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Chokos: Chayote »« Celery


Capsicum annuum

Photo courtesy of Horticulture New Zealand


A relative of the much milder capsicum, or bell pepper, chillies are well known for their fiery hotness. A small chilli can pack a big, mouth-burning punch, and while they should be treated with caution, a bit of chilli can add a whole other dimension to almost any dish.

The heat in chilli comes from a chemical called capsaicin, found in all chilli varieties to varying degrees. The only pepper that contains no capsaicin is the capsicum.

The chilli that’s most commonly found in supermarkets is the cayenne chilli: a long, thin chilli that ranks about halfway on the ‘heat’ scale. Easy to grow in the garden, or even in pots, other well-known varieties include the hot habanero, the jalapeno, and the birds-eye chilli (used often in Asian cooking).

The more the chilli ripens, the hotter it gets, so if you want your chilli milder, choose the unripe green ones. The white membrane and the seeds inside have the highest concentration of capsaicin, so discard these before cooking if you want less heat.

Chillies contain high levels of vitamins A and C, and recent studies on rats have suggested that capsaicin may help reduce blood pressure on animals with a genetic predisposition to hypertension.



Chillies are native to the Americas, and are believed to have been used there since at least 7500BC. There’s evidence that they have been domesticated for more than 6,000 years. They made it to Europe through adventurer Christopher Columbus, where they were grown in monasteries as ornamental plants. But they soon became used as a flavouring ingredient at a time when black peppercorns, a usual seasoning, were so expensive that they were used in some areas as currency.

Chillies made their way into the Phillippines and India from Mexico, which at the time was a Spanish colony that controlled trade with Asia. They quickly spread throughout Asia and became an important part of the cuisine of almost all its countries. It has also been suggested that the Portuguese imported chillies to India and began cultivating it there.


Chilli can be put into just about anything you want to give a little kick to. Most soups benefit from the addition of a little bit of hotness, and it goes well with acidic fruits and vegetables such as tomato and citrus. To break down chilli in the gut if you’re prone to ‘after-burn’, try serving with herbs that aid digestion such as tarragon, parsley and coriander.

For something a little different, try adding a small amount of chilli to chocolate dishes, especially hot chocolate or chocolate sauce for ice cream. Make it by melting dark chocolate in milk, and adding chopped fresh chilli or chilli powder to taste. Be careful though; a little goes a long way. All you want is a gentle tingle.


Birds don’t have the sensitivity to capsaicin that mammals do. It’s thought that this has given chilli plants an evolutionary advantage, enabling birds to spread the seeds without the seeds or fruit being eaten by ground-dwelling animals.

Capsaicin, like oil, can’t be dissolved in water. That means that drinking litres of water after eating hot food will only spread the hotness around and make the burning worse. It’s soluble in many fats, however, such as yoghurt, so try that instead.

The level of heat in chilli is measured in units on the Scoville scale. It indicates the number of times an extraction of capsaicin oil has to be diluted before being undetectable. A capsicum has a rating of zero, containing no capsaicin, whereas a typical supermarket cayenne chilli rates between 30,000 and 50,000. A chilli found in Bangladesh, the bhut jolokia, is rated at over 1 million Scoville units. Pure capsaicin is rated at 16 million.

Capsaicin is a main ingredient in pepper spray. Its Scoville rating is over 5 million.

Chokos: Chayote »« Celery


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