Monday, August 8, 2011

Hot Peppers

Capsaicin molecule, courtesy Wikipedia.


The molecule pictured above may look like a simple technical drawing, but this molecule means pain to all who encounter it.  Capsaicin is the active ingredient in hot peppers, and represents somewhat of a fascinating topic to me.

While my understanding of this molecule's chemistry is somewhat limited, I will discuss it briefly here.  You can see various oxygen atoms, along with one nitrogen.  This often means that the molecule may be dissolved in water.  However, as you peer through your monocle at this article, you will also note that they are a minor part of the overall organic molecule.  I will note that I use "organic" in the technical sense, in that the molecule contains carbon bonded to hydrogen (lines here represent carbon-carbon bonds, and it is assumed that hydrogen fills out the rest of the available bonding sites).  This molecule will bind to pain receptors in mammals, activating them despite the absence of a real threat to the organism.  The consequence of the organic structure of this molecule is that milk and yogurt will help those eating spicy foods.  The fats in dairy will dissolve this molecule and carry it to the stomach.

In the natural world, this amazing molecule is found in the Capsicum genus, the plants we know as peppers.  Sweet bell peppers have little to none of this molecule, but most other chilies (the "hot" peppers) will have comfortable levels to monocle-dropping amounts.  This, of course, leads to the question of how to measure the quantity of capsaicin in a pepper.  The Scoville scale, measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), remains the only real measure we have to answer this question.  The chemist Scoville designed this test to take one drop of an alcohol-based extraction of the fiery peppers, then systematically adding equal parts of [saturated] sugar water until the spice was no longer detectable by a panel of judges.  The current method of testing removes the human element, and utilises High Performance (or "Pressure", depending on where you learned about it) Liquid Chromatography, HPLC. Simply, HPLC measures the actual concentration of capsaicin in a pepper sample, and normalises it ["makes it fit with"] the classical Scoville scale.  Either way, sweet peppers represent zero on the scale, while purified (a.k.a. "weaponised") capsaicin measures about 16,000,000.  All other peppers are found somewhere in the middle.

The habanero pepper, ~200,000 SHU

As someone who enjoys gardening, I have found great delight in growing a specific cultivar of the habanero, the Caribbean red habanero (~400,000 SHU).  Initially, I was looking to experiment with a useful plant which could be grown indoors.  Since my girlfriend and I enjoyed cooking with store-bought hot peppers, I thought it would be interesting, perhaps fun, to grow some of my own.  The clerk at Thrasher's in Belleville, Ontario was incredibly helpful, pointing me to the [incorrectly labelled] "hottest pepper in the world".  I thought this would be perfect, all I would need was one tiny pepper to a large batch of spaghetti sauce!  I was correct.  In fact, I learned that it needed to be a large batch, especially if the seeds were not removed.  What I did not realise was that I had purchased a pepper that, while not the hottest in the world, was incredibly flavourful.  After some practice, I produced a batch of spaghetti sauce which was heavily complimented by my apartment-mates.  The Caribbean red has a remarkable fruity flavour, it is truly astonishing how pronounced it is as such a minor constituent in spaghetti sauce.  I was surprised, especially after my North American upbringing had only exposed me to jalapeno peppers (~5,000 SHU), the flavour of which I do not care for.

This delicious flavour, as it happens, is part of an evolutionary strategy of the Capsicum genus.  For reasons I do not quite understand, it is considered not desirable from an evolutionary standpoint to have the seeds of a plant scattered near to the parent.  Land-based organisms such as mammals are then ill-suited to carry and eliminate capsicum seeds.  By comparison, birds which eat the seeds and excrete indiscriminately (I like that phrase), are ideal candidates for spreading the seed.  The plants then have evolved with capsaicin which will deter mammals but not birds.  As a result, you may coat your bird seed with said molecule.  Birds will love it, but pests will find the seed extremely uncomfortable.  As an aside, humans are the only mammals known to eat these peppers.  It is theorised that the adrenaline rush we receive releases "feel-good" hormones, and encourages us to continue eating them.  Leave it to humans to engage in such foolishness.  For the record, when I have eaten scotch bonnet (100,000-250,000 SHU range) peppers on their own, I laugh an awful lot and have a wonderful time, save for the pain.

An unripe Bhut Jolokia pepper (~1,000,000 SHU)

As a result of this foolish behaviour, businesses may thrive on people who wish to torture themselves for a somewhat-natural high.  Breeding experiments are rampant to make the hottest of hot peppers.  From extremely hot, naturally occurring peppers such as the Bhut Jolokia of India (pictured above) around one million SHU, the current hottest pepper according to the Guinness Book of World Records is the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T (which appears to be a location, then manly/scary words), which is just south of 1.5 million SHU.  I remain doubtful this will last given the current pace of things.  A quick Google search will turn up many pictures of this pepper, and YouTube has many a video of deliberate eating of, and pranks involving the Bhut Jolokia.

As it stands, I am pro-pepper.  I have a Caribbean red (of Capsicum chinese family, a lovely cultivar of the usual habanero) which is currently flowering, and a "Super chilli", which appears to be a random cultivar of the Capsicum annuum family designed to produce ~30,000 SHU peppers in a large supply.  As of yesterday, I also possess a Bhut Jolokia pepper, the seeds of which I intend to keep and grow.  I also hope to make a good batch of spaghetti sauce, I have heard the bhut is very flavourful, though I am slightly frightened of my purchase.  Its skin is bright red and has a bumpy/rough texture, as if Satan himself resides in the pepper.  Hopefully the $2 was worth it.  Should I fail to post again, dear reader, assume I died a spicy, spicy death.


Edit: I lived.  While I did not make spaghetti sauce, the Bhut Jolokia chili con carne was delicious!