How the Chile Became Hot

IN 2007, A mysterious cloud, more scent than smoke, bloomed in a small corner of the seedy turned swanky Soho district of London. People started coughing and tearing up. The fire brigade was summoned, buildings evacuated, roads blocked. For three hours, firefighters — equipped with compressed-air tanks and lung-demand valves, to protect them from noxious gases — scoured the neighborhood for the source of the potential bioterror attack. Finally, they broke into a Thai restaurant and emerged with a nine-pound pot of charred chiles. The chef had been interrupted while making nam prik pao, a jammy, earthy-sweet chile paste that may be deployed as a condiment or a dip, or spread straight on toast.

Chiles are fruits, borne by plants of the genus Capsicum and the family Solanaceae, popularly known as nightshades and often demonized for their supposed inflammatory effects on the human body. There are thousands of varieties of chiles: They are smoky, musky, grassy, woodsy, dark and brooding, tart and bright, with notes as wide-ranging as chocolate, licorice, tobacco, raisin, lemon, cherry and blackberry. But such nuances of flavor are sometimes lost in cultures that have no history of cooking with chiles and see them primarily as torture devices — vehicles of fierce, punishing, even mind-melting heat. (Not all chiles are that hot, nor does everyone register such heat in the same way; within the Thai culinary canon, nam prik pao, typically made with spur chiles, is considered strong in flavor but mild.)

Archaeologists have found evidence that chiles were harvested from the wild for cooking about 9,000 years ago in what is now Mexico and by 4100 B.C. had been domesticated for regular use in meals. Yet these peppers, indigenous to the Western Hemisphere and later embraced in Asia and Africa, were long treated as outsiders in North America and much of Europe — what we call the Western world. Although they arrived in Europe and were cultivated there beginning in the late 15th century, little trace of them may be found in cookbooks before the 18th and 19th centuries, when the elite allowed them into their kitchens, as chronicled by the French anthropologist Esther Katz.

For that matter, it’s only in recent years that Americans have begun to come around. Consumption per capita in the United States more than doubled from 1980 to 2020, according to a study published in Agronomy last year, with those who make chiles a regular part of their diet more likely to be nonwhite (a sign of the country’s changing demographics) and younger than 65, and/or to identify as “food explorers”: those who pride themselves on their interest in and knowledge of “top-notch” or “unique, gourmet, new or exotic” ingredients.

This portrait of the archetypal American chile eater might suggest that peppers, while perhaps coveted by sophisticates or as the objects of cult fascination, have not yet fully entered the mainstream. But in the first year of the pandemic, sales of hot sauce in the United States surged by 24.6 percent, as tracked by Nielsen data. With restaurants closed for indoor dining across much of the country, many Americans had only their own cooking to fall back on. They needed “a shortcut to flavor,” says Jing Gao, 35, of Fly by Jing, an American company whose marquee product is Sichuan chile crisp — a spicy, crunchy condiment of dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorns (berries from a shrub of the Zanthoxylum genus) — and which grew tenfold in size in 2020.

That April, The New York Times ran an article titled “Your Quarantine Cooking Needs Condiments,” highlighting Fly by Jing. Gao sold out half a year’s worth of inventory practically overnight. For the next four months, while negotiating supply-chain issues, the company maintained a waiting list of more than 30,000 potential customers. In a time of distress and isolation, when meals had become a retread of the old and familiar, that touch of heat was a small salvation: a flicker in the pulse, a smack of the jaw, a call back to life.

A trio of cayenne chiles with crushed cherries.Credit…Photographs by Patricia Heal. Prop styling by Leilin Lopez-Toledo

TECHNICALLY, HEAT IS not a flavor but a sensation (likewise the cooling brought on by menthol). A chile’s ferocity depends on the presence of the chemical compound capsaicin and its associate capsaicinoids, lurking in the flesh and pith. Since 1912, this concentration has been measured according to the Scoville scale, which was originally based on the amount of sugar water required to dilute an extract of chile before a tester detects not a hint of burn; today, scientists use high-performance liquid chromatography. Although conventional wisdom holds that removing the seeds before cooking reduces the heat, the seeds, in fact, contain no capsaicin. Theirs is mere guilt by association, as they may take on a coating of the compound in their proximity to the pith.

