Some Like It Hot
Our unique pain/pleasure relationship with chili peppers has endured for thousands of years.
Go ahead. Submit to the pain, but understand that there’s no turning back. And no reprieve. Once you pop that hot chili pepper in your mouth, you are committed. No amount of water, beer or starchy food can save you. Of course, for passionate pepper lovers, that surrender is part of the grand seduction of spicy capsicums.
Peppers—hot and sweet—have been tickling the human palate for at least 9,000 years and have been part of the worldwide menu since Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. In certain corners of the globe, primarily in tropical and semi-tropical climes, pepper alchemy is a way of life. But in recent years, a cross-pollination of cultures and cuisines has brought spicy food to Main Street and lured chili-philes out of the closet.
“We see it as the evolution of the American palate,” says Orlando restaurateur Kaleb Harrell, co-founder of Hawkers Asian Street Fare. “The foodie movement brought a big push toward more bold flavors, and that includes spicy flavors. Over the last 10 years, that has spilled over to the mainstream. People have started to realize that there’s more to food than bland, middle-of-the-road recipes, and restaurants are beginning to cater to those customers.
“Even some of the big boys in casual dining are jumping on the bandwagon," he says. "It used to be that anything you ordered in one of those places was going to be something they knew everybody would like. Now they’re willing to say ‘this spicy dish may not be for everybody, but those who do like it hot are going to love it.’”
Harrell thinks chili-obsessed diners fall into two categories. “There are people who really enjoy eating peppers and super-spicy foods because they like the sensation, and they appreciate that natural high,” he says. “Then you have the group of people who just want to show off and impress their friends.”
Of course, eventually, those do-ya-dare-me chili poseurs become bona fide chili lovers. You see, the more hot chilies you eat, the more you can eat. It seems that capsaicin, the heat-generating compound in peppers, dulls heat sensors in the mouth, so those who consume a lot of spicy food have a higher tolerance. Pepper wimps just aren’t willing to suffer to reach that threshold, but for those who aspire to chili mastery, there are plenty of opportunities to indulge.
Orlando magazine dining critic Joseph Hayes points to the city’s ethnically diverse dining scene as fertile ground for embracing the burn. “We have so much Vietnamese, Thai and Asian-fusion influence in Orlando that hot peppers and sriracha sauce are fairly ubiquitous,” he says. “And everyone experiments with curry and hot spices at least once.”
Experimenting with hot spices extends even to dessert chefs. Jeff Lambert, co-owner and baker at Blue Bird Bake Shop, offers a classy vanilla cupcake with vanilla and cracked black pepper buttercream frosting. It’s popular, he says, with the pepper and sugar complementing each other. But the spicy pièce de résistance is a cayenne-laced original. “We also make our Hunka Chunka Burning Love. It is our chocolate cake with cayenne pepper and a pinch of cinnamon, studded with chocolate chunks and topped with a cinnamon buttercream frosting, and then finished with a Red Hot on top,” Lambert says. “It has warmth and a little bit of a bite-kick, and it’s delicious. We think sweet and spicy is a great combination.”
Spicy-sweet may be a great combo, but it isn’t a flavor. Capsaicin has no flavor and is not actually perceived by the taste buds. The “taste” of any individual capsicum is the same flavor one might get from a green, yellow or ripe-red bell pepper—all of which are devoid of capsaicin. Instead, oily capsaicin plays on pain receptors in the mouth, giving the same jolt that might come from eating a still-steaming apple pie, without the scalding after-effects.
Capsaicin does have antibacterial properties and some anthropologists posit that humans began coating meats with pepper in order to keep it from spoiling. Spices also can serve as a mask for “off” flavors. The fact that pepper consumption tends to be higher in hotter climates, where food would more easily spoil, gives credence to those theories.
But University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Paul Rozin disagrees with all the practical reasons for pepper love. His research suggests that 50-plus shades of chilies have more in common with Fifty Shades of Grey than we might like to think. Rozin calls the hurt-so-good aspect of the chilihead experience “benign masochism.” His theory is that eating hotter and hotter peppers is like a thrill ride—you can feel all the emotions and excitement of life-threatening danger, while knowing you’re not actually at risk.
