The phenomenon of human beings popping little vegetables into their mouths, then panting, gasping, fanning themselves, mopping their brows and lunging for beer could, the first time, be laid to misapprehension. The human beings may have thought the vegetable was just a cute shiny little green thing, for example.

But then the human beings do it again, panting, gasping, and so forth. And again, and again.

This has led to a certain amount of head-shaking among more reasonable types. "Why people become so attached to the extremely pungent peppers," ruminates pepper scholar Charles B. Heiser, Jr., in a National Arboretum brochure, "is not known with certainty."

Exactly. It just doesn't make much sense, this suffering. But attached they are, especially in the hottest climates of the world.

Follow hot pepper consumption around the globe and you've drawn a zigzag line right around the equator from Mexico to South America to west and central Africa to India, Indonesia, Thailand, China and Japan. Those are all places where hot peppers have been consumed consistently and in great quantity for at least the last several hundred years, and in the case of the Americas, for several millenia before that.

So one thing that can be said with certainty is that hot peppers and hot climates have an affinity for one another. Why they have this affinity has traditionally been open to all kinds of conjecture, myth, scholarly study and idle speculation.

Two theories crop up frequently. The explanation that makes the most sense to pragmatic types is that hot peppers make the body perspire and thus feel cooler.

And historically speaking, people in hot climates have depended for real sustenance on bland dishes like rice. As one spice industry executive says, "Frankly, what else are you going to do with rice but put spices in it?"

But there are other, much more romantic explanations for why human beings in any climate, including ours, get so attached to the sweet suffering that eating hot peppers produces.

"It kills frustration," says Thai cook Martin Benjamin. "When it's a hot day and your mind is in a blank you want something to divert your attention. It awakens you. The spicier the food you eat in a hot climate the healthier." Benjamin, who got his American name by way of adoptive parents, is cook at Ivy's Place, an Indonesian and Thai restaurant on Connecticut Avenue.

Then the reasoning tumbles downhill into a me'lange of witchcraft and semi-scientific postulation. After declaiming primly on the health benefits of eating hot peppers -- "stimulates digestion, clears the sinuses, and seems to be of benefit to the respiratory system" -- author Richard Schweid in his book "Hot Peppers" (Madrona Publishers, Seattle, 1980) gets down to business and claims psychotropic effects for the peppers as well.

"It heightens awareness of a given moment by disrupting normal thought patterns and attention spans," Schweid says. " . . . It is hard to read the newspaper or dwell on one's usual cares while eating hot peppers."

Others would argue that it's hard to read the newspaper while eating hot peppers because the eyes are filled with tears, and that one's usual cares are as nothing to the oral raving that is going on. In any case, Schweid also claims that, unlike ingesting other psychotropics, eating Capsicum -- the Latin word for the entire pepper genus -- has never been shown to be harmful, even when it's carried to excess.

In some cultures, hot peppers are also considered to be life-giving. According to Ibrahim Thiero, a West African who owns and runs the African Room restaurant in Mount Pleasant, Mali women who have just given birth are treated to a little hot pepper sauce to "bring them back to life." Ditto for the male child who has just been circumcised, because "he is a new man starting a new life."

The world of commerce has not turned a deaf ear to medicinal claims for hot peppers, either. Sensing dollars in primitive folklore, manufacturers have long been aware that the active ingredient in hot peppers could be extracted and sold as a treatment for sore muscles. The theory is that the hot peppers increase blood flow to the irritated part of the body and thus speed up the healing process.

As if relief from boredom, blandness, heat, circumcision, injury, birth and normal thought patterns weren't enough, hot peppers also are good at keeping bugs away from the kitchen (close the windows, burn hot peppers sufficiently to make smoke, leave the house for a day, come back and every living thing in the house is dead), dogs away from the mailman (commercial sprays) and the garbage cans (sprinkle powdered hot peppers around the ground), and attackers away from good citizens (commercial sprays). They are also thought by several cultures to scare away ghosts, which can definitely be useful at times.

When Columbus discovered America in 1492, he also discovered hot peppers. They were growing wild in the West Indies, Mexico and Central and South America at the time, and held in great favor by resident Indians. Visiting Spaniards who tried them, however, were subject to the same gasping and fanning as the present-day uninitiated.

But by the time Columbus got back on the boat to return to Europe, it had become clear that the hot peppers the Indians were eating were at least as valuable as the black pepper and other spices that were part of his original goal. Columbus carried seeds back with him to Spain, and from there they spread eastward, eventually becoming a valuable commodity worldwide.

In other words, hot peppers are a New World item, one of our own that got transplanted around the globe. But to a certain extent they've come home again, since the United States is a major producer of hot peppers of every type.

And vast scholarly resources are devoted to the improvement and expansion of the genus, a good bit of it taking place at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, where scientists work to improve standards of flavor, size, color and processing characteristics.