Capsaicin triggers TRPV1 receptors, the same ones that are primed to recognize temperatures above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, a baseline that may qualify as a brutal summer day but is not quite hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk or literally burn you. (In 2016, a case was reported of a man whose esophagus ruptured after he ate ghost peppers, among the most ferocious of chiles, but doctors determined that this was caused by retching and vomiting in response to the pain brought on by capsaicin, not by the capsaicin itself.) Scientists used to describe this effect as “irritation,” which seems a slightly dismissive word for the trembling sweats caused by too many habaneros (100,000 to 892,700 Scoville Heat Units) or the near-death experience of the Carolina Reaper, known to reach as many as 2.2 million S.H.U.s — more potent than some pepper sprays — and certified by Guinness World Records as the hottest chile on earth. Since 1990, our sensitivity to such substances has been called, less chidingly, chemesthesis.

But how can we properly describe an experience that is essentially a trick of the mind, a false cry of fire? It’s only an illusion of heat, and still we weep. After one significantly capsaicin-heavy meal, “I had to lie down because I felt high from it,” the American flavor scientist Arielle Johnson says. (Her book, “Flavorama: The Unbridled Science of Flavor and How to Get It to Work for You,” is due out next year.) The blessing is the aftermath, when a strange euphoria can set in, akin to the flooding of endorphins. Maybe eating chiles is a kind of catharsis, voluntarily putting ourselves through suffering in order to come out the other side, to restore our faith in a happy ending.

Notably, the more chiles we eat, “the less it hurts,” says Johnson, 35. Our minds stop insisting, “This is pain,” so we can pay more attention to actual taste, noticing, maybe for the first time, all the other flavors chiles bring to a dish, relegating flame to the backdrop.

From the perspective of evolution, capsaicin is a weapon, enabling chiles to thwart predators. The British cultural critic Stuart Walton, writing in “The Devil’s Dinner” (2018), points out that the hotter peppers are less vulnerable to fungus, which likely made them attractive to our primal ancestors as a food that stayed fresh longer. (It helped that chiles turned out to be vitamin rich, as well.) And because birds are unaffected by capsaicin, they could blithely eat chiles and then unknowingly disseminate the seeds, supporting not just the peppers’ survival but their proliferation — and, eventually, their conquest of the world.

For unlike the coveted spices of old like cloves and cinnamon, chiles didn’t require tropical environments to flourish. They weren’t anchored to a place that had to be pillaged and controlled; instead, they grew easily in their new homes, which meant they couldn’t be reserved for the rich or monopolized by traders as a high-priced rarity. So chiles never conferred status; rather, they eluded the capitalist system of value. A food of the people, they were adopted by commoners in Asia and Africa who ate them perhaps simply because they liked them.

In an added benefit, some cultures viewed chiles’ fervent properties as curative. Traditional Chinese medicine has long advocated ingredients that evoke heat, to help you sweat out and expel dampness — the fog that settles within, obstructing blood flow and leaving you achy and lethargic. And what have we lived through the past two years but a time of dampness, of blurred, soul-depleting days and stasis? Could chiles be the prescription for our age? “What is culture,” Johnson asks, “but a sensory experience you share with people around you?”

A Thai chile pepper, white onion and Atlantic salmon steak stacked on top of each other.Credit…Photograph by Patricia Heal. Prop styling by Leilin Lopez-Toledo

AT CHINTAN PANDYA’S fast-casual restaurant, Rowdy Rooster, which opened in New York’s East Village in February, fried chicken is offered at five spice levels, each an escalation on its predecessor. The penultimate, No. 4, is ravaging. Conversation ceases; gulps of Limca, the Indian-made lemon-lime soda, are required. No. 5, in comparison, is more rounded, with deep, earthy flavors that muffle the heat — or so it seems: Give it half an hour and your mouth goes up in flames.