Columbus and his cohorts reported that Mayan and Aztec natives put chilies in virtually everything they consumed, including their bitter chocolate drinks, and they used different types of capsicums medicinally and ceremonially as well. Columbus lumped the multifunctional berries under the name “peppers” because they proved to be suitable substitutes for the Asian black pepper (Piper nigrum) he originally sought.
Archaeologists trace the cradle of pepper cultivation to the eastern coast of central Mexico (conveniently including the state of Tabasco); however, there’s evidence that wild peppers were harvested and consumed by native peoples from what is now the southwestern United States through Mexico, Central America and into Peru. There are some 27 species of peppers, although most cultivars in the U.S. come from three species: capsicum annum (bell peppers, wax peppers, jalapeños); capsicum frutescens (tabasco, piri-piri, Thai peppers); and capsicum chinense, (habanero, datil, Scotch bonnet). Two other species, capsicum pubescens and capsicum baccatum, grow almost exclusively in South America.
St. Augustine's Datil Pepper
Minorcan cuisine can best be described as coastal Spanish cooking with a kick. And that kick comes from the sweet heat of the Minorcan datil pepper, which is grown almost exclusively in Northeast Florida.
“You won’t find any ‘Minorcan’ restaurants here,” says Sherry Stoppelbein, owner of Hot Shot Bakery & Café in St. Augustine’s Old City district. “But you will find Minorcan cooking influences in many places.”
Chiefly, you’ll find dishes featuring the datil pepper, which, if you can get past the 100,000 to 300,000 Scoville unit heat, has a slightly fruity flavor. Stoppelbein, a native St. Augustinian and a direct descendant of Minorcan settlers on her mother’s side, has been called the Duchess of Datil for her array of Datil B Good-brand hot sauces, spicy fruit salsas, mustards and dessert sauces. She grows her own datil peppers, harvests the small, thin capsicums when they change from bright green to vivid yellow, and makes the sauces in her Luvin’ Oven catering kitchen.
“Every Minorcan family has their own datil sauce recipe that they’ve handed down, usually made from their own plants or from a neighbor’s,” says Stoppelbein. “The datil pepper plant is a fickle thing—you can grow a few plants pretty easily in this climate, and from June to September or October, you can get a bushel and a half of peppers from just one plant. As soon as you start trying to grow 100 plants, they catch all sorts of diseases. One year, we had to replant three times. That’s probably why you don’t see datil peppers as a commercial crop.”
According to common lore, settlers from the Spanish island of Minorca brought their beloved pepper plant seeds with them to Florida. Some historians now believe the peppers, which are first cousins to habaneros, actually originated in Peru, then came with the Minorcans to Florida via a stopover in Cuba. Regardless of how they became a signature of Minorcan cuisine, the good news is that datils love hot, humid weather. That makes Central Floridians well-poised to grow their own heritage peppers.
The Scoville Scale
All capsicums are not created equal. Big, plump, juicy bell peppers have a wonderful flavor—and when allowed to ripen fully, they turn from green to yellow to crimson—but they’re devoid of capsaicin, the substance that puts the heat in peppers. Bell peppers fall at the lowest end of the Scoville scale, a 100-year-old yardstick that measures Scoville heat units, or the “pep” in pepper.
To put things in perspective, a bell pepper registers zero on the Scoville scale and a pimento—the heart-shaped pepper used to make paprika or stuffed into olives and other hors d’oeuvres—ranks only slightly higher. The current record-holder for hottest pepper in the world, a cross between a ghost pepper (the previous record-holder) and a red savina habanero, is the Carolina Reaper. Bred in South Carolina, it peaks at 2.2 million Scoville units. The common jalapeño is a mere 4,000 to 5,000 units, and the tabasco pepper is 30,000 to 50,000. The ubiquitous chipotle, which is actually a smoked jalapeño, also offers a mere 3,500 to 10,000 units.
