By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Even people who are otherwise gastronomically conservative will eat chili-pepper-spiked food as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Perhaps it is. Chilis, native to the Americas, have conquered the world in a way few other foods have. Five centuries after Columbus sampled a fiery-hot pepper on his first visit in 1492, an estimated one-third of the world's population eats chilis daily.
Everyone who loves them knows exactly why they are so popular. When we chili-heads try to explain the appeal to non-chili lovers, we talk about the different flavors of different peppers: sweet, spicy, aromatic and tangy. And it's true that there are subtle and not-so-subtle differences. But saying that is our only reason for liking them is akin to saying we drink whisky, cognac or Calvados solely for the taste.
What sets chilis apart from all other foods is the high concentration of capsaicin and related compounds. While the alcohol in liquor is a central nervous system depressant that intoxicates us, capsaicin reacts with the body's pain receptors and tells us that we have been burned. The result is that we feel pain. It could be the light tingling when our taste buds and pain receptors are triggered by a tiny amount of chili sauce on a sandwich; it could be the breathless shock of a bite into a habanero chili, one of the stronger varieties on the market.
From the plant's perspective, capsaicin is a defense against predators, a way to avoid being eaten (at least by mammals; birds don't feel the heat and help spread the seeds). So why do we eat it? Why willingly ingest something that we know will bring us pain, a sensation we normally try to avoid? Why are more than 2 billion people seemingly hooked on this culinary self-torture?
I took an early interest in the effects of capsaicin and conducted my first research, albeit inadvertently, as a teenager when I tried to taste pepper spray at a party. I was inspired by the nice little picture of a chili pepper on the label. However, the spray didn't taste like a chili; in fact, it didn't taste like anything. But it was effective nonetheless. The result was much coughing, crying and a fair amount of blame from those who thought it unwise -- some used different words -- to release pepper spray in a poorly ventilated room.
Something interesting happened as soon as the room and anger had been vented out. Despite a few red eyes, the atmosphere wasn't sad or subdued. On the contrary, what had been an ordinary, even-tempered party took on a careless, happy, almost ecstatic mood.
Many years later, as I traveled the Indian Ocean "chili belt" doing research for a book about spices, I encountered something similar. In Thailand, Mozambique and India, dinner would often follow the same route. First there was plain, hungry friendliness. Then, as the fiery chili-pepper-spiked food arrived, there would be sniffing and crying; gradually, after the meal, when people had had time to catch their breath, a new strength and contagious good humor emerged.
"We cry so that we can laugh afterwards," a man told me at an open-air market in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. He was showing me the glories of chicken piri-piri in the southern African country that is home to the piri-piri chili, an indigenized variety brought to the region by Portuguese explorers in the early 16th century. Needless to say, the dish involves large quantities of piri-piri sauce.
To chef Rochelle Schaetzl, research and development director for the South Africa-based chicken chain Nando's Peri-Peri (which spells the chili name by one of its variations), the appeal is all about the rush.
"Chili pepper eaters have a tendency to push themselves," said Schaetzl, author of "Pain & Pleasure: Peri Peri, the Contrasts and Contradictions of the African Bird's Eye Chilli" (Gwynne Conlyn Publishing, 2008). "It is not just the pain. I don't think you specifically aim for the pain. I think it is rather all the good things that happen afterwards. Among other things, eating chili peppers makes the body release endorphins."
Endorphins, natural morphine-like compounds released in response to pain, are just about the strongest drugs you can do without doing drugs. And they are in many ways a wonder drug, because they don't create an addiction (even though chili-heads and other thrill-seekers might argue with that), incapacitate you or dull your senses. Researchers say the release of endorphins probably is responsible for "runner's high" and for the rush and pain-suppressing qualities that make it possible for someone who has been in an accident to muster the strength to escape a dangerous situation.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. His Gastronomer column appears monthly.