Capsaicin and capsaicinoids

Chilli Chemistry 101.

Here we go with the science behind why our mouths seem on fire when we eat chillies…

Individual chilli varieties, plants, pods and even parts of pods all contain varying amounts of capsaicinoids. These are the compounds responsible for the hot sensation when we eat chillies. Capsaicin is the main capsaicinoid found in chillies, although there are others. Inside a chilli fruit, the highest concentration of capsaicinoids can be found in the join between the membrane lining of the chilli wall and the whitish pith where the seeds are attached. This is where the capsaicin glands lurk, waiting to ambush an unsuspecting cook.

Each part of the chilli pod has different levels of capsaicin.

The capsaicinoid compounds share a significant quality. They are able to enter and alter the TRPV1 ion channel in mammals. They lock the receptors open until the capsaicinoid molecules have moved on. TRPV1 receptors are responsible for detection and regulation of body temperature over 42 degrees. The receptors can be found at many points within mammals bodies, and are particularly sensitive where there are mucus membranes. When we eat chillies, it is the TRPV1 receptors in our mouth that respond with the oh so familiar burning sensation. Capsaicinoids trick our body into thinking we have touched something dangerously hot.

Is it just chillies, or do other plants produce capsaicinoids?

There are some real bad ass plants out there. Resin Spurge (Euphorbia poissonii) for example produces a compound that is up to 1,000 times more potent than capsaicin. So pungent that even in tiny amounts it renders the recipient seriously neurologically damaged, and can be fatal. Luckily for chilliheads, capsaicin levels found naturally in chillies do not cause physical damage, just a physical response.

Resin Spurge Euphorbia poissonii

Another member of the Capsaicinoid Gang can be found in ginger: gingerol. It measures lower on the Scoville Scale than capsaicin which explains the milder seeming heat of ginger. It fact gingerol becomes even milder if cooked long or at a high temperature. Be warned though, as a gentle warming or drying of ginger can double the spiciness of gingerol.

Foodies will also be familiar with the aromatic heat of peppercorns. This is caused by a capsaicinoid called piperine. Perhaps it was the early love of piperine that allowed the capsaicin rich chillies to steal our hearts when they were finally unleashed on the old world.

There are also other capsaicnoids to be found in chilli peppers. Nonivamide is one of these. It is synthesised and used in the food industry to add pungency and heat. It is cheaper to do this than extract and use naturally occurring nonivamide or capsaicin. It is also the main constituent of pepper spray.

Why have capsaicinoids developed in plants?

Most people seem to agree that it is in the interest of deterring mammals. Plants do not want to be eaten by animals that will destroy their seeds. Simple but are there other reasons too?

What about animals? Do they use capsaicinoids?

It turns out that the animals have got the hang of making chemical triggers for the TRPV1 receptors too. Certain tarantulas of West Africa, specifically the Earth Tiger tarantula, make a toxin that works on the TRPV1 receptor causing pain in the form of intense heat.

Earth Tiger tarantula

Obviously Mrs Earth Tiger doesn’t want to be chewed up and spat out by a furry mammal. Not so good for future generations of baby Earth Tigers. Chemical weapons at the ready then.

The use of capsaicin as a deterrent is not only employed by plants but by used by humans as well. The aforementioned pepper spray is a good example of this. And, a quick look at an image taken from the Codex Mendoza, created in the mid 1500s, reveals a child being held over a fire of burning chillies. The child’s eyes are streaming. It is perhaps a punishment: a deterrent for some undesirable behaviour. Y’owch, tough love but they’ve gotta learn!

Taken from the Codex Mendoza

But back to the chilli plant’s use of capsaicin as a deterrent…

The biological motivation of chilli plants is a little more complex. Many plants are interested in animals eating their fruit as a manner of seed dispersal. But chilli plants are producing a chemical that actively deters mammals. So what is wrong with mammals? Ah, they have grinding molars. Poor little chilli seeds are unlikely to survive after a good grinding. Most mammals will avoid plants which make their mouth burn so the chilli seeds are safe to be eaten by non-mammals.

It turns out that birds are just the insensitive little blighters required… insensitive to capsaicinoids that is. It makes sense that chilli plants don’t deter their feathered friends as birds’ feeding habits are exactly exactly what a chilli plant needs. Bird sees brightly coloured, yummy looking fruit. Bird eats fruit. Seeds pass through digestive system pretty much intact. Bird flies off. Seed deposited with a healthy dose of Mother Nature’s own fertiliser. Job’s a good’un.

