Chillies: Pleasure and Pain
And a Recipe: Double Pleasure—Chocolate-Clad Crystallised Chillies
It burns, but we brush aside the warnings. We ignore the Greek-chorus wailing coming from that evolutionary marvel of gustatory discernment—our tongue-scape’s tight huddle of taste buds. We must surrender to gastronomic masochism, to the irresistible twin-peak experience of sensory delight. We must yield to the simultaneous pleasure and pain of the Americas’ fiery gift to the world—to the chilli.
Ready to surrender again to that pleasure-pain experience, in my early twenties at a bustling Indian restaurant in London’s Soho, I scanned the menu and ordered a Madras. I expected the near-bearable heat I’d trained myself to tolerate in Australia. Back home, my crowd of friends took absurd pride in both cooking and ordering curries and chilli dishes of such blistering heat that flavor was rendered almost undetectable—not much more than texture, temperature and the burn remained. Friends competed for the highest burn tolerance. So did I.
That London night, my status as a volcanic-chilli-heat-withstander evaporated. From the first forkful, the heat was beyond blistering. I was undone, my composure shot, reduced to gulping water that brought no relief. I scraped back my chair and made for the door, staggering wordlessly into the balmy summer night, crimson-faced and panting, eyes streaming, hands frantically fanning my gaping, flaming mouth. Whimpering, I sank onto the gutter’s edge, my body’s self-protective systems on red alert, shrieking disapproval. Someone from our table, barely holding back a smirk, brought out a glass of lemonade that also didn’t work. The pain took hours to subside. I learned from this indignity. I’m a proud poster girl for ‘once burned, twice shy’—mild over blazing is now my choice.
And yet, many humans—alone among animals—still seek and worship the burn. The insane love affair’s run hot for millennia; I blame our tendency to minimise past pain memories—after all, women keep giving birth. The earliest chilli adopters were Central and South Americans of 7000 years ago—traces of capsaicin (the burn juice) survive in their ancient cooking pots. But until Columbus and company hauled up canvas in Spain in 1492 and sailed the Atlantic to find a faster route to the West Indies, and to keep a lookout for plunderable new lands—black pepper was the queen of culinary heat. Prized for both heat and medicinal properties, it had reigned in its native Asia and India for a couple of thousand years, and eventually became all the rage in Europe. But the good-looking newcomer from the New World soon toppled pepper’s supremacy, colonising the Old World within fifty years of Columbus and Portuguese traders carrying it home for cultivation. Chillies—in myriad sizes, shapes, and positions on the Scoville Heat Units register—remain wildly popular plant immigrants with a 500-year history of global incorporation into local cuisines.
Chillies are captivating at every stage of growth—tender bright green leaves; innocent-looking upside-down starry blooms; dazzling kaleidoscopically coloured fruit in sensuous, glossy, smooth-skinned forms that beg to be handled and admired; the creamy confetti of round seeds within. They seduce and delight—the mere sight of a sweet little potted chilli on a windowsill in winter can banish cold-weather blues.
Twenty-first century recipe books and the internet abound with chilli recipes—enough to tantalise and satisfy the world’s appetite for these exotic South Americans. Food manufacturers know we’re hooked. They cash in on the obsession, lining boutique food-store and specialty supermarket shelves with niche products like hot sauces—some with ominous names like Pain is Good, Red River of Death, No Joke, Mother Puckers, and Gib’s Bottled Hell. Thrill seekers and wannabe thrill seekers pay premium prices to hurt themselves and to tell the tale.
Most adult mouths have met a chilli at least once. Chillies can polarise us into aficionados or avoiders. Can unite or divide families and friends. Can sort the upright and sensible from the insatiably curious and reckless. Wherever you lie on the scale, almost everyone has a chilli-eating story to tell. Invite friends over for a chilli-fest and share those stories.
And keep the door ajar. Unsuspecting chilli neophytes may need to stagger outside to cool off in the night air.
Article by Susie Surtees
Photography by Susie Surtees
Following recipe by Susie Surtees
Double Pleasure—Chocolate-Clad Crystallised Chillies
South America delivers double pleasure in this sublime treat that takes time and patience. But crisp, transparent, scarlet ribbons of sugared chilli clad in dark chocolate make a memorable marriage worth creating—sweet and hot make a fine pairing.
200g long narrow red chillies—of a heat you can bear
200g white sugar
400g good quality dark cooking chocolate
Make them this way
First, slice off the chillies’ green stems. Then bisect each chilli lengthways, and use a teaspoon to scoop out (and discard) the seeds, working from the narrow end to the wide. Slice each chilli in half lengthwise, then line up all the quarters and cut across the centre of the entire pile—each chilli is now in eight pieces.
About halfway through preparing the chillies, heat the sugar and water on a low heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Just before you add the chillies, bring to a boil, and stir to dissolve the sugar.
Once you add the chillies, reduce the heat and simmer on low for about 30 minutes. Use an extractor fan—the capsaicin releases and can make you sneeze! Keep an eye on them—it may take less time. The syrup will thicken and begin to colour just a little—yes, we want this—but depending on the heat of your stove, it may start browning and over-thickening. Remove from heat when ready.
Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350˚F . Working quickly and wearing thin rubber gloves, start fishing out the chilli ribbons with your fingers and lay them out on a small-mesh cooling rack placed over a large flat cookie tray. They will stick to the gloves and to each other and patience is called for, so keep a small bowl of water nearby for dipping your gloved fingers into while you work. If the syrup starts hardening, return the pan briefly to a low heat to liquefy again. You should end up with a large cake rack covered with the chilli ribbons, which should preferably not be touching. Place the rack and tray in the oven for a few minutes to harden and crisp the sugared chillies. Watch carefully—the chillies can darken and burn quickly.
Let the chillies cool—it doesn’t take long. Break up the chocolate and melt it in a heatproof jug or bowl in a microwave oven at half power, stopping to stir it several times. It should only take a few minutes, but microwave ovens vary. Make sure you don’t overheat the chocolate—it can become irreparably lumpy and you want it silken smooth.
Using a metal spatula, gently prise the cooled, dried chillies from the rack and place them in a bowl. Now you have two choices.
For those whose patience is wearing thin with all this cutting and laying out, you can use the end of a rolling pin or a masher to smash the chillies—but not too finely. Add them to the chocolate and mix together. Spread the mixture thinly over greaseproof (parchment) paper on a cookie tray and turn it into chilli-chocolate bark you can break into pieces of any size with your fingers. Or choose a smaller container lined with foil for a more substantial block you can take to with a knife.
For those whose aesthetics forbid this quick method, the final step is to dip each chilli ribbon in chocolate, placing them in rows on greaseproof (parchment) paper on a cookie tray. Double dip when the chocolate’s hard if there’s leftover chocolate.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature.
Don’t expect them to last long.
Recipe by Susie Surtees