Well, they don’t actually have to be pickled, but jalapeño relish is just about the best thing ever, especially on eggs! Chilies any way you have them are a great way to bring the heat, which is what they are known around the world for. It is hot in the summers here, and counter-intuitively this is the best time of year to eat and drink hot things. Hot foods help the body to cool in hot countries, that is why hot tea and coffee are always so popular in hot places. We love chilies here, year round in every grocery store in Texas chilies can be found. Dried, fresh, in powder, and even in the Mexican candy they always have calling to you at the check out. Here we are intimately acquainted with the chili, it is featured in a lot of Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Traditional Texas foods. They also have a medicinal value, which make them so much more than something that adds a real kick in the pants to your 5 alarm Texas chili. Chilies have capsaicin, which is the active chemical in all of the capsicum species, has always been popular, but recently gained a lot of popularity for its analgesic effects, as well as the soothing heat it produces.
Its popularity as a food and a medicine goes back to ancient history in the Americas, and then after the “discovery” of the Americas by Europe has made its way around the world via trade routes. Now chilies are internationally used, and I am sure most people could not even imagine Indian, Chinese, or Thai food, or lots of cultures foods really, without chilies in them. Chilies were a large part of cooking and medicine, and were probably first cultivated in Bolivia and spread North and South from there. In most Middle American cultures, the tribes dubbed the Aztecs by the Spaniards, and the other tribes that inhabited pretty much from much Mexico and right on down, depended on these chilies as a regular source of Vitamin C and A, and carotene. They were a vital part of cuisine providing vitamins that are part of the building blocks of a healthy human life, and we all know how important they are for pain. Chilies it is believed, were not used in the US South West native cultures until after European contact, but they did use wild chilies in some foods which are smaller and not as hot usually. So remember all foods that have chilies came into existence after America came in contact with Europe, though people will still find it hard to think of some cuisines without chilies. There was no paprika, no chilies, nothing until they landed on the Iberian peninsula in the 1490’s and by the 1500’s they had made it to the Middle East and through the Turks to Hungary.
The capsicum species is a member of Solanaceae which is the nightshade family, so they are relatives of tomatoes, believe it or not. Which also means that chilies, the fruit of the capsicum plant, are actually a type of berry, since its seeds are enclosed by a fleshy fruit. The species name comes from the Greek kapos – “to bite,” which is an appropriate name for a species that has such a powerful kick. Chile plants are all the same species, but come in many varieties, and they originally developed the capsaicin in their fleshy berries to prevent animals eating them that would destroy their seeds, which pass easily and whole through digestive tracts of birds but not other animals which would crush the seeds. The heat of the capsicum plants fruit is probably a defense mechanism, but it seems that since the intense heat also releases all sorts of brain chemicals in humans, which may be why we are drawn to these spicy fruits and they became cultivated. Some people seem to want to eat the absolute hottest possible, which to me seems silly but is basically like riding a roller coaster, a safe risk that allows us to experience the feelings and chemicals of extreme behavior. It was this drive that led to a lot of the hotter chili species we see now like Ghost Peppers, which are not naturally occurring and were grown and developed exclusively for their heat. That heat is what led to chili’s epitaph of peppers. When Europeans first encountered them the hottest thing they knew that could be applied to this spicy plant was “pepper,” and hence is why they are often referred to as chili peppers, and not chili berries. Chilies are native to only the Americas, and have been used since 7500 BCE but were completely unknown to other cultures as far a we can tell until the European contact with the Americas. This European contact is also where the corruption of the name began, the original word, chile, was a Spanish transliteration of a Nahuatl word chīlli.
It was later “Americanized” into chili, which you will see used internationally as well, like in chili powder. Though the chilli spelling is frequent in the UK and some of its previous colonial holdings, but all spellings are basically correct. With tons of modifiers like sweet peppers, new local names like paprika, and almost infinite local variations from there they have made themselves at home in most countries. Really most spellings are OK, and people will get what you are talking about which ever one you choose, in the States chili and chili peppers are interchangeable. Or even just peppers, but this tends to be reserved for the milder end of the spectrum, like with bell peppers.
