In the Garden: “Fresh Pepper…?” Bell Peppers and Chile Peppers

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Illustration by Lisa Marshall

Many of my friends and family enjoy a visit to an Indian restaurant.  Just walking in the door you’re welcomed by the aromas of the subcontinent’s herbs and spices: cumin, coriander, cardamom, etc.  But for some, a potential problem always lurks: The Heat.

Indian restaurants try to be accommodating in this regard, typically offering you a range of heat, from Mild to Indian Hot. Unfortunately, one restaurant’s Mild can equate to one diner’s Way-Too-Hot. What’s causing pain in some people, while others are embracing the fire?

Peppers, members of the genus Capsicum, are a popular ingredient in many cuisines, especially those embracing some degree of piquancy. Although originally indigenous to warmer parts of the Americas, it’s now difficult to imagine many European and Asian cuisines without some type of pepper. But with thousands of pepper varieties, you can never be sure how much your tongue will be set aflame at any particular restaurant. When you’re buying for consumption at home, however, you can avail yourself of the Scoville Scale.

In 1912, pharmacist Wilbur Scoville developed a method to measure the heat in peppers. Initially, heat was rated by a panel of tasters—convicts, perhaps?—and assigned a certain number of Scoville Heat Units. For bell peppers, also known as sweet peppers, the SHU was at or near zero. 

From there, the numbers go way up. (By the way, tasting panels have now been replaced by High-Performance Liquid Chromatography. Isn’t science wonderful?)

The well-known Jalapeno pepper rates at 3,500-8,000 Scoville Units, but it’s put to shame by the Habanero at 100,000 to 350,000 SHU. The Habanero is known for its fruity flavor, assuming you can actually detect it through the heat.

At some point, one has to wonder what the point of developing ever-hotter peppers is, beyond mere one-upmanship. Peppers with delightful names like the Naga Viper, the Bhut Jolokia aka Death Pepper, and the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion rate between 750,000 and 1,500,000 SHU.

There’s a considerable range in the SHU for any particular variety of peppers. The actual pepper you bite into could be on the lower end of the scale, depending on its particular genetics, as well as its growing conditions. Also, the heat level varies among the various parts of the pepper. The seeds actually contain no capsaicin—the stimulant/irritant—while the placental tissue that holds the seed is potent.

What happens when we bite into a pepper and capsaicin hits our tongues? It reacts with nociceptors and produces pain and heat—which for some odd reason, some of us find enjoyable. And might other species be more sensible than certain humans in regard to self-inflicted pain? Seems so. Most mammals avoid eating peppers. Birds are immune to the effect, however. They eat the peppers, and aid in dispersal of the plant.

The differing response to hot peppers among humans appears to be a case of both nature and nurture. Some of us are born with more of these pain receptors, although I didn’t find any indication that this difference was linked to any ethnic group. As for nurture, in Mexico mothers may give their babies sugar mixed with some dried pepper to build up their tolerance to the heat. For all of us, the key to building up tolerance to capsaicin is apparently repeated exposure. If you don’t like it, just keep applying gradually increasing doses of hot food. Of course, at this point, non-believers might well ask, “Why am I doing this?!” Well, if you have to ask…

Water and alcohol are not good antidotes to capsaicin. Rice and bread do help, as well as dairy products, which may explain why yogurt-based lassis and raitas frequently accompany Indian meals.

But to the more basic question: why do some of us actually enjoy this sensation of pepper-induced pain? Some say that these folks are “sensation seekers,” that they like the idea of experiencing some pain, but without the chance of real injury. Dr. Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, labelled this condition as “benign masochism.” Regardless of your reaction to eating peppers, they should be handled with care. When cutting into them, wear gloves or wash your hands well afterwards. And by all means, do not put your hands to your eyes or other sensitive areas.

If you want to avoid the issue of heat, you can grow peppers strictly as annual ornamentals. Many varieties bear small, brightly-colored fruit, such as ‘NuMex Twilight’, developed at the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. White, yellow-orange, and red fruits may all be present simultaneously. Regardless of variety, all peppers like regular moisture, well-drained fertile soil and warm temperatures.

The Other Peppers

Many plants bear the appellation “pepper” but are totally unrelated to each other.  The most familiar to many of us is black pepper, a fixture alongside the salt shaker in homes and restaurants. Piper nigrum, one species among hundreds in the genus, provides us with the dried fruit that we put into our grinders. The active ingredient, piperine, is reportedly only 1% as hot as capsaicin, and I haven’t seen any numerical scales rating the heat of different black peppers. One pepper species, Piper kadsura, is grown as an ornamental vine and would be marginally hardy in Albemarle County.

Yet another spice is the Sichuan (or Szechuan) pepper, derived from the fruits of various trees in the genus Zanthoxylum, sometimes spelled as Xanthoxylum. It produces a tingling, numbing effect in the lips and mouth, and has been used to treat oral pain. Two members of this genus grow in eastern North America and are sometimes referred to as toothache trees.

If you’d like a laugh on the subject of pepper, look for the Saturday Night Live skit “Pepper Boy.”  Warning: includes Adult Content.

Start today, and you can build up your tolerance to hot food for a spicier 2021!  

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