Hot peppers are as surprising genetically -- at least to the nonscientist -- as they are to the tongue. There is one gene's difference between a sweet pepper and a hot one, although other genes regulate the degree of pungency. And most of the heat of a hot pepper is located where seeds meet pod, called the placenta.

Peppers breed like rabbits, happily cross-fertilizing to the extent that seeds from the peppers you grow this year are practically worthless as predictors of the pungency of peppers you might grow from those seeds next year. Grow a sweet pepper next to a hot pepper, however, and you'll produce hot peppers from all those seeds, since pungency is dominant.

There are thousands of variations on size and shape, too, sometimes among peppers sharing the same general name. To complicate matters further, standardization of names is spotty, so that what is known in one area of the world as poblano might be called ancho in another and vice versa.

Ask most experienced hot pepper cooks for specific names of the peppers they use and you're likely to get a sigh and a faraway look and then a description such as "it's a long, thin, red one, sort of missile-shaped, and it has a point on the end, but it's not as long as the really long, thin one . . . "

It's generally agreed, however, that the smallest peppers are usually the hottest ones. Thais call their tiny, excruciatingly hot peppers "mouse peppers" because, according to Martin Benjamin, "anything very small is usually dangerous."

"Bird peppers" is another name for very tiny, very hot peppers. There is other symbolism, too; some African peppers are called pili-pili, which is also a slang word in Swahili for a key part of the male anatomy.

So the United States leads the world in research, technology and production techniques. But, with the exception of our southwest and the area in Louisiana where the McIlhenny family makes its Tabasco sauce, other countries seem to have a better handle on how to appreciate the symbolism, folklore and cuisine possibilities.

Part of the appreciation of cuisine possibilities involves familiarity, and there are signs that Americans are beginning to catch up. Geraldine Duncann, whose book "Some Like It Hotter" (101 Productions, San Francisco, 1985) has recently been published, thinks she has hit the market just right.

"It does appear that hot food is the current food fad," she admits -- reluctantly, since today's fad can be tomorrow's has-been. "But all during the writing of the book I was unaware of it. When I saw Velveeta selling hot Mexican-type cheese I realized this was the current fad."

With ethnic restaurants popping up like mushrooms in every city, Americans are gradually getting used to the idea of piquant heat on their tongues. But it's all a matter of acclimatization. Asians in America eat so many hamburgers that they lose their palates, says Thai cook Benjamin, and Americans who have lived in chili-loving countries come back longing for the stuff.

The key is to build up tolerance gradually, the way children in chili-eating countries do. When children in Mali are still infants their mothers give them little tastes of hot stuff in between sips of breast milk. Usually, says Ibrahim Thiero, they don't like it.

But by age 4 or 5 they are asking for it, and by the time they're adults they're eating things like the Chicken Sofa Thiero served at the African Room. "Not like an American sofa that you sit on," Thiero says. "Sofa means someone who is a hero from the war. You have to be a hero if you can eat this chicken."

Cooks knowledgeable about chilies usually have palates so evolved that they can distinguish flavors several steps beyond hot and hottest. A good mix of peppers should produce heat that excites the tongue at various places and times and provides rich flavor, too. As Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme explains, "Each kind of pepper works differently, and when they are balanced correctly they achieve an "after-you-swallow" glow.

The idea of alternating something sweet with something hot is widespread in cuisines in which chilies are a way of life. "When we use peppers we modify the flavor by making it a little sweet, too, so it doesn't burn your taste buds," says Benjamin. Tomato or sugar qualify as sweeteners. Some Indian cuisines add coconut for sweetening, and cooling yogurts are usually offered as well. Fruit seems to be a universal antidote.

In America, beer is considered the ideal cooler. And, it may seem like double trouble, but other kinds of alcohol seem to go hand in hand with peppers, too. Richard Schweid reports that men in the bars of various countries are fond of munching hot peppers whole while drinking.

Chili-rich dishes are there for the trying in many Washington-area restaurants, and fresh chilies of many descriptions are available, especially in Latin and Asian markets. They can also be grown successfully here and make beautiful additions to the ornamental garden. For an example of the latter on the highest order, see the National Herb Garden at the National Arboretum, where curator Holly Shimizu presides over more than 30 varieties.

And here are some recipes, starting with a very mildly piquant Mexican chicken, and ending with that hero-tester, African Room Chicken Sofa. PECHUGAS DE POLLO CON RAJAS (Chicken breasts with chilies) (6 servings)

This is a creamy casserole of chicken breasts and strips of chilies. It is only slightly piquant.

6 small chicken breasts

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup peanut or safflower oil

1 large onion, thinly sliced

2 1/4 pounds chiles poblanos (or about 20 to 22 canned, peeled green chilies)

1 cup milk (if the poblanos are used) or 2/3 cup milk (if the canned chilies are used)

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups sour cream

1/4 pound cheddar cheese grated

Remove the bones and skin from the breasts and cut each of them into 4 filets. Season them well with salt and pepper.

