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Need some new cooking inspiration? Tired of cooking the same thing over and over?  Come learn some new menus ideas that can be prepared in under 30 minutes. Check out October’s cooking class – I would love to teach you how to cook healthy, nutritious food that doesn’t take long and is easy on your budget!

Now onto today’s Spice of Life – Chillies!


Lost in Translation

Christopher Columbus and his conquistadors created centuries of confusion by naming all the spices they discovered pepper, pimiento. They could be forgiven for their botanical confusion had they not added to the confusion by calling all the natives they met ‘Indians’. Remember, he used the Queen of Spain’s money to find pepper, so when he first encountered chillies, he returned with a little round green variety now called ‘cascabels’.  They may have not reached maturity, and may indeed, have tasted like peppercorns.  If he called them ‘pepper’ he could at least claim some success for his discovery. In any event, pepper (piper nigrum) and chillies were now united by language and have remained together in the kitchen.

By the time Columbus had arrived in the Americas, chillies had migrated into the Caribbean from their original home, Mexico, all the way south to the tips of Chile and Argentina. Everywhere in Latin America, they play a central role in the kitchen.. They may be sweet, pungent or hot, green, yellow or red, large or small, smooth or wrinkled and are used fresh, dried or pickled.

They are classified into two groups of the genus Capsicum, C. annum and C. frutescens of the Solanaceae family to which the potato, tomato, eggplant and even tobacco all belong.  It would be really convenient if they each fell into one group like hot and mild, but Mother Nature is not so neat and tidy. Most of the world’s chillies are cultivated by seeds planted annually. If the perennials are allowed to survive longer than one year, they become smaller and lose their pungency.

I Bite!

It’s interesting to learn that the word ‘capsicum’ probably comes from the same root as capsule, caps, a box, … which encloses seeds. There are some who claim the Greek word capto is also involved. It means “I bite” !! To avoid confusion, the small hot capsicums are often called ‘chillies’ while the larger, mild ones are ‘sweet peppers’ or just capsicums. In Mexico, all capsicum are called ‘chillies’ but sweet peppers are also called ‘pimentos’. Sweet peppers are the favourite world wide, and in their dried and ground form become the mild spice, paprika. Here the name can get even more confusing since Germans call all peppers ‘paprika’.

Chillies are celebrated annually in places like Terlingua, Texas with the annual Chilli Cook-Off where aficionados vie with one another for America’s coveted chilli con carne crown. Danish chilli enthusiasts host their annual Chillifan festival in September. Brighton UK holds their annual Fiery Foods Festival, and at Copenhagen’s Fiery Fest (click for video) 1,000 people lined up to eat 1,000 ghost peppers. Ghost peppers, also known as Bhut Jolokia, recently knocked the fiery Scorpion pepper off the top of the list as the world’s hottest pepper.

Enter the Scoville Heat Rating

Chillies are measured by their pungency. This pungency is rated in Scoville units, a measurement that was invented by pharmaceutical chemist Wilbur Scoville in the early 1900s. The Scoville Organoleptic Test, better known as the Scoville Range documents the heat rating of Ghost Peppers is 855,000 to 1,041,427. Compare that to the common bell pepper with a Scoville heat rating of 0-600!

Peppers are prized for their flavour in cuisines around the world. What would Mole Poblano from Mexico be without them? Or Vindaloo from Goa without dried hot red chillies? Imagine China without Sichuan peppersThe Sichuanese even eat hot chilli sauce for breakfast, poured over noodles. China has overtaken India as both the world’s largest grower and exporter of chillies. It’s estimated that the Chinese chilli crop is over a million tons per year.

I’ll Drink to That!

Chillies are not only found in food but in drinks as well.  A Bloody Mary wouldn’t be the same without a few shakes of Tabasco Sauce. Tabasco chillies are used in the world famous Tabasco Sauce which also has a very interesting history. They come from Louisiana, near the delta of the Mississippi river at a place called Avery Island. In the aftermath of the civil war in the 1860s Edward McIlhenny had been a merchant banker who went bankrupt during the war. The fortune he left his family was greater than if he had remained a successful banker, all on account of chilli. Ripe red peppers are brought each day to the factory where they are mixed with salt from the local mines. Together they are ground into a mash, soaked in a  spirit vinegar and left in white-oak casks to age. Once fermentation starts, the casks bubble and gurgle. After three years, the hot Louisiana chlli sauce is inserted into those familiar bottles that let out a drop at a time. According to legend, in 1920 Fernand Petoit, a bartender at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, conceived the idea of chillies in vodka and created the Bloody Mary cocktail (one of my favourites!)

Today, chillies are not only eaten and drunk, but are used by the pharmaceutical industry in ointments. The hottest chillies are often found in those rubbed on aching muscles. Chillies are also used for curing stomach aches or flatulence.  Perhaps the most glorious medical moment came in 1937 when the Hungarian scientist Dr. Albert von Szent-Gyorgyi was awarded the Nobel prize for isolating vitamin C. His experiments were carried out on capsicums which proved to be rich in the vitamin.

Unfortunately his discovery came much too late for Columbus’ seafarers who were plagued with scurvy, which is caused by a vitamin C deficiency.  Little did they know the very cargo they were carrying could cure them of the disease.

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With the seasons changing from summer to autumn, there’s an abundance of apples at the markets. We just picked all the apples from the tree outside our flat and I’ve been making loads of apple butter, apple sauce and dehydrating apples to enjoy during the winter months.  This recipe requires no cooking, just eating.

Apple Ginger Salsa, an oil-free recipe

1-2 medium, unpeeled apples, cored and finely diced

1 red onion, finely diced

¼ cup fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root

1-2 piri piri chilli (available at the Asian shops)  – more or less to taste

½ cup chopped cilantro

generous pinch of salt, fresh ground black pepper

Place all ingredients in a bowl and stir. Taste and adjust seasonings. Let rest half an hour before serving. This will keep in the refrigerator however the colours are not so vibrant the second day. Makes approximately 2 cups.


Need some new cooking inspiration? Tired of cooking the same thing over and over?  Come learn some new menus ideas that can be prepared in under 30 minutes. Check out October’s cooking class – I would love to teach you how to cook healthy, nutritious food that doesn’t take long and is easy on your budget!