Adventures in Cooking: Feeling hot, hot, hot!

Majida Rashid

Man is like pepper – you only know him when you’ve ground him.
— Nigerian proverb

The first time I saw someone eat a raw green chili pepper was when, as a child, I was accompanying my mother to the vegetable market of Abbottabad, Pakistan. I was shocked!

We walked by a shop where the vegetables were displayed in squares made with narrow wooden strips, some glistening in the morning sun.

“Salam Alaikum,” said the seller to my mother.

Then he took a green chili, praised it in Punjabi, which was the language of my mother, and to my horror he bit its top and ate the whole chili in no time.

I had never seen anyone eat raw chili in Abbottabad or Peshawar, which are located in the KP province of Pakistan, because they were synonymous with stomach pain.

Despite being from the Punjab province, my mother cooked mild food for us. Years later my older sister told me that our mother used to eat raw chilies. She even cooked separately for herself with lots of chilies that my father and the rest of the family couldn’t even go near.

Later I noticed that people from Punjab and Sindh province ate raw chilies and even sprinkled their powder over food. The Punjab province borders India where food is really hot, and at the time of the creation of Pakistan the majority of the people who fled India settled in Sindh province. But KP province on the west borders Afghanistan and Iran where food is milder.

The versatile chilies can be dried, pickled, eaten raw, made into sauces and cooked. Chilies can be white, peach, purple, yellow, orange, and myriad shades of green, brown and red. Supermarkets in America sell mostly green, red and sometimes pale colored chilies.

While we treat fresh chilies as a vegetable and a spice when dried, they are a fruit of the nightshade family. Scientifically known as Capsicum frutescens their genus is Capsicum. It’s the capsaicin compound mostly present in chili seeds and ribs, the white soft flesh, that imparts heat. There are about 4,000 varieties of chilies. But it’s debatable if chili accountants searched every nook and cranny of the world to find the varieties for tax purposes!

Intensity of heat in chilies is measured on Scoville Heat Unit/Scale (SHU), an organoleptic method established in 1912 by an American pharmacist Wilber Scoville. To test the pungency of chilies he diluted chili powder with equal amount of sugar water and gave it to a panel of tasters who bravely kept sipping these potions until no discernible heat was tasted. Phew! I sure am glad to be not part of that panel. Now SHU is measured in labs to get objective results.

While capsicum or bell pepper have zero SHU, heat of our very own Texan Jalapeno pepper ranges between 3,000 – 8,000 SHU. Not considered hot by Pakistanis, one dried round Dandicut, meaning branch severed, pod with 30,000-65,000 SHU is sufficient to add heat to a meal for two people.

Chiltepin pepper, wildly grown in Mexico and in American South West, has 30,000–50,000 SHU and four ounces of dried pods cost $60. Trinidad’s Scorpion can reach up to 2 million in SHU, British Komodo Dragon chili crosses the line of 2 million SHU.

Carolina Reaper, “The Hottest Chili in the World,” was created by Ed Currie of Michigan by cross breeding Pakistani Naga chili and Habanero from Saint Vincent Island, West Indies. Three ounces of its powder can cost $30. Now Dragon’s Breath from Wales, England, has surpassed the Reaper in heat. It’s a whopping 2.48 millions SHU.

Beginners: Always wear gloves before handling chilies. Remove the seeds and the ribs of fresh chilies and slice the shell. Dried pods can be crushed and sprinkled over food. Sauteing chilies in oil over medium reduces their heat.

Never drink water if bitten by a chili. Milk and yoghurt are the best antidote for soothing heat inside the mouth and stomach.

The following homemade chili dip is good for beginners. It’s delicious and easy to make.

Chili Dip


Blend together one small fresh chili, 1/2 cup yogurt, a few shelled walnuts, 1-2 tablespoons of chopped coriander and mint leaves, and salt to taste.

Use it with French Fries, chips or any raw vegetable and fruit.