Chilies in their native home of the Central and Southern America’s native cultures were eaten with pretty much every meal and they were believed to cure colds, strengthen the body, and even cure depression. And it is fascinating that as they spread to new cultures, meals began to be not considered meals without chilies, or a dish with chili. In some Zen monasteries chilies are the only spice to life and food and without them meals feel empty. Delicious kimchi is required at every meal in most Korean households, and I know most Ethiopian food would seem odd if it was served without the kick of heat from chili powder in Berbere. They were used as a spice in drinks made of cacao beans, the tepid, sacred, liquid drink was known as xocolātl in Nahuatl, which is the origin of our word for chocolate and was the proto-hot chocolate that evolved into what we know and enjoy today. Champurrado, or Mexican Hot Chocolate, a drink with I mentioned previously, is a great marriage of hot chocolate, spices, and of course chili, is a somewhat more direct successor to xocolātl, but more to modern tastes. Chilies were thought by some cultures to prevent or ward off witchcraft, and any person that abstained from chilies was immediately thought to be a witch.
Their pungency has been used as a weapon, as in pepper sprays, They were also used by high class Aztec families to punish boys who were extra naughty, they were held over a fire that had chilies on it burning, which as you can see is not very kind to the eyes. And you will definitely feel his pain if you ever chopped up a chili and didn’t wash your hands well enough before touching your eyes. Luckily for us girls, they were just threatened with the fire and the possibility of receiving the fate of the boys.
Since chilies were so revered and despite their heat so good for you, they became revered in all the places they traveled to. Columbus was introduced to chilies in the Caribbean when he landed there and was the first to append the name pepper to the fruit. It is speculated that the species that made it there made it in the digestive tracts of birds which were then exploited and cultivated by the native peoples.
Then the chili began to migrate north, and it found its way into what is now the Southwestern United States. The Nahuatl word for irritate or burning hot was tzilli, derived from the older Mayan word tzir, which then linguistically migrated north with chilies into the pueblo tribes (Hopi, Zuni, Laguna, Acoma, etc) the word was changed to tsil or tsi which then became a figure in rituals, as well as kachina doll. The “chili runner” dancer, dressed like the Tsil kachina below (in general some variations occur), was part of most of these areas rituals. The chili runner’s job in ritual performances was to goad men and boys into chasing them. Winners of the races got prizes, and if you lost well, expect to be force fed chilies or even have mud thrown at you. Notice his handy headdress of chilies and the ones he carries, keeping them handy for stuffing in the losers faces.
Once they migrated around the world they were adopted into many cultures and were used to ward off evil, its potency was thought to be linked to its otherworldly or a supernatural element. In India, ashes from the cooking hearth, chilies and other things, like curry leaves, are waved over the head of a person to ward off bad luck, or evil spells. One form still seen today in the form of ristras that you see all over the Southwest. You hang them over or next to a doorway to ward off the evil eye, and keep bad spirits out of the house. Some cultures include a dried lemon as well to help in warding off bad luck.
You may have noticed that most of the locations listed, or even ones you already know that like spicy hot foods are in hot countries. This is because it helps to activate the body’s natural cooling system. Chilies heat causes sweating, and increased circulation, thus they help to cool the body more. But some chilies cultivated for their heat have gotten so potent that the capsaicin in them will cause the bare skin to blister, so be very careful when handling chilies and it is generally wise to wear gloves. Wash your hands well after handling them, and rinse hands with vinegar (after soap and water) to remove any residual capsaicin. Capsaicin is what makes chilies hot, and was developed as a defense against animals eating them as I said before, and it needed to be powerful enough to stop the offending munching mammal before it gets too far. So, be mindful, it is not there just for fun, it is a seriously powerful chemical you should treat with respect. Capsaicin, carried in the oils of the plant, is not water soluble. So next time you eat something that has a hot chili in it do not reach for water! Capsaicin is lipid, or fat, soluble and it is best neutralized with a fatty liquid, like milk products which are the best, or with alcohol to dilute it (but you need a lot as to be prohibitive as a solution, as Alton mentions in the clip further down). So grab that glass of milk, next time you bite off more heat than you can take.
