Whenever I tell people I’m from an Indian family, many of them seem quite shocked when I say I can’t handle really hot, chilli heavy dishes and the reason for this is that while I grew up eating a lot of (very delicious) homemade Indian food, it was never all that hot but very spicy. The meaning of spicy has a lot of people confused with being “hot”. Spicy means it has lots of spices in, it doesn’t refer to the amount of chillies added to the dish! Indian cuisine, while it varies depending on where in the country we’re talking about, is about adding spices that compliment each other. Of course I’m not saying that there’s no hot food in India though! As a country we seem to have adopted curry and made it our own thing. The spices don’t seem as important to the everyday curry consumer as much as the heat of a dish does. Having worked in many pubs over the years I see many groups (men in particular) buy the hottest curry on the menu and it almost seems as if they’re competing with each other. By the end of their meal (assuming they actually finish it) they’ll be sweating and dying for a glass of milk. I couldn’t speak for them but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t actually all that enjoyable for them! With this in mind though, I can certainly see the appeal of eating hot food.
I’ve always enjoyed hot wings and the more I ate, the more I could tolerate and with time, enjoy the flavour of the different chillies used. I now have a slight addiction to hot sauce, every trip to the supermarket I either top up on my favourite sauce or see if they have something new to try. I find myself feeling like a meal is incomplete without some form of hot sauce on it! My most recent surprising delight was some grilled salmon covered in habanero sauce and it gave it that something extra which made it even more enjoyable. I can’t quite explain what it is about it that is so appealing but having looked it up it seems it’s the release of endorphins that your body produces which leaves people wanting more. So let’s explore how this marvellous vegetable found its way to our country, cuisine and list of highly desired goods…
I’m sure it’s no surprise to you when I say that chillies originated from Southern America (although there seem to be many that think they came from India or Indochina (Vietnam) but not without good reason). We have science to thank for confirming this as traces of capsicum were found on cooking pots from Ecuador dating as far back as 6,000 years ago. But it wasn’t introduced to the rest of the world until many, many years later…
American history may be a little rusty, or next to non-existent, for us Brits but we have Columbus to thank for the chilli we love so much today, kind of. He essentially took the first step in introducing the world to chillies by bringing them back to Spain after discovering them in South America. But it would be the Portuguese in the early 16th century and their trade routes that would lead to the large portions of the world having access to them.
Along with this world conquering trade route, the Portuguese would come to occupy the Indian state of Goa and this would be how India came to adopt and love the chilli pepper. It complimented their style of cooking beautifully and this is one of the reasons as to why many make the association today.
Now of course trade routes are not one way so when the Portuguese exported chillies, they also imported spices and other goods to Europe. But more on that another time…
I have already mentioned how many associate chillies with Indian food and there’s another reason for this. While the chilli was introduced to the UK in the mid 16th century, just a few decades after Portuguese trade routes introduced to the rest of the world to them, we didn’t really use them in the kitchen until the 19th century. But why did it take us this long?
Long story short (because if we go into detail on all of these historical points we would be here for a very long time!) Many Indians arrived in the UK in the 18th century as a result of being used as crew members aboard ships for the East India Company. (Fun fact: the first Indian restaurant was founded in 1810 by a captain of the EIC, Sake Dean Mahomet) Over time, the Indian population here would begin to grow and with that, so did the use of Indian cooking. But even then, British palettes were very sensitive. If you look at traditional British dishes such as Steak and Kidney Pudding, Bangers and Mash, Cottage Pie etc. they all, while being full of flavour, are very mild in terms of using anything too exotic. So with this in mind it’s easy to see why Indian cuisine and all of the spices that came with it were all a bit too much for the British kitchen table. You also have to take into consideration that these goods were only available to the richest folk due to their high value, which back then consisted of very few.
Curries would continue to become more appreciated by the British people during the 19th century but it’d be the end of World War II which would lead to our taste buds not turning back. Between the efforts made during both WWI & WWII by the Indian people, they would find themselves very welcome in the UK. As well as this, after WWII there was a high demand for labourers and this paved the way for post-war migration patterns. This was a key moment for spicy food entering the British mainstream and eventually being adapted into the fiery dishes we have today.
But enough about curry! It only scratches the surface of today’s British chilli addiction. Chillies are still relatively new to us and this is what makes them so exciting. There’s such a wide array of different chillies and ways to eat them. I’ve even seen mention of a chilli eating contest! Sadly though, our climate is a little too cool to accommodate for fruiting chilli plants but this doesn’t mean you can’t give it a go.
We have found ways to incorporate them into the most weird and wonderful of foods and drinks. You can buy chilli beer, sausage, chocolate, smoothies - the list goes on. People are doing anything to get their fix, and rightly so!
Eating hot chillies is the food equivalent of riding a rollercoaster, it’s a thrill seeking experience for many. The psychological reason behind this is due to the presence of capsaicin which hits certain receptors in your mouth. This tricks your brain into thinking your mouth is on fire. As a part of your body’s response to this, your body will produce endorphins to help with the pain caused. Endorphins are a feel good chemical so this literally means that eating chillies makes you happy! But please don’t go out and buy the hottest sauce you can get and expect to feel great after because it’s something you need to ease yourself into in order to build up a tolerance. I have learnt this the hard way sadly and no, milk didn’t help as much as people say it does. It’s for this reason that those brought up on hot foods will have a higher tolerance because they’re able to withstand the intense burning and ride the chilli induced high that follows shortly after.
I'm sure you've all heard of the Scoville Scale and if you haven't then I highly recommend taking a look at one (see below). It'll help you monitor what you can cope with and where to go to next on your chilli tasting adventure!
I hope I've heated your appetite. Comment your favourite hot dishes below!
(While I'm encouraging you to eat more chillies, I'm not responsible for any chilli induced pain you may experience!)
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