That sounds like the right reason for capsaicinoids to be in chillies.

Ah, but animals are not the only consumer of chillies. Microbial level interference is just as likely to stop the chances of a chilli plant producing viable seed as hungry animals are. Fungi and bacteria in particular are able to negatively affect chilli plants’ growth. Which leads to the revelation of another super power of capsaicinoids. They are highly anti-microbial.

It has been theorised and widely accepted that wild chilli plants survive to produce ripe seed pods when their pods have a higher dose of capsaicin lurking within. This capsaicin presence seems to deter certain fungus from taking up residence in the plants and affecting their crop.

Other capsaicinoids deter different fungi in a range of ways. Some act on fungi on the roots, others on fungi on the leaves. The percentage and balance of capsaicinoids present in individual species of chillies correlates with exposure to specific fungus. So Ecuadorian rainforest chillies have different capsaicinoid levels to Andes Mountain rocoto chillies as a result of the microbes present in their respective environments.

Chillies are super anti-bacterial. Capsaicin inhibits the growth and survival of about 75% of bacteria out there in the world. Once the chilli plant has reached maturity it has a high enough concentration of capsaicinoids to inhibit bacterial attack. Bang, and the germ is GONE!

The anti-microbial quality of capsaicinoids goes a long way to explain why chilli is a very popular traditional ingredient in hot countries. Back in the days before fridges, the anti-bac effect of chillies would have stopped food from spoiling. Recipes would have included chilli as a preservative and preventative to food poisoning. Good recipes are always passed down. Bad recipes might have resulted in no one surviving to pass recipes down to.

It’s beginning to look like a lot like chillies and their capsaicinoid compounds are rather well equipped to take over the world with their tailor-made toxic toolkit. Oh, too late, they already have.

With such potency to be found in these compounds there must a be a way for modern humans to utilise the power of chilli.

Initially, when the portuguese explorers brought chillies home they were appropriated by monks and grown as a medicinal herb. What on earth did they use them for and what could they be useful for these days? Listed below are a few medical and health claims, not substantiated, just an indication of the impact capsaicin could have in our future:

  • Consumption of chilli before a meal can significantly reduce calorie intake. Capsaicin has an effect on the ‘fullness’ receptors in our stomach.
  • Topical application of capsaicin loaded creams can alleviate arthritic pain, shingles neuralgia and even HIV neuropathy. The Aztec folk used it as a pain reliever for toothache. The capsaicin is said to deplete the quantity of Substance P (one of the body’s pain messengers).
  • Capsaicin has been touted as a dietary control for cholesterol. Targeting the bad cholesterol that clogs up arteries whilst leaving alone the good stuff that clears them.
  • Psoriasis lesions that itch can be alleviated by the application of capsaicin creams. This pain relief is temporary but improves with regular use.
  • Eating a normal amount of chilli in a meal can reduce the quantity of insulin required by your body to deal with the intake of sugars.
  • The heat pain from a chilli can distract the body from other pain, e.g. migraine.
  • Capsaicin is also heralded as an anti-cancer hero. It can cause cancerous cells to go into defence mode and self-destruct in their efforts. Thus causing a halt in growing tumours.
  • Increased blood flow and thinning qualities as a result of eating chillies, all mean that heart disease and stroke are less likely.
  • Generally, people who eat chillies are 13% less likely to die before those who don’t eat chillies. Perhaps 100% true.

So why did humans develop a taste for chillies, despite the burn?

Maybe as a survival technique. It has been indicated that in the past, if you lived in an area where you are at risk of microbial infection and ultimately death, increasing the use of chillies reduced fatality. Communities who use more chilli in their cooking survived to tell the tale.

And then there is the chilli high. The body’s endorphin rush response to the attack of chillies. The thrill seekers and risk takers will recognise similarities in the rollercoaster of emotions a hot chilli hit brings compared to that of their thrill of choice. We feel good that we survived the chilli onslaught. We’ve survived to eat another mouthful of the hot stuff. It feels good to be alive!

Lime & Chilli Curd

Here we are on a blustery March Saturday afternoon in Hampshire. After an erratic Winter, the chickens have come into full lay at The Birdhouse. Huzzah!

