Capsicum Etiquette 101

If you’re looking for the true Taste Of The West, look no further than a freshly picked, mesquite-roasted “Chili Pepper,” better known to the botanical world as Capsicum.  This enchanting fruit had been domesticated in Ecuador for nearly 7,000 years before it was discovered by Europeans in 1492.  Captain Columbus encountered it in powdered form while in the Caribbean, and eager as he was to promote his new route to “India,” brought back the pungent spice (as well as a few unhappy natives) as proof of his success: he’d been to “India,” so they were “Indians,” so the spice must be “pepper,” the most popular and widely traded seasoning of his day.  Of course he was wrong on all three counts, but curiously we are afflicted with his errors even today; we still call the original Americans “Indians,” and Capsicums are still commonly known as “peppers.”

Another curiosity is our description of the capsicum’s flavor; we use the word “spice” to describe the material, but food that contains capsicum is referred to as “spicy” – not “spiced.”  The former denotes pungency, the latter, sweetness.  Since the effect feels, at least on mucous membranes like our lips and tongue, somewhat like sudden exposure to heat, capsicums are also called “hot.”  In fact for those gardeners interested in growing their own, the genus Capsicum is usually split into three divisions: Hot, Sweet, and Ornamental – which really means “inedible.”  That some capsicums aren’t at all good to eat shouldn’t be too surprising considering that they hail from the Nightshade Family and are cousins to Henbane, Jimsonweed, Mandrake Root, and Deadly N, but they do have other and more excellent genetic company such as Potatoes, Eggplants, Tobacco, Tomatoes and Petunias.

The pungent ingredient in “hot” capsicums is a crystalline compound called capsaicin.  It produces a sharp oral sensation of burning (as mentioned above) but only the sensation – the “idea” of burning, not any burning itself.  It also triggers the release of chemicals in the brain known as endorphins, which promote a deep sense of well being.  In other words, a fiery capsicum may “burn” you, but it will help you to feel OK about it directly afterwards.

Capsaicin was first isolated in 1816, but it was nearly a hundred years before an adventurous Detroit chemist named Wilbur Scoville determined a way to try to measure the pungency of the capsicums themselves.  So-called “bell peppers” had no pungency, and so were rated at 0.  Then he would purée a Jalapeño, let’s say, until it was liquefied, and add this liquid in varying precise amounts to mild sugar water solutions.  Volunteer subjects would then taste the solutions, and indicate when they could finally detect no pungency whatsoever in the mix.  In the case of Jalapeños, it was usually a mix of one drop of liquefied capsicum to about 5,000 drops of sugar water – therefore, the “score” for a Jalapeño on the “Scoville Heat Unit” chart was ± 5,000.

Unfortunately it turned out there were a few problems to this method, which Mr. Scoville himself soon discovered.  Fruits of the same variety could contain very different capsaicin levels, even when growing on the same bush.  Second, different people’s assessments of whether or not they could taste any pungency in the same sample of solution varied, sometimes tremendously.  But like any good scientist, Mr. Scoville kept on investigating and this persistence uncovered the third flaw in the Scoville Heat Unit approach, namely that an individual’s tastes for capsicum actually changed over the years.  A fellow who rated a Jalapeño in 1912 at 5,000 SHUs might, only a year later, rate it at 7,000.  Or, if he had meanwhile developed a taste for pungent foods, he might then rate the same Jalapeño at 3,000 upon re-testing.  In other words, the test was simply too subjective to represent anything but a generalized description.

Growing your own capsicums is probably the best way to come to love the fruit, but as Mr. Scoville discovered, you may soon find yourself growing stronger and stronger varieties to suit your developing taste for pungency.  And it’s at this point that safety precautions should be brought to bear.

Although you can handle the fresh fruit without worry, any processing work is best done while rubber-gloved, as long as the gloves are snug fitting and comfy enough to allow for necessary dexterity.  Some form of eye protection is also a good idea, particularly if you can’t avoid a nervous habit such as idly rubbing an itchy eyelid during the proceedings.  I’ve made this mistake and yow!, it’s like being gassed by riot police.  It’s exactly like that, in fact – although law enforcement’s “pepper spray” as it’s called is usually formulated at a strength of 5,000,000 (that’s five million) SHUs, some thousand times more intense than the average Jalapeño.  It wears off, but whoosh, you’ll not soon forget the experience!

