Quick: Name something you can pick up at any produce stand or grow in your garden that can be used as a weapon. Hint—it’s not the club-like zucchini your neighbor leaves on your doorstep in the dead of an August night. The answer is—drum roll, please—a chile pepper.
Weapon? Yes, the colorful fruits of the chile pepper plant have actually become part of at least one country’s military arsenal. In addition to being the active ingredient in pepper spray used by law enforcement and vigilant women, chiles’ volatile compounds have now been incorporated into non-lethal grenades in India. If you have ever inadvertently touched your eye or other sensitive parts after handling chile peppers, you can imagine how a chile pepper attack would stop you, er, cold.
Where does that tongue-searing, sinus-clearing burn come from? Chile peppers contain a compound called capsaicin and related chemicals, collectively called capsaicinoids, which bind with pain receptors in the mouth and throat and send a message to the brain that something hot has been ingested. In humans, the heart rate increases and beads of sweat—called “gustatory perspiration”—appear on the forehead. Sweating, of course, is the body’s way of cooling itself, which is one reason hot peppers are so popular in the steamy tropics, particularly within 20 degrees of the equator. With record-breaking heat afflicting much of the U.S., you can test out this theory at your next barbecue.
Victims of chile pepper pain often reach for water, beer, or soda pop to quench the fires. But in fact, these liquids make things worse as they spread the hot oils around. Dairy products—milk, cream, yogurt, etc.—are a much more effective antidote as they break the bonds between the pain receptors and the capsaicinoids.
If you are a discerning taster, you’ll discover that beyond a chile’s heat are other flavors, sometimes described as sweet, floral, citrusy, etc. In fact, the high dry heat of the grill generally sweetens chile peppers, tempering their incendiary tendencies.
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Yours in righteous grilling,
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