The heat a chili has is different depending on the species you use, there are many, many different types of chilies and each one has a different level of heat. Some people think the heat is in just the seeds, but the heat is actually contained in both the seeds and the membranes inside the chili fruit. Removing these can reduce the heat of a chili, and if you are heat sensitive will allow you to get more of the flavor. Chilies are very sweet once you get past the heat, and it is why they go so well with desserts and are even ingredients in ice creams here. The oils containing capsaicin are released upon breaking the seeds or membranes, but are also present on the skin of the chili so don’t think they are safe to handle even if they aren’t cut. When you see experienced cooks grabbing chilies at stores, we always use the plastic produce bags as makeshift gloves. Now you know why, and a lot of us learned the hard way.
Of course due to the heat variations depending on the plant environmental and human cultivation variation, and we humans love to quantify things, there eventually came a scientist who wanted to quantify how hot is HOT when it comes to chili peppers. So how the heat is measured based on the Scoville Scale, which is developed by Wilbur Scoville and a poor, unmentioned, lab assistant(s) used as a guinea pig. Wilbur would feed a pepper to his “helper” and then they would count the amount of sugar water sprayed on the tongue it took to neutralize the heat. Which I imagine to be very much like this clip from Good Eats (sorry about the quality, it was the only one I could find, but I do love AB so)
This then gives the pepper its rating on the Scoville scale, which can be noted as SHU for Scoville Heat Units and ranges from zero to over two million. As per wikipedia, here they are broken down by examples of chili varieties and the approximate range of their heat. Of course you must note that climate and soil has a lot to do with the heat of the chili as well.
As you can see some of these chilies can get to levels that I would only describe as insanity. But these extra hot chilies are useful for defense and has allowed for stronger pepper sprays and repellents to be made. But it is also that heat that helped them spread so far in Europe, when they were discovered Europe was obsessed with black pepper. It was so precious and so expensive it was relegated only to the foods of the extremely rich and wealthy. But when chili peppers came on the scene, it was a whole new ball game. Black pepper was easily replaced by chilies who provided all of the heat but none of the cost. One of the court historians of the Spanish court, Pietro Martire de Anghiera wrote-
“Something may be said about the pepper gathered in the islands and on the continent – but it is not pepper, though it has the same strength and the flavor, and is just as much esteemed. The natives call it axi, it grows taller than a poppy – When it is used there is no need of Caucasian [black] pepper.”
Capsaicin, and the fruits of the capsicum plants also have their medicinal side, recognized in the past by the native tribes of the Americas, and now again in modern times. Recently some studies have shown that people that consume chilies more in general have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, but I am sure this is just the same sort of myth as the fad Mediterranean diet or the Red Wine diet, but who knows maybe science will prove this one? Also as I said before they are a great source of some of the big vitamins that humans need to live, like vitamin C & A but it also contains a lot of trace minerals and other vitamins depending on variety and soil it was grown in.
If you want to get the most out of your chilies it is best to eat them raw, chop them and throw them into a salsa, or on top of a burger, or anything really. My husband and I go to a wonderful Mexican restaurant near us, and we are friends with the owner and his wife, and she never leaves home without a small plastic bag with a few habanero peppers in it, so she can put them on her food when she eats out. Which you could imitate with a milder version, if you so desired. My husband loves bell peppers, and jalapeños frequently throws them into burgers, fresh salads, chopped or just sliced onto pizzas. They are a great way to liven up a meal and get some healthy vitamins, which they generally contain the following listed in USDA daily percentage amounts.