Heat the butter and the oil together in a frying pan and saute' the chicken filets for a few moments on both sides until they are lightly browned. Set them aside.

In the same fat, fry the onion gently, without browning, until it is soft. Peel and clean the chiles poblanos. Set aside 3 poblanos (or 9 canned chilies). Cut the rest into rajas (strips). Add the rajas to the onions in the pan, cover, and cook over a medium flame (8 minutes for poblanos and 5 for canned chilies).

Blend the reserved chilies in a blender until smooth with milk and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add the sour cream and blend for a few seconds longer.

Arrange half of the chicken filets in a dish at least 3 inches deep and about 10 inches in diameter. Cover them with half of the rajas and half of the sauce. Repeat the layers.

Sprinkle the cheese over the top and bake in a 350-degree oven until the chicken filets are done and the cheese melted (it is not necessary to brown it), for about 30 minutes.

There will appear to be an enormous amount but most people will return for two helpings. Serve it with white rice. You can prepare things well ahead of time: the breasts saute'ed, the rajas cooked and the sauce blended, but do not put it all together until a few moments before it is to go into the oven.

Note: The flesh of the fresh chiles poblanos is naturally harder than that of the canned chilies, so allow a little longer cooking time with the onion. Blended, they produce a thicker sauce than the canned chilies, so I have made allowances for their size and texture.From "The Cuisines of Mexico," by Diana Kennedy (Harper & Row, 1972) POACHED FISH WITH PIQUANT MAYONNAISE (6 servings)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/4 cup distilled vinegar

1 bay leaf

6 1-inch-thick shark steaks, or other firm-fleshed fish fillets or steaks

FOR THE MAYONNAISE:

1 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup hot chunky-style salsa

4 cloves of garlic, finely minced

2 scallions, including tops, minced

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh cilantro

1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh dill weed, or 1/2 teaspoon dried

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

Bibb lettuce leaves, dijon mustard, lemon slices, tomato slices, sliced hard-cooked eggs, pitted black olives for garnish

Put 1 inch of water in large skillet, add the oil, vinegar, and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Gently slide in the shark steaks. Let the water return to the boil, reduce the heat to maintain a simmer, and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Poach the fish in this fashion for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the steaks are done through but not falling apart. Slice into one with the tip of a sharp knife; it should be white all the way through.

When done, remove the fish from the water, rinse under cold running water, and let drain. Refrigerate.

Mix all the ingredients for the mayonnaise together well with a fork; do not use a blender or food processor. The mixture should not be smooth. Chill.

Put 1 or 2 leaves of bibb lettuce on each of 6 salad plates. Add a poached shark steak to each. Put a dollop of the piquant mayonnaise on each steak and spread to cover the surface. Put a dollop of dijon mustard on each steak. Arrange the slices of lemon, tomato, and egg to form an attractive pattern, and finish with an olive or two. You may prefer to use watercress instead of bibb lettuce. Chill before serving.From "Some Like It Hotter," by Geraldine Duncunn (101 Productions, San Francisco, 1985) SALSA SON-OF-A-GUN (Makes about 4 quarts)

8 pounds ripe tomatoes, chopped small

1 pound fresh very hot chilies, chopped

12 to 15 cloves of garlic, chopped

8 to 10 large onions, chopped fine

1 bunch of celery, chopped fine

1/4 cup light-flavored vegetable oil

1 cup distilled vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro

1/2 talespoon freshly ground black pepper

Salt to taste

Put a cup of the chopped tomatoes into the blender and add as many chilies as will fit comfortably. Whir to make a pure'e. Continue until all the chilies have been pure'ed. Pour the pure'e into a large pot. Add all of the remaining ingredients including the rest of the tomatoes, and cook over high heat for 10 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid scorching. Reduce the heat to moderate and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes or until the salsa is somewhat thickened. Taste and add salt, more sugar or vinegar or crushed dried hot chilies to taste. Cook for at least 10 more minutes after making any additions. The salsa will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or it may be frozen.From "Some Like It Hotter," by Geraldine Duncunn (101 Productions, San Francisco, 1985) POTATOES AND TOMATOES COOKED WITH FRESH COCONUT (6 servings)

Do not use an aluminum pot for this dish.

3 medium-sized boiling potatoes (about 1 1/4 pounds)

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 whole dried hot red pepper

1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

1 1/2 cups freshly grated coconut

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

2 teaspoons ground cumin seeds

1 1/4 pounds fresh red-ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch pieces or a 16- to 20-ounce can of Italian tomatoes

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

Peel the potatoes, then cut into 3/4-inch dice and put into a bowl of cold water.

