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Some Like it Hot

Variety may or may not be the spice of life but cayenne pepper is definitely the spice of many a world cuisines, including Burmese. Favoured for its deceptively mild aroma but fiery hot taste, it’s widely used in Mexican and Cajun (French) cuisines and lately has become a staple spice in many a hearty and spicy dishes of Asia as well.  Chefs worldwide often swear by the spice. Vikas Khanna, the Michelin starred Indian restaurateur, and cookbook writer says, “In India, it is simply called chili powder, but I use cayenne pepper in all my recipes as it adds a spicy flavor to most dishes”. For most, cayenne pepper works like magic as it can just turn a dish from plain boring to really mouth watering – be it early mornings omelets or late night  chocolate creamy desserts.

 Cayenne pepper or (Capsicum annuum and also chili or chilli pepper) is actually the rusty red pepper powder that you see in spice jars and which lends a healthy punch to all the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Though it got its name (also called Guinea spice) from Cayenne – the capital city of French Guiana (an overseas region of France on the northeast coast of South America)  where it was first discovered, but its origin can be traced to Central and South America (Mexico, in particular). It is also believed that Columbus found cayenne peppers in the Caribbean islands and brought them to Europe. French colonists and their descendants came to Latin America in early 17th century. Other European settlers also came to Mexico from Spain, England, Italy and Germany bringing with them their food traditions. But soon they realized that they had to change their cooking and eating styles to use the products that were available in the hot and sultry Mexican climate. Native foods such as beans, chili peppers,  tomatoes, avocados, cocoa and corn were introduced to the European cooking, to which they added meats from domesticated animals, cheese and many other herbs, edible flowers, vegetables and spices. And thus, Mexican cuisine became a complex fusion of cooking styles with European influence on it. Spanish elements dominated the cuisine after the 16th century due to Spanish conquest of Aztec Empire. Today, cayenne chili pepper is cultivated around the world but most commercial production takes place in China, Spain, Turkey, Mexico and Nigeria.

Capsaicin is the substance in any type of peppers that makes them hot. The same ingredient provides medical benefits, too. Almost all species of chilli peppers are hot but how does one know the ‘heat’ of a particular type? Scoville heat units (SHU) measure the ‘heat’ of a chili pepper. While red and green bell peppers rank at zero Scoville units, Habaneros burns out at 300,000 Scoville units and jalapeños at 3,000–6,000 Scoville units. Cayenne pepper ranks between 30,000 and 50,000 SHU.  Pure capsaicin rating at 16,000,000 Scoville units can be anybody’s nightmare. The Naga Jolokia (a type of pepper grown in Indian state of Assam, also called ghost pepper) measuring at 855,000 Scoville units competes with the red Savina Habanero, measuring 577,000 units, also known as the world’s hottest pepper.

Mexican food is world famous for being hot and spicy. In fact, extensive use of cayenne pepper makes it so. Mexicans’ love for the chilli is so great that once the 16th-century Spanish historian and social reformer Bartolomé de las Casas wrote, “Without cayenne pepper, the indigenous people did not think they were eating”. Even today, most Mexicans believe that their national identity would be lost without including cayenne. In Mexican tacos, sopes, tortas, soups, and tlacoyos, – main flavor is that of cayenne pepper. Sautéed strips of chili called rajas are popular throughout the nation. Several types of tomato-based salsas (sauces) are made with cayenne pepper only. They are typically spicy, ranging from mild to extremely hot.

Ferdinand Magellan introduced cayenne pepper from Mexico to Africa and Asia. Credit for making Moroccan food mouth watering and ever-worldly could be given to cayenne pepper along with cinnamon and ginger. Medicinally also, these spices proved to be effective in fighting bacteria, reducing high fevers, and improving the over-all immune system. Moroccan spice souks are a rainbow of colours from which deep red of felfla (cayenne pepper) stands out from the rich golden yellow of turmeric and warm beige of cumin. Although most Moroccan spices are imported from the East but felfla is indigenous.

In most Burmese dishes, cayenne pepper is used in a coarsely grounded form. It is used in several types of marinades, dips, spicy curries, soups and ginger ale. Japanese realized the nutritional and medicinal benefits of cayenne pepper early. Known for their health-conscious nature, they prefer fresh, light and very less-spicy food, particularly seafood. Traditionally, spices are used sparingly and if used at all, fragrant spices are used. Japanese introduced the versatile cayenne pepper to flavor the dishes (mainly seafood) and cure ailments. Cayenne pepper reduces blood cholesterol, platelet aggregation and was considered very healthy for various stomach problems, cramps, and diseases of the circulatory system. Japanese prefer their food very aromatic, healthy and tasty and to make it so, they sprinkle cayenne pepper over noodle and nabe (communal one-pot meals) dishes. Jimmy Golmei, the Japanese chef at The Oberoi is proud to serve his guests the Mediterasian Omelette con Peppers. He says that this is an omlette to remember which is made with eggs with some crumbled tomato-basil feta cheese and slight spice crunchy cayenne peppers. He says, “I prefer using cayenne pepper as a condiment and not as spice, because it enhances the taste of sardines, crayfish, scallops, crab and other seafood. Besides, grilled meats, noodles, rice, and soups that so characterize Japanese cooking also become very tasty with a pinch of it”.

Filipino Chef Leah Cohen explains the secret of making a dish spice up by adding a bit of cayenne pepper by saying that next time you make corn bread recipe give it an extra spark using cayenne pepper or mix a little cayenne pepper with healthy sautéed vegetables to turn up the spice volume or add minced chilli peppers to yogurt or simply use it as a condiment or as a spicy dip.