heating, capsicum also makes one feel more alert in the heat. Also, as unpleasant as it feels to be clammy with sweat on a hot day, the biological point of all that sweating is to cool the body off. Capsicum also acts as a natural preservative, which might help some stomach troubles, even if it exacerbates others.

That said, I'm with Ruchira on Dean's act of glibly popping habaneros. [insert involuntary shudder]. My mother, though fairly spice-averse herself, used to grow scotch bonnets and habaneros in her garden, which I would sometimes nibble at, carefully avoiding the killer seeds. I grew up eating spicy food and affirmatively like it. But, I tread with some caution in this area (my preferred antidote is rice, yoghurt, or sugar, rather than water, which I find just makes matters worse by spreading the oils around), and would probably not seek out the "ghost chili." At the point at which all I can taste is pain, I'm just not interested.

Black pepper grows on vines, not chili. There's nothing to beat the taste of sun-dried black pepper freshly ground on your soup or rasam or even warm milk laced with a touch of sugar or honey (my mom's preferred remedy for sore throats).
Not a habanero fan, especially after the mouth numbing black bean soup that I once tried at a local Mad Mex restaurant. ¡Ay, caramba!
Call me a wimp, but the occasional jalapeno is all that I'm willing to pop whole.
As for the garden variety of green pepper (which we call 'capsicum' in Indian cooking), I just discovered that the green pepper I picked in my garden, small as it was, packed more of a flavor punch than those green monsters shipped in from California or Mexico to the supermarket.
Next year, I have plans for more chilis in my garden (rubbing garden gloves together in glee!)

My husband once scandalized our Japanese hosts by asking for and sprinkling black pepper on his miso soup. Some of them followed suit out of curiosity and loved the result!

Anna, lowering your metabolism IS the whole point during Indian summers especially when as in rural India, no airconditioning or even ceiling fans may be at your disposal. Although many spice loving Indians continue to eat hot food through the sweltering summers (some are addicted to "hot"), I remember that the cooking in our home would become milder in April through July - thinner and less oily curries, flavored more with cumin and coriander rather than pepper and garam masala and a helping of yoghurt during or after meals. Things perked up again when the monsoons hit and especially during fall and winter.

In eastern parts of rural India (Assam included), summer culinary creations often turn towards ensuring lethargy. Day old rice soaked in water (left at room temperature to ferment just a bit) and vegetables and fish smothered in poppy seed paste, chewing on partially dried betel nuts after meals - all guaranteed to cause stupor. Then you find a shady, quiet nook and go to sleep if you can. One doesn't want to be too alert. Which is why I found the Assamese villagers' claim of fighting heat with ghost peppers a bit preposterous. I am sure they were pulling a fast one.

Yogurt and plain, steamed rice are very good for countering pepper induced burn. Yoghurt drinks and coconut water are coolants popular with most heat weary Indians. Another not very well known and somewhat counterintuitive protective remedy against heat stress / stroke is raw onion. Laborers who must toil under the unforgiving sun know that and eat raw onions with their mid-day meals. Some also take the extra precaution (to insulate the mind, not the body) of smoking a joint or two of charas / marijuana.

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