The other day I was chatting with my mate Tim about his notoriously low tolerance to chilli. A certified aromaphobic*, he’d recently had an unfortunate experience with a pork banh mi. The offending roll had been sneakily slathered in sriracha sauce, leaving him unable to break wind without fear for a good four days. Curious, I asked precisely how low his tolerance was. “The butter chicken at Saffron made me cry” he replied.
Now, that may sound a tad wussy, but how much kick you want from your curry is actually to do with your body’s resistance to capsaicin, the naturally occuring chemical that gives peppers their heat. A beastly little compound on its own, in small amounts it clears the sinuses, releases endorphins and enhances the flavour of a multitude of cuisines.
In 1912 an American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville devised the Scoville Scale as a means of measuring the spiciness of food (known as its ‘pungency’) and ultimately the gestational resistance of competitive chilli-eaters. He first dried the chilli he wished to measure then soaked it in alcohol. He then placed said chilli in a solution of sugar water and repeatedly diluted it until a panel of testers could no longer detect it. At the conclusion of this process, the chilli was assigned a rating of Scoville Heat Units, or SHU.
As recently as 1992 The New Yorker magazine stated that five thousand SHUs “would be considered very hot by most people, but even that is piddling compared with the blistering fury of the habanero pepper, which can reach three hundred thousand.” In fact, the red variety can reach over five hundred thousand SHU, however for a select bunch of mad bastards out there that’s not even worth sprinkling on your stir fry.
The past decade or so, chilli ‘breeders’ have been using scientific laboratory techniques and Mary Shelly-esque cross breeding programs to push the limits of human gastranomic endurance ever further. Known as ‘superhots’, these varieties are genetically engineered to make one seriously question one’s life choices, and whether or not the mucus lining of the throat is truly essential.
So let’s take a quick look at a selection of the popular ones, beginning with the tamest of the bunch before making our way up the Scale towards the inevitable capsaicin apocalypse.
SUMMER SWEETNESS TO DANTE’S INFERNO IN 12 STEPS
- Capsicum: 0 SHU
Also known as bell peppers, these crunchy salad dwellers and pizza toppers have zero capsaicin content, despite confusingly being named after it. Sweet and fleshy, the humble capsicum is technically a fruit (seeds on the inside), as are all chillies. Dried and ground to powder, capsicum becomes the supremely agreeable paprika. Lop the top off, scoop out the seeds, stuff with spiced mince and vegetables and roast in the oven.
- Anaheim: 500 – 2,500 SHU
Named for the once-sleepy town in Orange County, California where it is grown, Anaheim seeds were first brought from Mexico by a farmer named Emilio Ortega in the early 1900s. (And that was about the most exciting thing that happened to the people of Anaheim until the mid-fifties when a fellow named Walt Disney decided their town would make an excellent spot for a theme park.) The peppers are green, mild and an excellent substitiute for jalapeños if you’re not sure how to pronounce ‘jalapeño’. Delicious in salsas or a green rice marinade.
- Jalape.o: 2,500 – 8,000 SHU
These slightly peppery, sweet staples of all fine Mexican chain restaurants are mild compared to most of the other items on this list, astoundingly so when you hear they’re the most popular pepper in the USA, a nation that prides itself on chilli tolerance. There aren’t many more varieties to follow that you can stuff with cream cheese, wrap in bacon and consume in bulk without regretting it two hours later. And for the record, it’s pronounced ‘halla-pen-yo’, not ‘jala-pee-no’. Top your tacos and burritos.
- Chipotle: 5,000 – 8,000 SHU
These shrivelled little guys are from the same plant as jalapeños, but are the red variety (which makes for a slightly spicier finish), and once harvested are smoke-dried using an early form of Mesoamerican food preservation. The flesh of the fruit is too thick to dry properly in the sun, unlike other chile peppers, so they adapted a smoke-drying process usually used to preserve meat. Which is why they’re so darn tasty in a smoky BBQ sauce and slathered over prime ribs. Mix with mayo for instant hipster heaven.
- Tabasco: 30,000 – 50,000 SHU
Where would a bloody mary be without a couple of drops of Tabasco? The pepper itself is named for its place of origin, the Mexican state of Tabasco, with the popular condiment launching in 1869. Fermented in bourbon barrels for three years, the sauce has been produced exclusively by the McIlhenny family for six generations on Avery Island, South Louisiana. It is one of the few US companies to have received a royal warrant of appointment as a supplier to Queen Elizabeth II, which presumably adds a little zip to official dinners at the Palace. Spice up your spag bol.