Pepper Vitamins & Nutrients
- Vitamin A – 6%
- Vitamin B6 – 39%
- Beta-Carotene – 5%
- Vitamin C – 173%
- Iron – 8%
- Magnesium – 6%
- Potassium – 7%
So you can see why they were so quickly adopted into most cultures as a daily food, they contain so much vital vitamin C it would ensure that none of them suffered from the debilitating disease scurvy. Chilies also help produce mucus and saliva aiding in digestion, and while they may not be directly related to the seemingly endless stream from your nose when you consume a really hot one, they are a great way to relieve congestion. I remember taking a few shots of a hot sauce of habaneros and I can say they definitely made you forget about how sick you were feeling even if they didn’t fix you up. Also the high vitamin C content helps the body fight off and fend off colds, so it is doing double duty.
I previously mentioned here and in my post about cinnamon, champurrado. You seriously owe it to yourself to make this, it is a fantastic cold morning breakfast drink and keeps you going until lunch. Or a great quick meal in the evening on a cold night, to warm up and relax you before bed when you don’t want a heavy meal. Dried chilies do retain quite a bit of their nutrition, and can help to make you feel not so guilty about this treat.
Champurrado (Mexican Hot Chocolate)
- 1/4 cup masa harina
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups whole milk (or milk substitute)
- 1 round Mexican chocolate, coarsely chopped (Abuleita or Ibarra is great)
- 2 cones (about 2 oz) piloncillo, chopped or grated
- 2 quills Ceylon cinnamon, whole or ground
- 1 whole star anise, optional
- a pinch of ground Ancho, and Ceylon cinnamon ground, or quills for garnish
In a large pot, over medium high heat, mix the masa harina together with the water using a whisk, until it is thoroughly blended. If you want to start with the water already hot add a small amount of water to the masa harina before adding it to the hot liquid to avoid clumps. Add the rest of the ingredients, and whisk vigorously until chocolate and sugar are melted. As it is blended a froth forms, you want to keep this, some people skim this and set it aside and whip again. It is served with the froth on top, and you can purchase a traditional wooden whisk to do this, but you can also rotate the handle of a regular whisk between your hands to get a good froth going. Remove whole spices and ladle into mugs. Serve warm, with a pinch of Ancho (or more), or any dried and ground chili you like, and a sprinkle of cinnamon or a quill to stir with, and enjoy. For substitutions and more information see the original recipe listed here.
Another great way to get some chilies into your life is with salsa, salsa really just means sauce. But it has come to mean that junk that they pour out of jars in some restaurants that is bland and mostly just pureed tomatoes and onions. A really great salsa that you can make is one of my favorite, and most versatile salsas called Pico de Gallo. It can be made with just about anything fresh you have handy but I am going to list the simplest, and from what I have been told, the most traditional form.
Pico de Gallo (Fresh Salsa)
- 2 medium Tomatoes, diced
- ½ of a White Onion, finely diced
- 1 handful fresh Cilantro, roughly chopped
- 1-2 small Limes
- 1-2 Jalapeños, seeded and diced
- pinch of salt
You can always use different chilies in this than just jalapeños, any pepper will do. Dried chilies don’t always work well in this (and are not traditional) but you can always experiment and see what you like. You can also use a red onion instead of white. Garlic, either chopped finely or smashed in a mortar and pestle is a good addition as well. Throw everything except for the limes in a bowl, halve and squeeze the juice of one lime into the mixture and mix well. If it seems too dry, add the second, really it is your preference on what “too dry” is. Also a lot of people don’t like cilantro, which I think is crazy, but many of my good friends loathe it. So you can just leave it out if you are one of the
mutants …I mean peeeeeeople that cares not for cilantro.
ProSalsaTip: You can roast the chili peppers before hand to give a nice smoky taste, or even roast them and the tomatoes and give them a rough chop or smash into a pulp – it ceases to be pico de gallo at that point but oh well it tastes damn good and is still technically salsa. Remember though they lose a bit of their nutritional value when they are cooked and raw is best here for all of the ingredients. Some mashed garlic goes well in this and my favorite roasted salsa chili is the serrano.