Pandya, 42, only put three spice levels on the menu at first: Rebel (Hot), Rogue (Extra Hot) and Rowdy (Crazy Hot). But the majority of his customers insisted on ordering Rogue, to their regret. “One guy said, ‘It hurts my ego if I have to eat at the lowest level,’” Pandya recalls. So he added Rascal (Mild) and Ruffian (Medium), to frame Rebel as a reasonable but still daring option. It’s also the level he chooses for himself: “If I eat a 4 or 5, I find it difficult to taste anything else.”

The machismo of wanting to eat the hottest food possible — and to breed ever-hotter chiles to sate that desire (the Carolina Reaper entered the market in 2012) without necessarily caring about how they taste — is a fairly recent development, spurred in part by the YouTube phenomenon “Hot Ones,” which premiered in 2015 and earns millions of views per episode. The show is structured as a celebrity interview, but the real mission is to test, torment and humiliate the guest stars by making them eat chicken wings doused with a series of increasingly traumatizing hot sauces. You can hear the gleeful cackle in the episode titles: The victim of the day “Has a Tongue Seizure While Eating Spicy Wings,” “Sets His Face on Fire,” “Cries for Her Mom,” “Fears for Her Life.”

Gao credits the belated American passion for chiles to “the effect of globalization and all the heat in food coming from immigrant cultures.” Chiles landed in Virginia in 1621, courtesy of a British ship from Bermuda and identified only as “red pepper.” Eventually they wound up in some recipes for barbecue, a tradition that emerged from enslaved people. Mexican salsa made its way to supermarket shelves nationwide in the approximate form of Pace Picante sauce, created after the Second World War by David Pace, who, although not of Mexican descent, wanted to replicate the kind of hot sauce he found at taco shops in San Antonio, using locally harvested jalapeños (and even trying to grow them himself), as recounted by the architectural historian Mary Carolyn Hollers George in “Pearl Sets the Pace” (2020). In 1965, in the midst of a countercultural uprising that was questioning dominant narratives and seeking to expand consciousness of other cultures and cuisines, Pace decided Americans were ready to see Picante sauce not as a specialty ethnic product but as simply a condiment. It was a long bet that paid off: Campbell Soup bought Pace in 1995 for more than $1 billion.

By 1991, salsa was outselling ketchup in the United States, although the mass-produced jars still tended toward the affable and unthreatening. Today, corporations are looking for more febrile investments: McCormick & Company, the world’s industry leader in spice production, headquartered north of Baltimore, bought Frank’s RedHot Louisiana-style sauce (a cayenne-spiked collaboration between a Cincinnati spice merchant and a Cajun pepper farmer from the end of the First World War) in 2017 and Cholula (a hot sauce of arbol and piquín chiles, made in Jalisco, Mexico, from a recipe passed down through generations) in 2020.

But Gao suggests that America learned to tolerate heat thanks to the tempering sweetness of a different hot sauce, this one dating back to 1983: Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha, a concoction of red chiles, vinegar, sugar and garlic that is the color of a dying sun and sold in a now-iconic green-nozzled bottle. Its maker, David Tran, named his California-based company after a run-down freighter that in 1978 rescued more than 3,000 refugees — twice its passenger capacity, with Tran among them — from Vietnam. Two decades after its quiet, unadvertised launch, Sriracha became a household name, popularized by Asian American chefs, including David Chang in New York and Roy Choi in Los Angeles, the latter of whom squeezed the sauce over his kimchi-topped hot dogs, part of a brash new idiom of Asian cooking that simultaneously celebrated and flaunted tradition.

By 2019, Tran’s brand of Sriracha, despite imitators, commanded nearly 10 percent of the estimated $1.5 billion hot sauce market, and his factory in Irwindale was producing 12,000 bottles an hour. Nevertheless, in 2013, in an echo of the London nam prik pao incident, neighbors complained of noxious fumes. A lawsuit was filed — leading to a brief, partial shutdown — but eventually dropped. Still, the incident revealed that suspicions of chiles linger; the battle has not been wholly won.

