Chillies – how do you like them?

I use only red chillies. Fresh or dried, chopped up fine, finely ground or sliced as garnish. Deseeded to remove some of the heat, or seeds all in. There are so many ways with chillies. Tiny hot chillies or the larger less spicy, more favourful ones. Not to forget the mounds of powdered heat available at your local spice shop.

There are others who prefer green chillies. I could not understand why.

Notwithstanding your choice of red or green (traffic light?), we do have a wide selection from which to choose.

Yotam Ottolenghi and his ‘flavour bombs’

Yotam Ottolenghi is quoted as having said, ‘Recipes can be incredibly vague where chillies are concerned’. But he appears to have a fondness for the spicy stuff having included them in his ‘Ottolenghi SIMPLE’ which includes chillies as one of the ‘ten little flavour bombs’. 

Yotam Ottolenghi
Picture courtesy Keiko Oikawa (Wikimedia Commons)

The other ingredients on this list were pomegranate molasses, black garlic, preserved lemons, sumac, tahini, rose harissa, za’atar, ground cardamom, and dried barberries. 

Ottolenghi chose to include Urfa Chilli Flakes in his list of ten.  If a world- renowned chef could allude to the complexity of chillies, and then still pick his favourite, who are we, mere ‘dabblers in the kitchen’ to debate his choice?

Chilies dried in the warmth of the sun
Picture: Fatima Khan
Image by: Fatima Khan

Can you take your food spicy, or not?

On the question of chillies, I often find that we can fall simply into either of two camps, those who prefer their food spicy, and those who can’t.  The discussions surrounding these individual preferences could get quite heated.  I wonder sometimes, if we have an inbuilt genetic predisposition, or not, towards spicy foods. 

A mound of heat
Picture: Fatima Khan

Chillies belong to the nightshade family

Chillies are part of the Solanaceae plant family.  A commonly used term for this family is the Nightshade family.  Other plants belonging to this group include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and bell peppers. 

Chilli Plant
Picture courtesy Mokkie (Wikipedia Commons)

One of the alkaloids in chillies is solanine

The compounds contained within nightshades include alkaloids.  Alkaloids are a class of organic compounds which occur naturally, and may also be synthesised in an organic chemistry laboratory. 

Some common examples of alkaloids include, caffeine, morphine, codeine, capsaicin, quinine, ephedrine, and nicotine.  You’ll be able to recognise some of these names.  The alkaloid compound present in most nightshades is solanine. 

Alkaloids have a range of effects on the human body

If you take a closer look at some of the names of the alkaloid compounds listed above, you’ll realise that alkaloid compounds can have a range of effects on the human body.  Morphine can be used to relieve pain, although it could be addictive.  Ephedrine is often used to alleviate symptoms of sinus-type conditions.  Quinine was once the anti-malarial compound of choice.  Capsaicin is the alkaloid in chillies responsible for the burning heat we experience when we bite into a chilli.  It is also a pain reliever. 

Why do plants produce alkaloids?

There is some debate within the scientific community about why plants produce alkaloids.  Some believe that they are part of the plant’s defence mechanism against being eaten by insects.  Others believe that alkaloids are just the metabolic waste products.  And then, there are those who believe that alkaloid compounds serve specific biological functions, as the concentration of alkaloids in a plant increases at precise periods during the plant life cycle. 

Sweet, salty, bitter, astringent, pungent tastes

Solanine, the alkaloid found in Nightshade family is described as being ‘bitter-tasting’.  Kunisuke Izawa and his co-authors speak about how human’s taste preferences have evolved from a predilection to sweet tastes (as the recognition of an energy source) towards salty (as a source of minerals), and then towards bitter, astringent, and pungent tastes, which were initially considered unpleasant, but then recognised as possible health improvers and disease treaters. 

Solanine from Solanum Nigrum

In his article on Solanine, Kunisuke Izawa reviews the properties of solanine and its use from the plant species Solanum Nigrum, as both a food and a medicine.  As with most medication, the effects of a treatment are dose-dependent.  Victor Kuete, in his piece on Solanum Nigrum, makes the distinction between the consumption of the ripe fruit and the unripe fruit.  He also talks about proper cooking techniques for the leaves of Solanum Nigrum, and recommends boiling the leaves, and discarding the water, repeating this process several times. 

Solanum Nigrim
Picture courtesy :AnRo0002 (Wikimedia Commons)

Red or green chillies?

Finally, back to Yotam Ottolengi who is also quoted as saying ‘The main distinction for fresh chillies is whether they are red or green, the difference being one of ripeness.’

4 Responses

  1. I was recently given a bag of fresh chillies, something I’m not used to (the chillies, not the generosity). I put one in our favourite bean and veg dish and it took it to the next level for sure. No complaints heard on eating leftovers the next day either!
    Thanks for this from a newbie, fresh-chilli lover.

  2. Great info here Fatima. Being a Durban boy and having experienced the best in quality and variety, I can say emphatically that looooooove hot. There are many reasons to eat and enjoy chilli. People speak of the “runners high”. When one runs long distances the body feels pain and the brain releases endorphins to ease that pain. When you eat chillies the brain is fooled into thinking that your body is on fire. It floods the body with endorphins to reduce the pain. Result = a “chilli high”. I loooooove chillies. Let’s do lunch and test it.

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