Feeling the heat (and loving it)

Hot pepper!Some men achieve immortality without really striving for it. Such was the case of Dr. Wilbur Scoville, a chemist working for the Parke Davis company. In 1912, Dr. Wilbur devised his Scoville Organoleptic Test, a method of determining the heat in hot peppers. In that simple, yet elegant process, he carved his name in the Great Recipe Book for all times.

The substance that makes a pepper hot is called capsaicin (or N-Vanillyl-8-methyl-6 (E)-noneamide to real chileheads). Dr. Wilbur's process provides a way to measure the 'heat' of the pepper by essentially measuring how much capsaicin it has.

The measurement bears his name: Scoville Units, and counting them has become a competition among recent hot sauce manufacturers, whose products have names like Mad Dog Inferno Sauce, Blair's After Death Sauce, Habanero Peppers From Hell, Brain Damage (great taste!), Screaming Rasta in a Boiling Lake and one of my favourites, Dave's Insanity Sauce.

Dr. Wilbur's test was originally a subjective taste test, but today it's done with high-tech, high-pressure liquid chromatography.

Thanks to his efforts, the name of Dr. Wilbur remains on the tongue of every chilehead, as we boast about our latest foray into the Scoville zone. Higher Scoville units mean hotter food on this thermal Richter scale. Your basic bell or sweet Italian peppers rate zero. You don't even get to mild until you try ancho or poblano peppers, at 1,000-1,500 Scovilles.

Jalapeños, those zingy little green peppers that grace nacho trays in popular bars and are casually tossed over pizzas, rate 2,500-5,000 Scovilles. But true chileheads scoff at jalapeño peppers as beginner's stuff. They barely give passing glance to the chipotle, a smoked, dried jalapeño which can rate 10,000 Scovilles.

Nor do they raise an eyebrow for serrano peppers, a popular little Mexican darling with a tingly 10,000-23,000 Scovilles under its green skin. Serranos are the tasty tidbits that enliven your basic salsa verde found on every table in a Mexican restaurant.

Tabasco, aji and cayenne start to reach real heat, at 30,000-50,000 Scoville units. Tabasco peppers are unique: they are only grown in a small area in Louisiana. The McIlheny company that makes the smoky, delightful Tabasco sauce also makes a delicious (albeit milder) green jalapeño sauce and a very tasty tabasco-habanero sauce that combines the two flavours very nicely. Sadly, the red Tabasco, delicious as it is, constitutes about 95 per cent of the choices in hot sauce in this and most North American communities. Which says a lot about us, doesn't it? I consume an industrial-size Tabasco bottle every month, which I suppose says a lot about me.

But even the tangy Tabasco doesn't turn the heads of real pepper aficionados, except perhaps as a dessert topping. They want more heat: the sharp bite of the Thai pepper (50,000-100,000 units) is where it starts. That's in the same neighbourhood as the tiny pequin, the chiltepin and the red Amazon (both 75,000).

More peppersIt doesn't get really exciting until you reach the Jamaican Hot, Scotch Bonnet and the revered Habanero. All of these start at around 100,000 Scovilles, but the Habanero can push into the truly stratospheric, past 350,000. That's what you get in zingy sauces like Dave's Insanity Sauce, which as far as I can tell is about one step below weapons-grade pepper spray (although I have yet to taste his latest sauce which promises even hotter levels of tastebud hell).

The hottest pepper ever tested was a Red Savina Habanero, which boasted an incredible 577,000 Scovilles in 1995. You wear oven mitts when preparing these babies. You don't eat them, you worship them from afar.

Most Mexican food, as well as most Mexican table sauces (like Buffalo or Taijin), aren't really very hot at all. When I asked for salsa picante in Zihua, I usually got a bottle of American-made Tabasco! Or worse, ketchup... You have to sometimes convince local restaurateurs that you can handle the hot stuff. Then they will bring out bowls of delicious, spicy red and green salsa to your table. Some salsa verde is made with chopped serrano peppers, which have a bit of a nip, but they're nothing compared to the Habanero. A couple of drops of a good (read: insanely hot) habanero sauce can render a meal volcanic.

