Tasting Fire: For Love of Spiciness

I like spicy food a lot.  I would guess that a good percentage of everything I eat or cook would fall into the classification of being spicy to the majority of people’s palettes (though I think I would consider a fair share of it as being pretty mild).  I regularly by chili peppers of various sorts when getting produce.  Tabasco sauce has become a kitchen staple of which I regularly need to buy new bottles.  I get excited about talking about capsaicin.  I am even talking about brewing a beer with chili peppers in it.  So yeah, you could say I am a bit of a spicy fan.

I wasn’t always this way though.  In fact I can clearly remember a childhood in which I regularly tried to avoid eating anything spicier than a mild salsa.  I wish I knew when my preference began to change, but I cannot really place it.  I think it must have been sometime in high school.  One early memory of experimenting with chili peppers included my friend Christian and I taking a scotch bonnet from the huge pepper plant he’d grown hydroponically (he only used the hydroponic systems for legitimate vegetable growing) and eating thin slices of it with big slices of cheddar cheese.  It was extremely spicy.  Sometime after that I remember making a fair share of pepper inspired artwork (including drawings, graphic designs, and sculptures), though I am not sure if any of this reflected my preference for eating hot food.

It was definitely in college when Tabasco sauce became a regular edition to much of what I ate.  It was also during this time that I was really become more interested in cooking (I’d been cooking since a child, at my parent encouragement, but hadn’t really found enjoyment until college).  Between sophomore and junior year and then again between junior and senior year I worked at a greenhouse and garden center during the summer and I bought myself a large number of various pepper plants to grow.  One of the pepper plants (a cayenne pepper) I kept in my apartment throughout most of my senior year.  By the time I moved down to South Carolina in June of 2007 I was fully ingrained into the love of spicy foods.

Recently my development has detoured a bit from just the pure tolerance of high Scoville units, and headed in the direction of differentiating the flavors of different types of chili peppers.  To somebody who is not terribly familiar with peppers, or a person who has relatively low tolerance for the heat, this flavor differentiation may mean  little, but to me it is becoming an important part of cooking with heat.  A jalapeño imparts a different flavor than a serrano and both are different from a habanero.  Being to distinguish these flavor difference beyond the heat produced by the capsaicin can be an important part of choosing the right pepper to cook different dishes with.  Of course, part of getting to know the flavors means developing that tolerance to the heat, because if all you can notice is the burning sensation then you are apt to overlook the other present tastes.

That brings up a further point about cooking with chili peppers or hot sauces.  It is important to know just how much heat you are adding.  Capsaicin is not a flavor itself, but instead a sensation, specifically a sensation which mimics pain reception.  Over using peppers or hot sauce can detract wonderful flavors in dishes.  Part of my experimenting with cooking with spice has been to learn the proper balance of heat and the flavors provided through other ingredients.

Recently I’ve been using a fair share of habaneros, which are, I’d say, the hottest peppers that are widely available (hottest pepper recorded goes to the Naga Jolokia, also known as the bhut jolokia or ghost chili).  Habaneros are very similar to the above mentioned scotch bonnet (which is actually a habanero cultivar).  The pack a powerful punch, and thus far I have always de-seeded and de-veined them before use (capsaicin is found in the greatest concentration in the pepper’s placental tissue which includes the seeds and the internal white parts of the pepper).  I also make sure to finely chop the habaneros before adding them to anything, as even a small bit can leave an intense burning sensation.  I do like them regardless of their extreme heat properties.  In comparison to the much milder but more acidic jalapeno, the habanero actually instills a delightful sweet hint to foods (which seems strange to think about, but it is definitely true).  Along with the habanero I have also been using an increase of various dried and smoked chilis.

Of course, beside the risk of making food too spicy (which is entirely a personal preference), there are other inherent problems with cooking with chilis.  One, that i have found with jalapenos is that the leave a burning sensation on the hands which can sometimes last for up to a day or so.  I have heard, though am not certain, that this sensation is actually more attributed to the acidic nature of the jalapenos than to their spiciness, which I can buy solely for the fact that I have never experienced the same problem with habaneros.  Then there is the risk of getting spice where it is unwanted, like your eye, which happened to me accidentally some weeks back.  It is truly one of the most devastating pains I have ever experienced.  Also there is the underestimating which sometimes occurs, which has led me to take bites of peppers that were probably best left unbitten.  Even with my relative tolerance of the heat a simple serrano proves to be very formidable when being present to the tongue without an other food stuff to cut the burn a bit.

All and all though, cooking and eating spiciness proves to be a delight.  I am very pleased to have found the enjoyment of it.

~ by Nathaniel on October 19, 2009.

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