Why we like to feel the burn.

Indian Snack Deep Fried Chilli

Salt & the Radish loves a bit of chilli. I came to the realisation last week that I cook with it a lot. I eat a lot of Asian food so that goes without saying but I also add it to salads, most rubs I make for meat and sometimes with breakfast. Hot sauce with eggs? Yes please. I'm not one of those people that likes it blisteringly hot, just a lovely mouth tingling background heat. I love the taste of chilli too, not the ridiculously hot ones of course, but the big green ones often used in Indian cooking. Especially when sliced open and left to enfuse in a curry or as a snack as seen in the photo above. I once had a chicken curry in Bradford with a sauce made almost entirely from green chilli. I've never had anything like it before or after. In the UK or in India. Maybe it was the chef's personal creation but it was lovely, not hot, just a delicious and unique chilli taste.

Apparently India is the world's largest producer, consumer and exporter of chillies but they actually originated from the Americas and were brought to Asia by the Portugese in the 16th Century.

Thailand certainly took to chilli in a big way. They are now big cultivators of their own bird's eye chilli which is found all over South East Asia. Thai food (mostly southern) has got to be one of the spiciest cuisines in the world? Most meals are served with lime and fish sauce with fairly hefty chunks of chopped bird's eye chilli. I met a Thai man who was convinced that he (and most Thai people) didn't get bitten by mosquitos because of the amount of chilli they consumed. I wonder if there is any truth in this.

It's not just Asia that have taken to this plant. Europeans have also used it to lesser degrees but the UK and the States in more recent years have really developed a love for the heat. It is in these countries where you see a lot of the world's hottest chillies being cultivated (The Carolina Reaper, currently holding the title, was cultivated in the USA) and competitions for spiciest curries, hottest wing consumption and the craze for eating raw chillies and filming it to put on YouTube.

But why are we so obsessed with eating something that gives us pain?

These plants have actually developed this heat as protection against predators. Mammals. Us. An article on Psychology Today "Why do we torture ourselves with spicy foods?" says that 'On a hedonic level, growing crops of jalapeños seems as peculiar as growing a crop of edible razor blades'. This article talks about the correlation between spice use and climate. Historically chilli has been used a lot more in warmer climates, especially in meat dishes, in order to damage any harmful pathogens in the meat. As long as we can withstand the effects of the chilli then the use is beneficial to our health. This would explain why colder climates have not taken to using as much chilli. 

But we don't need to use chilli for this reason. Not here in the UK. So why do we put up with the pain? The Guardian article "Why do we eat chilli?" talks about a 'hedonic reversal' or a 'benign masochism' and the simple fact that we like the pain. There is no real danger or damage in the amounts we eat. Think along the lines of why roller coasters or horror films are so popular. We actively seek hot foods out for a mini thrill. The assumption then is that the more we eat, the more we can handle, because of desensitisation.

But not everyone likes chilli and is this because they haven't had much exposure and, therefore, have not experienced this desensitisation or for another reason? Well, there is some research that suggests personality may have something to do with it. An article on PopSci talks about a study of 97 males and females which found that those that liked spicy foods were more likely to be 'sensation seekers'. In that group the research found that the desensitisation effect was actually relatively small.

Anyway, whatever the reason, I like chilli. I have decided to try something a little different with my breakfast eggs and, going back to the roots of the chilli plant (the right continent anyway), I have tried out chimichurri. This is an Argentinian green sauce made with garlic, chilli and parsley. I used Jamie Oliver's recipe from this weeks Sunday Times Magazine which is as follows:

  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 fresh red chilli
  • 2 bunches of flat leaf parsley
  • 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Peel and finely grate the garlic, then halve, deseed and finely chop the chilli. Pick and finely chop the parsley leaves. Place it all into a small bowl. Dress with a little extra virgin olive oil and the vinegar and stir to combine.