A link of chicken sausage, resting on red habaneros and drizzled with Mr. Bing’s Chili Crisp, with chipotle chile powder scattered around the base.Credit…Photograph by Patricia Heal. Prop styling by Leilin Lopez-Toledo

THERE IS AN irony to the misgivings that greeted chiles in Europe in the late 15th century. Europeans have clamored for spice — for piquancy, something to enliven the dullness of their food — since at least the fifth century B.C., when the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of Arab traders bringing cinnamon from some unknown land, collected (or so the Greeks were told) from the nests of giant birds. The age of exploration, the first global corporations: Spice was the treasure on the far side of the map, a goad to invasion and domination. Christopher Columbus was hunting spice when he crossed the Atlantic in 1492 and observed chiles in the Caribbean (to him, the West Indies). Eliding botanical differences, he determined that the chile was not only a type of pepper but a worthy rival to black pepper (the unrelated Piper nigrum), “more abundant,” he wrote in his diary, adding, perhaps wishfully, “and more valuable.”

“Chile” is a borrowing from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, but as the French sociologist Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat notes in “A History of Food” (1987), the name that first took hold in Europe, as a result of Columbus’s attempt at marketing, was “pimiento,” a stronger “and therefore grammatically masculine” version of “pimienta,” black pepper. It was reportedly the Dutch who, after rising to dominate the black pepper trade in the 17th century, promoted the Nahuatl “chile,” wanting to protect the name and singularity of their product.

Seeds brought back from the Americas were soon bearing fruit in the monastery gardens of Spain. Still, while Europeans may have been intrigued by chiles, some found their potency vexing. The English herbalist John Gerard, author of the magisterial “The Herbal, or General History of Plants” (1597), detected in the pepper a “malicious quality, whereby it is an enemy to the liver and other of the entrails.” Some cooks tried to tame the peppers through a complex method of drying, chopping and mixing them with flour and yeast, then baking and finally crushing them, all in hopes of diminishing the heat, which was seen as an “inconvenience” when eating, in the words of the Italian friar Fra Gregorio da Reggio, the reigning chile expert of the region, as cited by the Hungarian historian Ottó Gecser in “Some Like It Hot: Piquant Taste Between the Middle Ages and Modern Times” (2019).

One notable exception to chile resistance was Hungary, where the peppers first appeared in the 16th century — gifts from Spain, according to written records, although some historians propose a secondary source: the invading Ottomans, who themselves are believed to have adopted chiles from India, introduced there by Portuguese explorers whose specimens were descendants of those grown in Spain from the first seeds taken from the Americas. In the 18th century, Hungarians created their own blend of chiles, named after the paprika peppers used to make it. The seasoning gained unexpected notoriety this past spring, when Dracula Daily, a Substack newsletter, began posting piecemeal (for the second year in a row) the entirety of the 1897 novel “Dracula,” by Bram Stoker. The book opens with Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor, en route to Transylvania — “leaving the West and entering the East,” he confides to his journal — to meet a new client, Count Dracula. After eating a paprika-suffused stew, he suffers a restless night of “queer dreams”: “It may have been the paprika, for I had to drink up all the water in my carafe, and was still thirsty.”

His turmoil confused some contemporary readers: Paprika as we know it today is harmless and sweet. The hashtag #paprika started trending on Tumblr as some mocked the hapless Englishman for quailing before such innocuous spice. But others argued that when the novel was written, there was no sweet paprika; only in the early 20th century did plant breeders in Hungary start taming and denaturing chiles through hybridization. In fact, milling techniques introduced in 1859 that expedited removal of the hotter parts of the chile had made sweeter blends widely available by the time innocent Harker would have encountered it. (More feverish versions persist, like one made with heirloom Szegedi 178 chiles from Hungary’s oldest paprika-producing region, sold in the United States by the spice company Burlap & Barrel.)

“Dracula” is fiction, but history intrudes. A plant that for thousands of years fed one people, in one part of the world, is now claimed by many, and not despite its heat but because of it. If the chile’s fire was once disdained as immoderation and effrontery, violating the propriety of the table, now that response is revealed for what it always was: You’re not curious, brave or tough enough. You just can’t handle the heat.

Digital tech: Maiko Ando. Photo assistant: Karl Leitz. Prop stylist’s assistant: Sam Salisbury

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