It seems like the world has gone mad for chilli – there are chilli conventions, chilli clothing lines, chilli competitions, chilli sauces everywhere. Not that I am complaining – as you may have noticed, I tend to try and spice up my dishes whenever possible.
But, where has this sudden popularity come from? After all, it wasn’t that long ago that many people turned their noses up to even the smallest whiff of spice. It is probably due to a mix of things (as always) – people travel to wider destinations and more frequently, this has led to people becoming more adventurous in their cooking and it’s also far easier to get hold of a variety of ingredients these days.
Chillies belong to the capsicum family and are native to South America where they have been eating them for over 6,000 years would you believe! They were introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus in the late 15th century and then spread rapidly along the trade routes of Africa, India, Southeast Asia and China.
There are many, many varieties of chilli, although it is important to match the chilli with the right cuisine as they all have very different flavours and qualities. The flavours range from nutty, fruity, citrusy to floral, fragrant or just searingly hot. Fresh chillies can add a sharp or peppery note, whilst dried chillies can add a sweet and smoky undertone to dishes.
The level of spiciness varies and the heat level is measured using the Scoville scale which ranges from 0 heat units for sweet peppers, via habeneros at around 350,000, right up to the Carolina reaper, the world’s hottest chilli, which comes in at a whopping 1.5 million (I certainly will not be trying that one!)
The burn is caused by a volatile chemical called capsaicin, which is contained in the seeds and membranes and, to a lesser extent, the flesh. Capsaicin activates pain receptors on the tongue and these send a message to the brain that the mouth is on fire. It is this burning sensation that can bring tears to our eyes, make us sweat and reach for water or run around flapping our arms like lunatics.
Even though the first instinct is often to grab a cool glass of water to sooth your burning tongue, capsaicin is in fact not soluble in water so you will be better off consuming something with fat in it, such as milk or yoghurt. And as I am sure we have all encountered, the effect of the heat varies by person – what is mild and tasty to one person could be a complete firebomb to another!
At the same time that your mouth is burning, as an antidote to the pain, the brain releases endorphins, which induce a feel-good high. This explains why eating chillies can almost feel addictive.
Speaking of addictive, I’m going to now introduce chocolate into the chilli mix. Now, you may think that combining chocolate and chilli is absolutely revolting and absurd, but I can guarantee that it is in fact incredibly delicious and delightful. So long as you don’t go over the top with the chilli, it provides a warm and satisfying undertone to velvety smooth chocolate.
The amount of chilli you use will depend on the variety of chilli and the amount of heat you want, although I would advise erring on the conservative side the first time you make this – you don’t want to waste good chocolate!
Give it a go, it makes a lovely gift or perfect ending to a dinner party, I’m sure your guests would be intrigued and excited!
OTV Cuisine: Chilli Chocolate
- 2 red chillies, fresh or dried
- 100g really good quality dark chocolate (at least 50%)
- If you are using fresh chillis, remove the seeds and chop very finely.
- If you are using dried chillies, grind them to a powder using a pestle and mortar.
- Melt the chocolate in a small bowl over a saucepan with some boiling water (making sure the bowl does not touch the water). You can also melt the chocolate in the microwave in small bursts, however the water method is preferable.
- Add the chilli bit by bit, making sure you taste as you go along so you don’t over spice.
- Cool quickly by sitting the bowl in iced water and, before the chocolate sets, pour onto baking parchment.
- Leave to cool for 10 minutes and score into squares with a knife.
- Once it is cooled completely, cut it up and bag it.
- Store somewhere cool until ready to serve or eat.
Source: Waitrose Magazine
Photos: Various – see captions