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August 12th, 2010 7:00 PM

It's Hot, Hot, Hot!

By Debora Yost

It's Hot, Hot, Hot!

There's a bit of cruel irony in the fact that the hottest food in the world is called chile. Then there's the ongoing debate as to its spelling. Is it chile, chilli or chili? (And why not chilly?)

Self-established honor guards of the fiery food, including Americans, defer to the Spanish chile, rather than the English chili or the chilli that has become synonymous with Mexican cuisine. So chile it shall be, for who can argue with a culinary breed so passionate about eating fire that there are hundreds of websites for diehards to share their burning desires and recipes, consumer magazines that write about nothing but chiles, a mini-industry of hot sauce products dead set on turning the mouth on fire, and even an international nonprofit institute dedicated to preserving the genetic codes of all species of the plant and trying to produce even hotter varieties.

Now that's devotion!
Indeed, it's a rare breed that can down ribs and chicken covered in 10-alarm chile sauce and go back for seconds, or bite into the hottest of the hot — the habanero — and keep on grinning. Yes, there are clearly two camps where chiles area concerned: Those who can take the heat, and those who can't. If you can't, move on. What's cooking here is not for the faint of mouth!

The Heat Index
Heat is the sole thing that sets chile peppers apart from the world's other peppers and, depending on the type of chile, it can range in intensity from fair to flammable. Chiles belong to the plant genus capsicum (meaning to bite) and get their heat from capsaicin. If a pepper doesn't contain capsaicin, it has no heat; if it has no heat, it isn't a chile.

The heat intensity of a chile pepper can be scientifically measured by means of a device called the Scoville Heat Unit that records the level of heat by the amount of sweetened water it takes to dilute it to the heatless state of a bell pepper, which scores zero on the Scoville test. The hottest chile is the red habanero, which can register 200,000 units on up. By comparison, the jalapeño, popular in the southwest United States, falls in the 25,000-unit range, and the aji, which is popular in Central America, comes in at around 17,000 units. Even the piquant cayenne is only about 8,000 units. So if you want to control the fire, it's important to know your serranos from your habaneros!

Hot chiles are definitely an acquired taste, and members of the numerous chile squadrons claim the fire is addictive. It's why they keep score of who can take the most heat. Exactly which chiles create the most heat after the habanero differs, depending on what camp is making the claim, but some of the hottest Mexican chiles are red and orange habaneros, huachinango, cayenne, serrano and jalapeño.


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Posted by Craig Harrison on August 12th, 2010 7:00 PMPost a Comment

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