Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Wonder of Chilli Peppers

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I don’t know about you, but I always get intimidated when I experiment with strong flavors in the kitchen - like the bitterness of oregano, the stink of hing and the strong heat of chilli peppers.

It is through experience that I have made peace with these flavors. I just need to realize that if I use them for my daily cooking I need to use them at 10% of the spice blend. Following the simple formula of making strong flavors only 10% of the blend, you will be successful in your cooking.
I realized that often these strong flavours have healing properties. Used medicinally the percentage increases, along with the frequency of taking them, during the day. For example, by combining equal parts of ginger, black pepper, and pipali, you end up with a remedy called trikatu in Ayurveda. This is a strong medicine to increase the digestive fire, and to reduce any kapha aggravations-- like mucus in the lungs and stagnation in the digestion fire.

Chili peppers had never been my favourite in my cooking. First, because I am a pitta constitution, and, second, I didn’t follow the formula of the 10% rule. However. I must tell you that the hundreds of kinds of peppers can supply to you a variety of flavours, color, heat, and even sweetness in your food. The interesting part of the peppers is not only of the different uses in the kitchen, and the flavours they supply to you, but also the medicinal properties they carry.

Medicinal properties of chilies.
Yogis and Mexican cultures have been using them for hundreds of years in health, rituals, and of course flavouring the daily cooking. The heat of the chili pepper is caused by a substance called capsaicin. This substance is indestructible: neither cold or heat, nor water, nor fire can incinerate the heat caused by capsaicin. Even when you work with chili, capsaicin stays in the cooking tools and can easily travel to the eyes and other tender membranes. It is this same substance that has been proven in many labs, universities, and health study groups around the world to alleviate nerve pain, arthritis, neck pains, headaches, obesity, increase metabolism, improve cholesterol, prevent blood clots, reduce heart rate, prevent arthritis, and reduce damage after heart attacks. This same substance is now in the sight of researchers in medical centers to be used as a preventative to prostate cancer, as well as breast cancer. For example, researchers at CME Medical centre in LA, found that capsaicin kills 80% of cancer cells in test animals medically induced with prostate cancer—also remaining tumors were about 1/5th the size of those untreated mice. Capsaicin has also been used in treating psoriasis. Several studies have found that capsaicin cream can help reduce the itching and redness of psoriasis and chronic skin conditions. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that the amount of insulin required to lower blood sugar after a meal was lower in people after eating chilies than those not. This brings hope in treating Type Two Diabetes.

Chilies have a bad reputation that they may cause ulcers and stomach burns, but studies have proven otherwise. They cause neither ulcers nor hemorrhoids, and guess what? Some investigations have used chilies to actually prevent them.

Selecting your chilies.
When I start working with chilies I found in the market quite a variety, and I didn’t know what species was the one to accommodate my delicate taste, as well as giving me the flavour I was looking for. No wonder I was confused! There are three thousand varieties of chilies in the world. It is hard to imagine Indian cuisine without chilies, and it is commonly imagined that they originate there. Chilies, however come from the Americas. Christopher Columbus discovered them, or revived them, and brought them to Europe-- similarly reviving them in the orient. He never imagined that his search for black pepper, which the Arabs had been keeping secret from the Europeans for centuries, was leading him to bring to Spain the red hot chili peppers of the Americas. By the 17th century chilies were known about the globe, and today many cultural cuisines enjoy the benefits of chili pepper.

If your intention is to experiment with chili pepper, there is one common rule: the smaller and redder the chili, the hotter it is. What I suggest is to explore in a Mexican store, which for me is the best culture to have the refine palates to combine in cooking recipes the favourite taste of chilies. Some chilies are roasted, giving a Smokey flavour called chipotles. Others come dried, which are wonderful to be used in soups and stews, they are call anchos. I suggest, however, to clean the seeds. Seeds usually give the hot taste. You can also find chili paste and sweet chilies which add an expansive taste in your palette.

Combining chilies with other spices.
Chilies combine wonderfully with a variety of food—like rice, beans, and grains-- as well, in small salsas that can be severe with flat dishes such as rice, yuka or potatos. It is better to buy chilies when they still have their membranes around. You can chose fresh, whole, dried, crushed, canned, or jarred, and if you can find them, pickled. It is all a matter of experimenting and inquiring at your local market, what is the best suited for your cooking experience.

If you are cooking with chilies, they prepare very well with allspice, garlic, ginger, coconut, cardamom, tumeric, armchur, galangal, pumpkin seeds, and fenugreek seeds. I also have found that the flavour is quite different between the dried and fresh chili. The heat may be the same, but that soft sweetness gets lost in the dry chilies. I also like to sweeten the chilies, either by adding two or three spoonfuls of sugar to the dish, the chili develops a more complex and satisfying flavour.

Tip to keep your chilies fresh.
You can keep fresh chilies refrigerated for about two weeks. Just wrap them in paper towel or put them in a plastic bag and leave them partially open. Fresh chilies also freeze well in a freezer bag.

Cayenne powder is pure chili, ground from the long red cayenne chill. It is also very hot, and can easily be found in the super market. Ground ancho chili powder is usually milder than cayenne, and is usually more popular in Mexican cooking.

Using chilies as a medicine
When you use chili for medical purposes, you can prepare capsules and can establish a frequency of taking them two or three times a day depending on the health condition.

I suggest to take chilies as a medicine for a couple days (three to ten) for different pain related disorders. Or, to treat something specific like asthma, sore throat, and tooth ache. You can take smaller doses every day for longer periods for arthritis or more degenerative illnesses. You can also find in the market: capsaicin creams or balms, that can be easily applied for sore muscles and localized pain. You can also use capsules of chili for inflammation, to strengthen the cardiovascular system, to reduce cholesterol, and to strengthen your gastral-intestinal system. You can also use chilies for thermal regulation and to give luster to your skin. Many cosmetic companies know this secret and use it in their products.

In terms of toxicity, the acute toxicity for a 70 kg person would be 13g of capsaicin—very high for the quantity require to be taken in one meal. A person of 70KG would have to consume nearly 3lbs of tobasco sauce to overdose himself and become unconscious. You may, however, experience burning and sometimes blistering on tongue if you are not used to it.

Spice blend with chilies
Here is a lovely spice recipe you can store in your kitchen given by the Tunisian cuisine. It is commonly used in stews and stuffing, and you can lightly sprinkle it on your food before serving.


½ cup coriander seeds
2 tbls caraway seeds
1 tbl chili peppers
1tsp garlic powder

* place the coriander and caraway seed in a spice grinder, ground until smooth.

Add the chili powder and garlic powder.
Mix well
Keep in an air tight glass jar
It can keep for 6 months

Makes ½ cup.

The combination in Tunisia is called tabile. Its hot fiery flavour moves you to another relationship with chili peppers.

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