ProPicoTip: You can add any meat you like to this, fish, chicken, beef, pork, and whatever catches your fancy. This can also go on pretty much everything, got some fish? Bake that fish, throw some pico on that bitch, now its fancy Fish with Pico de Gallo. Got some Steak? Add pico instead of marinara! Bam, bistec milanesa. Make it from Mango and chilies, and lime, and it is now dessert pico, great on vanilla ice cream. It is good on tortilla chips, on fajitas, mixed into your guacamole, on tacos, on Navajo fry bread, it is just plain GOOD.
- 25 large Jalapeños, diced or cut into small strips
- 1 large White onions, diced
- 1-2 Carrots, diced or cut into small strips
- 3 cups Vinegar (White or Apple Cider)
- 3 cups Water
- 2 tablespoons Salt
- 2 tablespoons Sugar
- Canning supplies
The jalapeños can be all green or you can throw in a few red ones for color. When you dice them need to be de-seeded, and you should always wear gloves doing stuff like this, seriously people it is important. If you want more heat, you can leave the seeds in this recipe. You want about an equal sized mound of jalapeños and onion, and half that for the carrots. Throw them all in a pan with everything else, you could 2 teaspoons of cumin to this or 2 of pickling spice, depending on what you like. Bring the mixture up to a boil, and then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes. It is best to make this and let it sit for a bit, so wait to use it over night if you are feeding an army eggs in the morning and if not, can the relish. This goes on loads of things and is a sweet and spicy replacement for any where you would use pickle relish. Scrambled eggs with sharp cheddar cheese and jalapeño relish rivals biscuits and cream gravy as my favorite southern breakfast food.
ProCanningTip: If you have never canned anything check this out for a good how to.
Capsaicin is a great topical analgesic, and can relieve pain while providing a soothing heat. You can purchase a ready made cream, that can be applied for minor aches, pains, minor back ache, tired and sore muscles, or even sprains. There are also capsules, and other methods of delivery you can purchase over the counter. One that is as well known as the creams is dermal patches that you can purchase pre-made that work for pain as well. The theory on why capsaicin works so well for pain, and some neuropathy (nerve pain), is it floods the nerves by making them take up calcium, which prevents pain reporting. It also can deplete neurotransmitters with regular exposure preventing the chemicals that cause pain, or inflammation, to be released or taken up by the nerve cells. This renders them also unable to report pain, breaking the pain loop. It also contains an array of salicylates which tend to function like aspirin and may be why it is so good at relieving pain. It also promotes healing by drawing blood to injured areas, and is great for spasmed muscles and other circulatory issues. There have been quite a few clinical studies done to determine effectiveness, and there has been enough information to be very positive about its possibilities for natural pain relief, or possible new, less addictive or stomach destroying options than we have in man-made forms now.
There is a down side though, some people react very poorly to capsaicin in large amounts, and as I mentioned before could cause blisters or skin issues if too much is used on sensitive skin or if you have an allergy. I can not stress enough that it is important to respect the power of these plants. Do test patches and know your limits here, start on the low end of the scale and work your way up. I am pretty used to heat, but one evening I made a ton of chilies relleños one evening, and was literally cursing myself as I went for the vinegar afterwards for not first of all wearing gloves, and learned the hard way that shoving my bare hand in 10 poblanos was my skin’s limit. I didn’t blister but trust me when it is too hot, you know it pretty quickly. I already mentioned this salve in my honey post, but I am going to review it here with more information about the chilies and heat levels
Capsicum Salve for Pain
- 3 tablespoons Chilies (3-4 good sized jalapeños, 1 if you use poblanos or other larger peppers, no more than 3 habaneros), finely pureed or crushed
- 1 cup Oil (jojoba, almond, olive, any good quality oil)
- 1/2 ounce of Beeswax, granular or grated