Cultivated peppers will grow any place that gets a few months of sun each year. That makes Central Florida a pepper propagation paradise. In fact, hot and sweet peppers consistently rank in the top five among Florida commercial crops. Jennifer Pelham, extension agent with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Orange County office, says the most popular peppers among Central Florida home growers are habaneros, jalapeños, cherry bomb peppers, cayenne peppers and ghost peppers, as well as sweet banana peppers and bell peppers like California Wonder and Big Bertha. “We have two seasons in Central Florida,” she says. “You want to plant peppers from mid-February through March or from August through September. Pepper plants need two to three months before they begin to produce, and they need to produce before it gets too hot or too cold for the peppers to develop properly.”
Pelham says the easiest way to begin your pepper garden is with four- to six-week old plants from a reputable nursery. Put one pepper plant per five-gallon container filled with a good potting mix. Make sure the container has a hole for drainage and don’t forget to water. “When pepper plants are small, water them often, maybe two times a day,” she says. “When the plants are bigger, water less often, but give them more water each time. The bigger root system needs a good soaking.”
Peppers require at least five hours of full sunlight each day. If you plant them in the ground, Pelham advises augmenting the soil with a half to a full pound of compost or manure per square foot of garden space.
Once ripe, fresh peppers can be added to recipes as desired—roasted, stuffed, chopped, or ground into purée for sauces. Small, thin-walled peppers are the best candidates for drying. “Just put them in a dry location inside,” says Pelham. “Place them on a tray in a single layer, preferably on a paper towel and turn them periodically. The trick is to keep the moisture off while the peppers are dehydrating. If you have a space in the attic, you can hang them to dry.”
Once dried, peppers can be stored in a cool place and reconstituted with hot water for use in your favorite dishes; or the pods can be placed in a grinder to make pepper flakes and coarse ground pepper.
A word of caution when handling peppers: The pain inflicted by capsaicin may not be life-threatening, but it is real. Since capsaicin—which is found in high quantities in the pepper membranes and the pith surrounding the pepper seeds—acts on pain sensors and not taste buds, it absolutely can irritate your skin. And, since capsaicin is not water soluble, the burning pain can linger. It’s best to use disposable plastic or latex gloves when preparing chilies, and don’t even think about rubbing your eyes. Dairy products do offer some relief from capsaicin burn, so if you forget to use gloves and need quick relief, try soaking your hands in milk.
According to food industry market researchers, there’s no sign that pepper madness will end anytime soon. Hot sauce is considered a growth industry in the U.S., worth about $1 billion.
Of course, fledgling pepper aficionados might want to create their own hot sauce concoction. Start with a basic Southern pepper vinegar—whole, small chilies, some vinegar and a pinch of salt—placed in a sterile jar, sealed and set aside for three to four weeks before decanting into shaker bottles. Sprinkle on anything your heart desires. Then try a fresh, puréed sauce with peppers, vinegar, salt and fresh fruits—mango, pineapple, apples—or add veggies like carrots, onions and garlic. Or, cook together roasted chilies, fresh chilies, vinegar, salt and seasonings to make a thick accompaniment for hearty dishes. The trick is to start with chilies, something acidic (like vinegar) and salt. Even if your sauce doesn’t set the world on fire, you can always inflict a little pain on your friends.
If making your own hot sauce isn't your thing, then check out these local favorites as reported by Orlando magazine dining critic, Joseph Hayes:
- Eyal Goldshmid and his wife, Deborah Moskowitz, started making several varieties of sauce in their home kitchen four years ago, and now their Fat Cat label (fatcatfoods.com) can be seen on store shelves in Florida (including Fresh Market and Orlando International Airport).
- Poca’s Hottest Hot Sauce (pocashottest.com) is the brainchild of Orlando chef Wendy Davis, who concocts fiery condiments inspired by, and named after, local musicians. High-energy metal heroes Gargamel have the pepper, carrot and honey Crybaby label named after them. Available at Poca’s Hottest store at Artegon Marketplace.
- Horror movie fan Zachary Zouzoulas has a thing about zombies, and while his creation, Zach’s Zombie Sauce, might suggest a mind-numbing inferno, the rich sauce has layers of exotic spice and warmth. Available on zachszombiesauce.com