- Cayenne: 30,000 – 50,000 SHU
We’re starting to warm up a bit now. In its powdered form, cayenne pepper gives a considerable kick to any sauce you care to add it to. It is named for the French Guinean city where its first documented use was found, and in the early 1900s was prescribed to cure all sorts of maladies from arthritis to toothaches to depression. Too much of a good thing and you may need a quiet few minutes in a dark room. Sprinkle on your steak.
- Bird’s eye: 100,000 – 225,000 SHU
Don’t be fooled by the cute name, it’s way sharper than you’d think. My mate recieved one as a garnish atop his Thai green curry at the local pub once, and dared me to eat it whole, seeds and all. I managed half of it before my vision blurred and I lost all muscle control, sliding gracefully off my stool onto the floor and lying there, twitching and quietly hiccupping. A short trip to ringburn when consumed in large quantities. Snazzy up your stir fry.
- Scotch Bonnet: 150,000 – 325,000 SHU
These little devils are native to Jamaica and are deceptively piquant. A couple of weeks ago my associate Laverne gave me a hug right after chopping one without gloves on; barely seconds later a prickling heat began to rise on my shoulder blades where Scotchy fingers had brushed bare skin. Within a few minutes my whole body was aflame and I was begging to be carried outside and hosed down. It took prolonged scrubbing with a cold flannel to put the fire out. Punch a hole in the wall with your chilli con carne.
- Red Habanero: 350,000 – 575,000 SHU
Quite possibly the inspiration behind the term ‘farting sparks’, a habenero chilli sauce offered as a condiment is to be approached with extreme caution. Thought to be the hottest chilli on earth up until the creation of superhots, the habanero stings like a hot slap to a cold face. Pair with sweet fruits like mango and pineapple.
- Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper): 1,001,300 SHU
Hailing from India and the pointy end of the Scoville Scale, Bhut Jolokias are 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. Just think about that the next time you experimentally touch the tip of your tongue to the rim of a condiment bottle. This demonic pod of tears and regret was cited in the Journal of Emergency Medicine after some dimwitted nut scoffed an entire burger laced with BJ puree. Within minutes, crippled with abdominal pain, retching and vomiting, he was rushed to hospital where surgeons found a 2.5 cm hole seared through his oesophagus. Wear gloves and protective clothing.
- Trinidad Scorpion: 1,463,700 SHU
If you’re staunchly patriotic, of a particularly foolish temperament and fancy going nuclear, this was ranked the hottest pepper in the world before being dethroned by #12 in 2013. Developed by Aussie couple Neil and Charlotte Smith of the Hippy Seed Company, you can actually power a medium-sized ocean-going vessel with the seeds alone. They also sell chilli lollies (Ring Stingers) and, ironically, a pain-relieving capsaicin cream cheerfully named Chill- Ease, presumably to deal with the back-end radioactive fallout. You will hallucinate. And not in a fun, hippy, Woodstock kind of way.
- Carolina Reaper: 2,200,000 SHU
Specifically bred to claim the world record, this raging sulfuric hellfire is a hybrid created by Ed Currie (something of a mad scientist when it comes to chillies) of the Puckerbutt Pepper Company. A monstorous fusion of bhut jolokia and red habanero, the tip of the pepper, which unsettlingly resembles a scorpion sting, has very little heat. Unfortunately, this is the bit that people nibble first and are thus lulled into a false sense of security. The second bite, bigger, braver and stupidly confident, is directly into the vein where the bulk of the heat is concentrated. Update your will, notify your loved ones and prepare to see through time.
THE WILBUR SCOVILLE BONUS: Standard US-Grade Pepper Spray: 5,300,000 SHU
Were you to try eating pepper spray, you’d probably realise 0.0000027 seconds in that it was an exceedingly stupid thing to do. More than twice as powerful as the Reaper, this is the reason it’s so very disagreeable when discharged in your face. Pure Capsaicin: 16,000,000 Pure chilli essence, our little mate is downright nasty when not wrapped in a perky Scotch Bonnet or sweet ‘n’ spicy jalapeño.
Pure capsaicin is colorless, highly pungent and is ironically used for pain relief, which you are absolutely going to need if you accidentally ingest some. Interestingly, birds are immune to capsaicin, and are therefore both excellent at and essential for the dispersal and propogation of all varieties of pepper seeds.
Pure Rediniferatoxin: 16,000,000,000 SHU
This ultrapotent analogue of capsaicin can inflict a severe chemical burn when exposed to bare skin. Should you try sprinkling some on your taco it’s worth knowing that less than a millionth of a gram can kill you outright, or at least leave you feeling very, very sorry for yourself indeed for the next few days.
SOOTHE THE BURN If you’ve had a nibble on something a bit beyond your range, avoid likely sounding liquids such as beer or water; they only spread the burn. Capsaicin pungency can only be soothed by casein protein, found abundantly in dairy products like milk and greek yoghurt
*Fear of spices and spicy food