What is it with these darn chilies? by Paul Rest

Caroline Reapers WikipediaWhat is it with this craze about chilies? It seems that wherever one turns on a cable channel some food personality is attempting to blow his mouth and brain to kingdom come with some hot chili concoction. Just the other day a “top shelf” margarita was brought to my table with chili flakes in it. And the steak and salad ordered at a local steak house a few weeks ago arrived with fine chili powder sprinkled everywhere.

Now, I understand the logic from a restaurant’s perspective. Spicy food equals thirst, which in turn equals more drinks. Makes sense. But to me it’s beginning to get a little over-the-board, maybe even downright sneaky. The chili powder mentioned above was so fine you needed to really look closely. And here’s the restaurant’s logic at work:  Maybe your brain and palate would want you to think about what’s happening with the heat, but the food is so darn good so you just fast forward and order another glass of wine.

I have nothing against chilies. One of my most memorable food experiences was a long weekend in Tucson, Arizona. I had my first blue corn dishes and was in heaven. Plus mole sauces that were divine and I had the best tamales I’ve ever eaten. Wow, was everything great. And of course, chilies were and are part and parcel of that great Southwest cuisine. I knew what was coming and was ready. No secrets there. But, now it seems that these wonderful gifts from the gods are showing up unannounced and uninvited.

Chili peppers are a member of the nightshade family and originated in the Americas about 7500 years ago. None other than the intrepid explorer Christopher Columbus, who brought them to Europe, named them, calling them “peppers” because of the spice/heat reminded him of the pepper that he was familiar with from Europe. Portuguese traders took chili peppers west to India and the Orient. And as they say, the rest is history.

The heat from peppers is measured on in what is called “Scoville Heat Units.” On the low end, Banana Peppers rate 100 to1,000 SHU. On the high end, the Komodo Dragon Chili Pepper (among others) can measure between 855,000 to 2,200,000 SHU. The world champ is the “Carolina Reaper,” as in Grim Reaper for those brave enough to give this puppy a whirl.

For better or worse, chili peppers are everywhere now. Fast food chains, musical groups, and as I mentioned before, they are a constant ingredient in most food network shows. Supermarkets used to have one or two varieties of chili based hot sauces. Now, whole sections are devoted to chili based BBQ sauces, plain old hot sauces in dozens of varieties and flavors galore, plus the old standbys. We Americans seem to have fallen in love with chili peppers as much as the Aztecs did thousands of years ago when they mixed chilies with chocolate, water and cornmeal to make a refreshingly frothy drink.

My beef is I want to know what is going to be in my food. Most Chinese, Mexican and Thai restaurants have some indication noting a dish’s heat and/or spiciness. Unfortunately, this is not so elsewhere. I recently was served a Caesar Salad with that darn almost invisible chili powder sprinkled over it. I’m sorry but that is sacrilegious. It has yet to show up in my wine but I’m not taking any bets on this not happening.

So I have become a pain in the butt to my servers, asking them for exact information about what I’m ordering. I don’t even trust old standbys. A new sous chef might suddenly have a “chili moment” on a dish that has never seen any heat before. I wish I were like a lot of my friends who just say, “I can take the heat.” Like those with nut or other food allergies, I need to be careful with foods that are spicy. In talking to others, they all agree. They want to know. Even my most chili-crazed friends like to know (for bragging rights probably) how hot and spicy the dish is going to be.

Chilies are here to stay.  But don’t be afraid to ask.  If you want it hot and spicy, go for it. If you need to be cautious, ask questions and don’t be shy. Keep at it until you’re satisfied that you’re getting the straight scoop- even if the server needs to go back to the kitchen for clarification. The bottom line for our fascination with chilies is:  Enjoy, but don’t be afraid to be safe and ask.

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com.


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