Videos of chilli-eating competitions abound online, and they make compelling viewing. At the start of the Bath Chilli Eating Competition, everyone is munching down chillies as if they are crisp, sweet apples. By about round 10 (of 14 rounds) mascara is running, and people are huffing and gasping and falling like flies. By round 11 there is just a handful of competitors still in the game. One of these appears positively nonchalant as she downs the Dorset Naga (960,000 Scoville Units or SHU). Still to come are the Peach Ghost Scorpion (about a million SHU), the Naga Viper — a red chilli about the size of a fat thumb that packs a punch of 1.3 million SHU — and the Carolina Reaper, considered the world's hottest chilli at just under 1.6 million SHU.
There are various methods used to measure the pungency levels of different chillies but the Scoville Scale remains the most widely used. The greater the number of Scoville units, the hotter the pepper.
To put this in perspective, the serrano chilli way back in round four has just 15,000 SHU. If I am making a curry or a spicy dressing I might add a quarter or at most half a serrano in the entire dish to give it a spicy kick.
Why you, may ask, why would anyone put themselves through this? Some of these chillies are so hot you need to handle them with gloves or you will blister your skin.
Cut open a chilli and you'll see the whiteish membrane that attaches the seeds to the inside of the fruit. This is the location of the spice's secret weapon, and the source of all the heat — capsaicin. Capsaicin is a class of compound called a vanilloid. Others include vanillin, present in vanilla and the woods used to age wine; eugenol, present in bay leaves, allspice and cloves; and zingerone, which gives both ginger and mustard their distinct flavours.
The early Mayans used chillies as a weapon, burning rows of them to create a stinging smokescreen. Chillies are used to numb toothache pain and as an analgesic.
They are rich in antioxidants and vitamins, and are a powerful anti-microbial, killing or inhibiting 75 per cent of food-borne pathogens.
When you eat chillies your brain reacts as if your body has undergone extreme shock or stress and releases endorphins. The hotter the chilli, the bigger the hit of endorphins released. So, next time you're feeling a little stressed or grumpy, whip up something super spicy, be prepared to suffer a good sweat and a burst of painful heat and then lie back on the sofa and wait for those cruisy endorphins to kick in and chill you out.
Make this week's recipes now, while chillies are plentiful and cheap.
South-East Asian Curry Base
Ready in 15 mins
Makes 5 cups
4 large onions
1 whole hand of ginger
1 whole head garlic
4 green chillies, or more to taste
2 kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped, or extra zest of 2 limes
2 cups coarsely chopped coriander, roots included if available
Zest of 3 limes, grated
1 cup neutral oil
2 tsp blachan/dried shrimp paste
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
3 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp coriander seed
2 tsp turmeric
1 Tbsp fish sauce
Peel and chop onions and ginger. Break garlic into cloves and peel. Discard seeds from green chillies and finely chop the chillies. Remove central rib from kaffir lime leaves, de-stem and finely chop. Place all the ingredients into a food processor and blend to a paste. This curry base can be made several days ahead of time and refrigerated. It can also be frozen.
Annabel says: You can access some really good commercial curry bases these days (Charmaine Solomon's are my fave) but it's more economical to make your own and also a good means to make your curries and chilli dishes taste more personal. My favourite is this Southeast Asian version, which is more aromatic than a spicy Indian curry mix. Don't be daunted by the list of ingredients — once you've compiled them your work is done — the food processor does the rest for you.
Chilli Lime Salt
Ready in 5 mins
Makes ½ cup
1 large fresh red chilli
½ cup flaky sea salt
Zest of 2 limes, finely grated
Remove seeds from chilli and chop flesh into tiny pieces. Mix with the sea salt and lime zest in a mortar and pestle or food processor and pound or blitz to form a fine crumb. If you want to store the salt for later use, dry it out in the oven at 150C for 30 minutes.
Annabel says: This simple flavoured salt adds zing to fish, chicken, beef or vegetable dishes. It's great sprinkled over sizzling pan fried steaks or barbecued fish. For a delicious snack, simply sprinkle it over baked whole potatoes.
Ready in 20 mins
Makes 1 cup
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
4 cloves garlic
1-2 hot chillies
1 tsp flaky salt
¼ cup neutral oil
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup tomato puree
2 tsp rosewater or a pinch of sugar
Toast the coriander and cumin seeds in a dry frying pan until they just start to pop — watching closely so you don't burn them. Grind the toasted seeds with a mortar and pestle. Chop the garlic and chillies and crush them into a paste with the salt. Return crushed seeds to the frying pan, add oil, chilli and garlic paste and cayenne pepper. Sizzle for a few seconds then add tomato puree. Simmer over a high heat for a couple of minutes until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat and mix in rosewater or sugar. Store harissa in the fridge covered with a film of oil — it will keep for a couple of weeks.
Annabel says: There are as many recipes for this spice paste as there are cooks in North Africa, but this is my favourite variation. Do include the rosewater if you can find it, as it adds a delicate floral accent. It's delicious stirred into couscous, stews and soups, or rubbed on meat before grilling or barbecuing.