The Birdhouse eggs

Normally that means eight eggs every day. But the neighbours are away and this results in the luxury of their eggs too. So twelve eggs a day. That’s a lot of eggs for our family. And although we really like eggs, what to do with them all?

Obviously this week egg meals have been on the menu: poached eggs for a scummy and nutritious school breakfast; scrambled eggs with fried mushrooms for lunch; spicy cheese and tomato omelettes for dinner. A quick banana loaf to utilise up some browning bananas brings down the egg count. But still the eggs keep a coming. Now we are into egg specialist recipe. What to opt for? Pancakes? Curd? Mousse? Yorkshire puddings? How about all of the above?

Today is curd and mousse day. A quick check of the fruit bowl reveals four limes: two mottled & mature bad boys and two fresh glowing newbies. The former perfect for flavoursome and plentiful juice, the latter good for zingy zest and vibrance of colour. And, of course, this is a house that lets not a day pass by without an element of chilli infuse our cooking. So, Lime & Chilli Curd, let’s get cooking!

The recipe is super simple, it makes 1 x 500ml jar of curd:

Just add eggs
  • 225g sugar
  • 50g butter
  • 4 eggs
  • juice of four limes
  • zest of two limes
  • 2 tsp of chilli flakes

The citrus juice and zest can be replaced with any acidic liquid and complimentary flavours. Strawberries & mint, champagne & passionfruit, bergamot orange & bay. Lemon and cardamon. The options are endless and tantalising.

  1. Place the sugar, juice, eggs and butter in a heavy bottomed pan and very gently heat the mix.
  2. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon. Do not let it cook too quickly or you will have lime flavoured scrambled egg on your hands. Expect to spend 15 minutes standing at the stove, stirring. Don’t be tempted to turn the heat up. It just takes time. You are looking for a thickened liquid, cloudy with a subtle sort of whitish foam forming as it heats.
  3. Then strain through a sieve. Some curd recipes use only yolk, this avoids the blobby white bits but doesn’t use the whole egg. Not the aim here. Straining produces a smooth, silky curd.
  4. Add the lime zest and chilli flakes whilst still warm to allow the flavours to integrate.
  5. Jar up and you’re done. The curd will keep for a week in the fridge.

Simple, right?

Lime and chilli curd, zingy!

And what will we be doing with our curd? Why serving it under a pillow of chocolate mousse of course. And the recipe for the mousse? Simple again…

  • 2 eggs
  • 60g dark chocolate (at least 70%)
  • 2 tsp sugar
  1. Melt the chocolate in a bain marie. Set aside to cool slightly.
  2. Separate the eggs. Careful to make sure no yolk goes into the whites. This would stop the whites from whisking properly.
  3. Whisk the whites to stiff peaks. Use an electric beater. It takes about a minute.
  4. Add the sugar, whisk again. Just a quick blast with the beater.
  5. Add the yolks to the chocolate. Stir in with a spatula. The mix will thicken but don’t worry, it will loosen when you add the whites,
  6. Add a third of the egg whites and whisk in. Good old beater again.
  7. Now carefully fold the rest of the whites into the mix. Use a spatula and make sure there are no white streaks. Classic folding figure of eight, Don’t lose that air now. At this stage you could add a few chilli sprinkles if you want-mmmm!
  8. Spoon into your chosen vessel and refrigerate for a couple of hours.
Lime, chocolate and chilli. A classic combination.

So there we have it, a whole lot of egg gone to a good place and with the added bonus of using chillies too.

Lamb Pulao

Friendly warning…

This is not a recipe for the time poor…or those who like one-pot dishes…or folk who enjoy a jar of sauce as the backbone of their curries…or someone who is really hungry right now. No, not for them. Fair warning has been issued.

Lamb Pulao is a slow, luxurious layering of phenomenal flavours, built over a whole day, maybe even a number of days. Multi-staged, multiple pots & pans and many, many ingredients. A cooking experience to be cherished and best cooked for times of togetherness.

Don’t back away if you don’t have time today though. Bookmark the recipe and save it for a rainy day, for there is bound to be one soon. This sumptuous, aromatic dish deserves time and attention. It can wait until you’re ready.

First things first…the rice.