To make this you will want to heat the oil in a double boiler, and add in the chili paste, or powder, and mix well until completely combined. Add in the beeswax slowly stirring to combine fully. You can pour this directly into a seal-able container, or you can whip it with a hand mixer (or stand mixer) so it is more like a creamed lotion for ease of application. Apply directly to painful areas, and if kept in the fridge it will store for about 2 weeks. This is great for joint pain, muscle pain, and neuralgia. Some people use it for warmth during migraines, and it certainly can help if you have an area hurting that is hard to put a heating pad on, like your temple or cheekbone area. This is basically like icy-hot, but without the icy. 🙂
ProHeatTip: You can use dried cayenne pepper powder, but I find that it is less effective than the fresh since the heat in processing as well as the age can have a negative effect on the potency and effectiveness of the end product. You should never go hotter than habanero, any chili will do to make this except for the ones rated with Bell or Aji peppers which have little to no heat, and that means less capsaicin. The stronger (hotter) the chili is the more effective for higher levels of pain this will tend to be, and including the seeds and all in the puree will make sure you get maximum heat from each pepper. Though you want to do test patches since exposure to large amounts of capsaicin could cause blistering and actual burns. So make sure you do tests to make sure you can stand the heat. It is smart to wear gloves when chopping hot chilies (bell peppers and the like don’t count) but as soon as you hit any level of Scoville heat, glove it up. If you make the salve recipe and find it is too hot you can melt it all down, and add more fats (oils) to it to help dilute the capsaicin. You want to add oil a tablespoon at a time and test it on your hand, until the level of pain has reduced to a hot or warm feeling (whatever you need). Based on the amount of tablespoons of oil added, add more beeswax and attempt to keep the ratios the same. If you are unsure you can always remove a small amount on a spoon and let it cool, if its the consistency you want, you’re done!
Capsaicin is not water soluble and sometimes if you don’t scrub your hands enough (and don’t forget rinse with vinegar) and you have residual amounts, and you will have an unpleasant experience if you touch sensitive areas, like your eyes or “other” parts, guys pay attention here. So be smart, wear gloves.
ProPlasterTip: You can smear this salve on some fabric and apply it to an area to create a DIY heat plaster.
Some people find that an infused oil works better for the relief without as much burn and it is extremely simple to make. It can also be added to other salves and preparations to bring its warming qualities to other things you make.
Capsaicin Infused Massage Oil for Pain
- 1 cup Oil (any good quality oil will do, coconut or olive is best since they are probably the most easy to get)
- 1-4 tablespoons Chili puree or powder
- Sunny windowsill
Throw it all in the jar, and seal it tightly. Put it on a windowsill shaking it daily for 7-14 days, the longer the stronger here. Then strain, and store in a dark bottle. This is a great massage oil for bringing heat and circulation to painful or stiff areas, allowing the muscles to relax. It is also a great way to ease the pain of stiff joints or lower back pain, as well as topical nerve pains. You can add peppermint oil for a cooling effect and increase the effectiveness of it relieving muscle pain and spasms.
- 1-4 tablespoons Chili puree or powder
- 1 cup Alcohol (vodka or grain alcohol)
Throw it all in the jar, and let it sit for a few weeks about 3-4, but give it a shake every day or so when you remember. Strain and store in a dark bottle as well. A drop or two on the skin and rubbed in can be a good local joint or muscle pain reliever. Also, if you have a cold, a drop or two under the tongue, or even in some lemon tea is a great way to get a stuffed nose flowing.
I have also heard of people putting a small sprinkle of chili powder in their socks to keep feet warm in winter even, which I am not sure I could get into trying that. But if you are going to be out for a long time in the cold, it is a sure way to make sure blood keeps going to those areas. You could use the oils or the salve to do the same as well, but seeing how we don’t have a lot of snow this isn’t something I have been able to test out.
Again, respect the chilies and they will be your friend. But if you are careless you will have instant regrets for your foolhardy ways, as the burn is a great teacher of limits. If you have allergies or are on medications, checking places like WebMD first is a good place to start for if this is the right remedy for you. Do those test patches, listen to your body and know your limits. This stuff is NOT a toy. Do your own research, and if you are in doubt in the slightest, ask a professional!