If you ask a chilehead why they eat hot foods, you'll get several answers, but the main one is the endorphin rush. Endorphins are natural opiates released by the brain to signal pleasure rather than pain. You can be eating hot foods, panting, breathing hard, sweating, your lips on fire - and smiling because you really enjoy it! Me, I'd have to say the taste they impart.

Hot peppers vary considerably in type, the location where they're grown, the temperature of the growing season, when they're harvested and how they're processed. McIlheny, for example, puts their picked peppers in a barrel with salt and lets them age naturally three years before processing. The result is a wonderful, smoky, rich and deep flavour. Some companies, on the other hand, use chemical enhancers to artificially age their products, sometimes giving them an unpleasant aftertaste and a thin, watery tang.

A digression: black peppers, the kind you get in a pepper mill and sprinkle on your pasta, isn't the same plant as a chile pepper. Black pepper (or red, white and green) is the seed from a tree. Chile peppers are the fruit of a perennial plant related to the nightshade. Perhaps it's that association with danger that attracts us.

Another digression: dried chiles taste different and are often hotter than the fresh version of the same variety. The highest concentrations of capsaicins are in the seeds and the placenta - those white 'ribs' you find inside. And size has nothing to do with heat. The Habanero is considerably smaller than a banana pepper.

And yet one more: mouth on fire? Don't drink water or beer to cool down! Capsaicin is only minimally water-soluble. Beer and water spread the oil around, rather than quench it. Drink milk or eat yogurt. Rice and bread (especially plain tortillas) are also good for diminishing the effect. Don't let anyone tell you hot sauces hide the flavour of the food underneath: there enhance it. You just have to get accustomed to the heat first.

And yet even another: The hottest part of the pepper isn't - as is commonly believed - the seeds. It's in the lining (technically called the placenta - see www.linkstop.com/aaa/gallery/album01/Chili_Cross_section).

Capsaicin, by the way, has medicinal values and has been used to treat acne, arthritis, blood clots and other ailments. And peppers are chock full of vitamin C. Remember that the next time your mouth is afire.

Although I consume industrial-size bottles of Tabasco sauce in short order, and I really like the Tabasco flavour, I also really enjoy habanero and jalapeno sauces. Unfortunately, they're difficult to find at some local groceries. Sad that I have to shop for comestibles of this sort in Toronto or further away. I've found a good source in Ottawa (Canadians take note) called Chilly Chiles, online at www.chillychiles.com.

In my kitchen are several Mexican habanero sauces waiting, like fine wines, to be sampled: La Anita, La Extra, Salsa Cancun and Loltun. I'm working through a bottle of Melinda's XXX, which is produced in Mexico, but isn't as hot (or as tasty) as it used to be when it was made in Belize a few years ago. I've generally found the bottled saunces less appealling than the homemade ones.

Many Oriental pepper sauces add garlic, which can give them real zest, but they also usually contain sugar and sometimes MSG. Some Mexican, Caribbean or Jamaican sauces add these and other ingredients, like onion, carrots or even curry to give them a rich taste. I avoid sauces that use sugars, because that defeats the purpose and turns them into ketchup (I class all food products with sugars as desserts and on principal refuse to eat them with a meal). I also avoid MSG and most non-natural ingredients because the manufacturers are usually trying to improve mediocre taste with chemicals. If it isn't good enough au natural, it ain't good enough for me.

You can accustom yourself to hot foods slowly and develop a real taste for them by adding some to every meal and slowly increasing the dosage. Once you've reached a plateau of tolerance, you'll be surprised how bland food tastes without hot sauces. In no time at all you'll be munching jalapenos like salted peanuts and splashing Tabasco sauce on everything from peanut butter sandwiches to ice cream.

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