It’s generally easier to do all the processing of your capsicum harvest when the fruits are still fresh, and this is especially true for the littler hot ones like diminutive Serrano (± 20,000 SHUs) or any of the pointy Thai varieties (± 75,000 SHUs).  The ripe fruits should be slit open and the placentas removed; this is the pale cottony wad up at the top of the interior, to which the seeds are clinging.  It contains the lion’s share of the capsaicin, so take care.  Also scrape out any loose seeds and maybe the thick white interior ribs.  It’s not like your capsicum will suffer any appreciable lack of pungency as a result, but capsaicin is bitter tasting and the final product will take on a much nicer flavor without too much of it present.  If the result isn’t pungent enough for you, simply use more of it, or next time grow a hotter variety.  The pungency will increase, but so will the critical pod flavor, to balance it out.

Teeny-tiny little capsicums like Red Demon (± 80,000 SHUs) or Pequin (± 100,000 SHUs) are really hard to process this way, however, and as a result often get dealt with nearly whole.  I usually dry them thoroughly, chop (or scissor) off the entire top 10% of the fruit (i.e., the stem and placenta) then grind the remains into powder.  The best way to grind them up is with a two plate adjustable friction mill such as for hand grinding coffee beans, but not one of the “modern” electric coffee bean grinders that simply whirl the beans around under a domed surface until they’re smashed into grit.  This gizmo does not grind up dried capsicums, though it does yield adequate “flakes.”  I prefer a true homologous powder, which can also be achieved with a mortar and pestle if you’re strong and patient.  I have seen an old pepper mill put to dried capsicum grinding use, with good results.  Salt grinders are probably also useful.  But beware: once used for Red Demons, the mill may be unsuitable for grinding anything else that you don’t want tasting of these fiery items.

Any larger fresh capsicum, and we’re talking from the medium-sized Jalapeño or Habañero on up to the big “Bells”, should be roasted whole first.  Ideally a bed of mesquite coals is prepared for this not unpleasant task, but this doesn’t serve if you’re only using one or two fruits.  The oven’s broiler can be employed, but in these cases I use a plumber’s blowtorch for pod roasting; it gets the job done with no shilly-shally.  If you have a piece of an oak log or plank handy, so much the better; wet it, and do the torch roasting on its surface to get a nice smoky hue into the capsicum.

Either way, roast the pods until they’re black all over, then toss ’em into a paper bag for fifteen minutes to soften up.  Scrape off the outer black layer with a knife under a dribble of cold water (again, wearing rubber gloves!) then slit open the pod and rinse out the seeds, finally trimming out the placenta as well.  The resulting roasted pod can be eaten as is, canned, frozen, or dried for grinding as discussed above.

The famed apricot-golden Habañero (± 250,000 SHUs), though as the name would suggest discovered in Havana, is actually from the Yucatán peninsula.  Hideously potent, it yet has a truly beguiling aromatic flavor after being roasted and seeded, and its unique properties contribute curiously to a number of dishes without overwhelming them into oblivion – at least, to the habitué.  And too (at least, with me) they have a somewhat psychoactive quality.  After you eat some fresh Habañero salsa, for instance, if you sit very still and close your eyes and breathe deeply, it surely feels as if you’re levitating about half an inch above your chair!  It’s an uncanny sensation.  But beware!  In the uninitiated the Habañero can also trigger a curious phenomenon I call “auto-ambulism.”  That is, after that first fateful bite, novices are afflicted with the irresistible urge to get up and walk around the room, though to no discernible purpose.

For rescue operations remember that capsaicin is lipophilic, which is to say Not At All Soluble In Water.  Therefore, a quick drink of H2O will do you very little good, and washing the hands after
processing Habañeros does not do much unless a great deal of soap and scrubbing are employed.  For best cleaning results, thoroughly rub the suspect fingers with oil or bacon grease, THEN wash with lots of soap and warm water.  The fat absorbs the capsaicin, which is then liberated from the fingers by the soap and water.  The fat also makes it easy to feel whether or not it’s been sufficiently washed off.  If you have any doubts, rub your fingertips over your gums.  Within seconds you’ll know whether or not your fingers are free of it.   If not, repeat the greasing step and wash again.

While dining, incidental overdoses of capsaicin can be remedied by whole milk, an alcoholic beverage such as beer or wine, or by consuming a banana or some avocado.  Drinking a glass of water feels pleasant for the moment, but does almost nothing to cleanse the tongue or palate.

¡Disfrute!, y Ten Cuidado…