Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Hunka, Hunka Burnin' Capsaicin

I enjoy spicy food. But I think there's a practical limit to how spicy the food should be. There's a difference between the amount of heat that gives an edge to the flavors of a dish, and an amount of heat that peels the top four layers off your tongue, makes your lips fall off, and turns your urine into napalm.

I thought about this today for two reasons.

First was that we enjoyed a wonderful dinner last night - in honor of our daughter's birthday - at a local Indian restaurant. The food was excellent, but the dishes the helpful waiter described as mild ... mostly weren't. Our son in law ordered a chicken dish that had him gasping and sweating at the table*, and poor Agnes (who doesn't do spicy at all) had a tough time finding something suitable. Much of it, I think, almost seemed to represent heat for the sake of heat, rather than heat for the sake of flavor.

That high-energy dinner came just a day after I read this fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal: The Arms Race to Grow World's Hottest Pepper Goes Nuclear.

It seems that there are people out there who have dedicated their lives to growing the world's most insanely, devilishly hot pepper - engaging in a search for gustatory armageddon, as it were.

For those of you who may not spend much time thinking about hot peppers, here's a quick synopsis of the science: the chemical which causes a pepper to have have heat is called capsaicin (pronounced "cap-SAY-uh-sin") ... the greater the concentration of capsaicin in the pepper, the stronger and more intense the heat. The level of heat is measured in what are called scoville units or, simply scovilles, named for American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville who, in 1912, first devised a method of calculating the level of heat-inducing chemicals. His method was very imprecise, however, and has been generally replaced today by more accurate chemical analyses. You can read more about it here.

A jalapeno pepper, generally considered to be "hot," has a rating of between 3500 and 8000 scovilles.

By contrast, the current world champion hot pepper, the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T, is rated at 1.464 million scovilles ...

And that, Dear Readers, is one seriously hot pepper.

I have to ask myself, what's the point? Why would anyone want to grow a pepper so terrifyingly hot that eating it makes one roll around on the floor in agony, pleading desperately for milk or yogurt or a bullet between the eyes? What do you actually taste when you bite into a pepper that has been specially bred to cause eye-watering, mouth-searing, bowel-loosening agony?

If it's all the same to you, I'll just stick with my bottle of Tabasco or Cholula hot sauce and my sliced, pickled jalapenos. Life is too short to go through it with a smoking crater where my tongue used to be. Feel free to turn up the heat if you like ... just don't ask me to join you!

Have a good day. More thoughts on Tuesday.


* The asbestos plates and the welder's mask worn by the waiter should have been a giveaway.


Amanda said...

Many people in Malaysia can't eat a meal if it doesn't have chilli in it. They HAVE to have that spiciness or the food isn't tasty to them. And, they're addicted to having that heat get hotter and hotter.

I'm not that way but many in my family are so meals can sometimes get tricky.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Bilbo, I agree. Mildly spicy seasoning is really called for in most dishes. Cajun and Tex-Mex food as prepared in restaurants sometimes is overseasoned, as compared to how it occurs in the natural environment.

For me, my bottles of Tabasco Red or Tabasco Green suffices.

The Bastard King of England said...

I don't even do jalapenos.

Mike said...

I'm with Agnes. If there is even the slightest bit of hotness I can detect it.

Mike said...

And I can believe John hasn't commented yet. Mr. scoville units himself.