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With Hot Peppers, the Pleasure Is in the Pain

Vincenzo Di Marzo, a research director at the Institute of Biomolecular Chemistry of the Italian National Research Council near Naples, Italy, said there are three main reasons we voluntarily eat capsaicin. The first is that it makes other tastes come alive. "Heat, and the sensation of heat, activates capsaicin-sensitive sensory neurons that enhance our perception of flavors," he said.

"The second reason is that some people like hot food for its own sake. The right dose of chili is not so painful. And after all, a little bit of pain enhances pleasure, even in non-masochistic people. But lastly, there are also therapeutic properties to chili."

Di Marzo's research has linked activation of the pain receptor to the release of a very important neurotransmitter that affects memory, mood and motor behavior, among other things. In other words, he says, eating chilis might help us increase our sense of well-being and make us more alert and agile. No wonder the body craves them.

Even though there is some dispute about the link between endorphins and chili peppers, what seems undisputed is the potential to treat various types of pain, such as arthritis. Capsaicin triggers the heat receptors and floods the nerves, telling you that you have been burned. After a while, though, there is a kind of information overload, and the signals are turned off, as is the pain -- even pain that is unrelated to capsaicin.

For arthritis patients, the regimen involves applying capsaicin topically. For those of us who would rather get our dose in edible form, Schaetzl's book suggests novel ways to serve dishes using piri-piri that can also be applied to other types of chilis.

My favorite is a recipe for a whisky and chili granita. By combining ice and chili, you can have fun confusing your body. First you perceive that you are eating something extraordinarily cold; then the taste and pain receptors are triggered, and they transmit a burning sensation. The contradiction makes the dish fascinating.

Traveling in Mozambique, I also noticed something that reminded me of my first experiment with capsaicin, but with an unusual culinary application. When street vendors or restaurant cooks would prepare the national dish, Chicken Piri-Piri, they would rub the chicken with a generous amount of piri-piri chilis, dried or fresh, and place it on the grill. Much of the chili would fall down onto the burning coals and surround the stall with a pepper spray-like smoke. But that smoke would not be a deterrent. On the contrary, it flavored the chicken with a beautifully smoky chili pepper flavor. For even more heat, the bird would be rubbed with piri-piri sauce just before serving.

Piri-piri means "pepper-pepper" in Swahili. The chili is so wonderfully hot that the person who named it must have spoken the word twice: the first time while gasping for air, the second to confirm that he could still talk.

Andreas Viestad, author of "Where Flavor Was Born" and co-host of the new public television series "Perfect Day," can be reached at http://www.andreasviestad.com or food@washpost.com. His Gastronomer column appears monthly.


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