Heat the oil in a heavy 3-quart pot over a medium-high flame. When hot, put in the minced garlic. Stir for about 5 seconds. Put in the red pepper and the cumin seeds. Stir for another 3 seconds. The garlic should brown lightly, the red pepper should darken, and the cumin seeds should sizzle. Lower the heat to medium, add the grated coconut and stir it around for 10 to 15 seconds.

Drain the potatoes. Add them as well as the turmeric, ground cumin, tomatoes (including any juice that may have accumulated or the juice in the can), the salt and 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Cover, turn heat to low, and simmer for about 45 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Stir gently every 7 to 8 minutes during this cooking period.

Add the sugar and vinegar. Stir again and cook, uncovered, for 1 minute and serve.From "World-of-the-East," by Madhur Jaffrey (Alfred A. Knopf, 1981) AFRICAN ROOM CHICKEN SOFA (2 servings)

The peppers in this recipe are often available at local Hispanic or Asian markets. The red African peppers, if available, are usually frozen. If you can't find these particular peppers, substitute others, but be sure to use more than one variety for flavor.

1 frying chicken, split in half and wing tips removed

2 lemons, plus more lemon juice for blender

1 teaspoon vinegar

FOR THE STUFFING:

3 African red chilies

5 small sweet peppers such as cherry peppers or 1/2 sweet red bell pepper

3 pili-pili or other long, thin hot chilies

1/3 onion, chopped roughly

1/3 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped roughly

1/2 bunch parsley

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon powdered bay leaf

Lemon juice if necessary

TO FINISH:

1 large fresh tomato, cored, peeled and roughly chopped

2 red, hot chilies

1/3 onion

1/3 green bell pepper

Rice or couscous for serving

Rub the chicken with the juice of two lemons and the vinegar and let it stand for several hours or until the flesh begins to turn white.

Make the stuffing: Stem the chilies but do not seed them. Put chilies, onion, green pepper, parsley, salt, pepper and bay leaf into a blender or food processor and blend until pieces are chopped but not pure'ed, adding lemon juice if necessary.

Stuff the chicken with the chili mixture by separating meat from breast bone with your fingers, then slipping stuffing in the resulting pocket. Place chicken halves, skin side up, in a shallow roasting pan just large enough to hold them. Broil chickens under medium-high broiler heat for about 12 minutes to crisp skin, then bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes.

Finely chop remaining ingredients in a food processor, blender, or by hand and pour them over top of chicken, basting at the same time with pan juices. Bake another 10 minutes.

Serve Chicken Sofa with rice or couscous and plenty of fruity ginger beer, beer or fruit juice. JALAPENO AND CHEESE BREAD OR ROLLS (Makes 3 loaves or about 2 1/2 dozen rolls)

8 cups all-purpose flour, approximately

1 pound cheddar cheese, grated (about 5 cups)

3/4 cup minced jalapeno peppers

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 cups hot water (at 105 to 115 degrees)

3 ( 1/4-ounce) packages dry yeast

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons pork lard or vegetable oil

Note: If your jalapenos are fairly mild, increase amount used by about 1/4 cup. Fresh jalapenos are preferred; if you have to use pickled ones, rinse as much vinegar from them as possible.

In a very large bowl combine 7 cups of the flour, cheese, jalapeno peppers, 7 tablespoons sugar and salt; mix well.

In a separate bowl combine the water, yeast and remaining tablespoon sugar. Let sit about 10 minutes; stir until all yeast granules are thoroughly dissolved. Add the lard or oil to the liquid mixture, stirring until lard is melted. Then add half of the liquid mixture to the flour mixture. Mix with hands to moisten flour as much as possible. Add remaining liquid mixture to dough and mix until flour is thoroughly incorporated. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand until smooth and elastic to the touch, about 15 minutes, gradually adding only enough additional flour to keep dough from sticking. Place in a large greased bowl and then invert dough so top is greased; cover with a dry towel and let stand in a warm place (90 to 100 degrees) for about an hour until doubled in size (if dough hasn't doubled in size after 1 hour, place in slightly warmer place). Punch down dough.

To make the bread, divide dough into 3 equal portions. Form each into a ball, then stretch out dough with both hands and tuck edges under to form a smooth surface; pop any large air bubbles by pinching them. Place in 3 greased 8 1/2-by 4 1/2-inch loaf pans. Cover with towel again and allow to rise until almost doubled in size, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Bake at 325 degrees for about an hour until dark brown and done, rotating the pans after 25 minutes for more even browning. Remove from pan as soon as bread will easily lift out, after about 5 to 10 minutes. Let cool about 1 hour before slicing.

To make rolls, pinch off dough and roll into 1 1/2-inch balls until very smooth. Place in a greased 13 by 9-inch baking pan with rolls snugly touching each other and the sides of the pan. Cover and let rise again until doubled in size, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Bake as directed above.

From "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen" (Morrow, 1984)