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30 august 2017

Heather Arndt Anderson's Chillies is a welcome addition to the Reaktion Edible series. Chilies (sorry, I can't get used to the two-l spelling) were covered in Fred Czarra's Spices in 2009, but had to share the stage with the "warm" Old World spices. The New World spicy nightshades deserve a book of their own: in the past century, they have become the dominant flavor note of globalized food culture.

I love chili peppers, but I don't cook with them anymore. My partner finds them inedible, so I must eat them only at restaurants, which isn't often. Every few weeks I have the vendors at the ballpark throw a few jalapeños onto my nachos or my baked potato, or I pump a little Cholula onto a hotdog. If I fix an omelet just for myself, I may fold a slice of Fuego Colby into the eggs. I sometimes miss cooking with harissa and piri-piri and habañero … but truth be told, I'm not as young as I used to be, and my tolerance of searing sauces is declining annually.

The hottest thing I ever ate was the first really hot thing I ever ate. As Anderson notes, "repeated exposure decreases both the palate's sensitivity to capsaicin and one's perception of risk" (98), so my experience is probably common: nothing after your first insane chili-pepper experience is ever quite so dramatic. In my case, the initiation came from a vindaloo that I ate in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1980. I thought I'd been poisoned. In fact, capsaicin (the signature component of chili hotness) is an evolutionary analogue to plant toxins, "deterring herbivory" (14). Well, it didn't deter me. Each succeeding vindaloo got easier and easier to eat – until, as I said, I hit middle age and they got a little bit harder each time.

Chilies are remarkable in that they have gone from New World origins to inseparability from so many Old World foodways, in just a few human lifetimes. Anderson writes that chili peppers, so easy to grow in a wide range of climates, easily spread away from human settlements, to the point where Africa featured a range of essentially feral chili varieties not long after Europeans introduced the plants (59). One cannot imagine Sichuan and Hunan cooking without hot peppers – or Korean, or Thai, or Indian, or South African, or for that matter Hungarian, Greek, and Italian.

The ancestor of most domesticated chilies has survived. That's it in the photo: the chiltepin, native to the American Southwest / Mexican Northwest, and cheerfully perennial in a pot on my patio. Tepin peppers are really small and really hot, and this means that in our garden they're only ornamental. By the same processes of domestication that turned scrawny seedheads into majestic ears of corn, Native Americans turned the chiltepin into a range of edible peppers, including the spiceless (and often tasteless) supermarket bell pepper. Much nicer are anaheims, poblanos, and Hatch chilies, though their unpredictable heat makes them risky ventures if you're trying to finely calibrate the Scovilles in your favorite recipe.

Scoville units, the bragging chits of chili-heads the world over, are named after an American researcher from a century ago, Wilbur Scoville, who devised a simple test for spicy aggressiveness. Add a drop of sugar water to a standardized amount of pepper extract. If you can still taste the capsaicin, add another drop. A thousand drops will neutralize jalapeño. A million will take care of ghost pepper. Bell pepper has a Scoville of zero; you don't have to add anything.

The Scoville scale is intuitive and elegant, if somewhat subjective. It also suffers from exponential surfeit. It may be interesting to know that habañero (and tepin!) are a hundred times hotter than jalapeño, and that ghost pepper is ten times hotter than habañero. But if you start crying at anything spicier than smoked paprika, these differences are completely academic.

Anderson includes not only a truly global chronology of the chili pepper, but also excurses on chilis as medicines and weapons. Her section of chili-pepper recipes is somewhat standard: chili con carne, goulash, kung pao chicken, kimchi stew. Standard, but only by the lights of a globalized food culture that has dispersed chilis abroad and now seems intent on re-collecting all their diverse magic in any city big enough to have restaurants and supermarkets.

Anderson, Heather Arndt. Chillies: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2016.