You want to talk about hot? Check this out: The hottest pepper on the planet* is the Carolina Reaper, grown in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
That news may leave you cold if you’re one of the millions of people who can’t tolerate or simply don’t enjoy spicy food. But for fans of hot flavors, this raises the bar once again on the power of the pepper.
Especially in summer, eating spicy food will make you perspire, a reaction known as “gustatory sweating.” When the sweat evaporates you can feel cooler. That’s one explanation for the popularity of peppers in tropical cuisines. But researchers don’t commit fully to this theory. Some think our affinity for hot food is cultural and can be developed: If you grow up eating chilis, poblanos, and habaneros, it doesn’t seem unusual.
Capsaicin is the compound that makes peppers hot. It occurs in varying amounts in peppers that range from mild to “molten lava” (as reported on PRI’s Science Friday).
So let’s go a step deeper to understand the fine line between pepper pleasure and pain. Spicy foods excite our taste buds and release endorphins, a substance that increases a sense of well-being. So when you shake some cayenne into your Bloody Mary, the vodka isn’t the only chemical working on your brain.
It’s pretty common to grab a pepper mill or shaker when making a savory dish, but adding a little heat to sweet foods is a fun way to change up a recipe. It’s easy to grind a bit of ancho pepper onto melons, citrus or pineapples. (Peach purists, look away because we’re going to proclaim that pepper is really delicious on your favorite fruit, too.)
From there, create your own salsa de polvo, a Mexican blend of chili peppers, lime, and salt. Add it to fruit salads, a marinade for chicken or fish, salad dressings, and pretty much anything that needs a little burst of not-too-hot flavor.
Not to sweat the details, but it’s interesting to note that peppers have antimicrobial properties, too. Researchers tested 43 spices from 4,578 recipes they pulled from 93 cookbooks. They concluded that spices can help “cleanse food of pathogens.” No word on which recipes they selected.
So shake your fist at the crazy summer temperatures and beat the heat by bringing your own. As long as we’re going to be sweating this season, we might as well enjoy it.
*1,569,300 Scoville Heat Units; for comparison a jalapeño is no more than 10,000 SHU.
Amy Rogers writes WFAEats, a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and tackle the meatier side of the food scene in and around Charlotte.