This is one of a series of articles on food written by David Murray (see the full list on the right hand sidebar).
Let’s be honest: what do we REALLY know about chilli?
Well, we know it burns. Depending on who you are it either burns so good, or it burns so bad. Personally I enjoy a good chilli-flame mouth fire. And so does my body.
Spices contain a substance known as capsaicin (try saying “My capsicum contains capsaicin” ten times fast), which activates your pain receptors in the same way that actual heat does. Yes, that’s right. It feels the same as an actual heat injury. Why would we do this to ourselves? Why do they sell this in shops? WHY FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WHY?
Well, actually, here’s the thing. We are mentally able to quiet the panic and subdue the self-preservation instincts of our bodies, because we as humans can enjoy pain and fear. We might even be the only species that can.
Here’s a comparison. Eating an orange habanero (which, coincidentally, is a colour we associate with warnings and danger) is just like riding a rollercoaster. We feel like we might die but we have faith that we won’t. And apparently that is fun. What odd creatures we are!
Other than simulating pain, capsaicin is actually surprisingly good for you. While you dash around searching for water, it is entering your body, fighting inflammation and protecting you from lung and pancreatic cancer. And the notion that it is harmful to your stomach is nothing but a myth. In fact, it actually strengthens your stomach lining and lowers your risk of Diabetes.
They are also great for your metabolism. After eating a serve of food with spices, your body will burn extra calories for about 20 minutes afterwards … due to the heating aspect.
But like all things, you must treat chilli with respect. Especially when you are cooking for others. While I ritualistically say “Needs more chilli” during every meal, I must remember that I have built up a tolerance to it. I am used to it. I probably shouldn’t add that extra chilli when Grandma and Grandpa come over for dinner.
But if you are a chilli lover, and you’re starting to worry that you’re pushing the boundaries of excessive chilli consumption, you are probably fine. It takes more than nine average jalapenos a day (consistently) before you put your health at risk.
That is not a challenge. Don’t be a hero. No-one likes to see a grown person cry.