This may be a recipe that contains chilli but it is the quality and preparation of the rice that will make or break the dish. Basmati is the grain of choice here. It has super perfumed, long grains with snow white qualities. The Perfect Prince of Persia.

The rice should be treated with the care and consideration it deserves. Give it a thorough washing by gently whooshing it around in a large bowl. Replace the water a good few times. Try not to bash the grains too much. The aim is too remove the dusty starch from the outside of the grains but not break the grains and release more starch. After the initial rinsing, soak the rice overnight in plenty of cold water. The next day change the water a couple more times. The rice is more fragile after an overnight soak so again, try not to break it. Aim for clear water. Leave it sitting in a bowl of water until ready to cook the pulao.

Time for the stock. Apart from the lamb, there is a vast store cupboard list of ingredients. Perhaps grab a cuppa before reading on:

  • 1 kilo of lamb bones, preferably with some meat left on them. Or pieces of lamb specifically for making pulao. Neck, cutlets and the like. The goal is to have the flavour from the bones but with pieces of meat within the finished rice. Ask your butcher, make him your friend and you will most certainly receive all sorts of goodies.
  • 3 brown onions
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 inches of ginger
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1 cinnamon stick/cassia bark
  • 1 tbsp black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp red chilli powder/flakes
  • 6 cloves
  • 6 black cardamon
  • 3 Allspice berries
  • small handful of cumin seeds
  • 10 green cardamon
  • handful of coriander seeds
  • salt to taste
  • 3 whole green finger chillies
  • 1 large tomato
  • fresh turmeric, only about a 1cm length.
  • 3 tbsp sunflower oil

Here we go, the method…

  1. Find your biggest pan and open the windows. Roll up your sleeves and get this show on the road.
  2. Heat the oil in the pan. Brown the lamb. Smokey!
  3. Once all the bones are sealed it’s time for the veggies, just halve them and add to the pot. You could deseed the chillies if you want. Your choice. Give everything a quick hot fry.
  4. Chuck in the spices. There may be a lot but no need for special treatment, in they go like George’s Marvellous Medicine.
  5. Then pour in the water. Stand back unless you want a spicy (and meaty) facial.
  6. Bring the pan up to boil and then simmer for a good long while. Probably a couple of hours. The meaty bits of the lamb should be tender.
  7. At this stage you should test the stock for salt. It should be a little over salty as it will be used with bland rice.
  8. Strain the stock. The veggies and spices have done their work but when things have cooled down pick the meat from the lamb bones and keep it in a separate bowl.
  9. The stock can be stored for a couple of days in the fridge or divided into meal sized quantities and frozen. Cook a great big vat of the stuff and your midweek meals will be transformed.

Your work for today is done.

And now, the pulao ingredients,

Don’t be scared but here comes another hefty shopping basket of ingredients. This makes enough rice for 6 hungry adults, maybe with a little leftover for the next day.

  • 3 cups of pre-soaked, washed basmati rice
  • 6 cups lamb pulao stock (double the number of cups of rice you will be using)
  • 3 brown onions, sliced
  • ghee
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • pinch of saffron
  • small handful coriander seeds
  • 2 tbsp cumin seeds
  • lamb pieces from the stock
  • 3 black cardamon
  • 5 green cardamon
  • 1 bay leaf
  1. Fry the onions in the ghee until as dark as you would like. A little caramelisation is no bad thing. This adds a good depth of flavour and that strangely desirable dirty look to the rice.
  2. Pop the whole spices into the pan and allow them to release their aroma. Careful not to burn anything at this stage.
  3. And now the lamb pieces. Remember them? Ooooh, they’re going to be soooo good in the finished dish. Gently though, don’t break them up.
  4. Add the rice, fry until slightly translucent. Keep it moving to allow all grains to be coated in the ghee and spice mix.
  5. Stock next. Double the quantity of rice. So, 1 cup of rice = 2 cups of water. Just remember to use the same cup to measure.
  6. Bring to the boil. Put on a tight lid. You can add a layer of tinfoil before the lid if need be. The pulao can be cooked in the oven or simmered on the lowest heat on the hob. There is less chance of the bottom layer of rice sticking if you bake it in the oven.
  7. Cook for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to stand for a further ten minutes. The grains should be light and fluffy and separate.
  8. Serve with your favourite dahl and maybe something yoghurty. A salad on the side would be perfect. Perhaps some fermented chilli sauce or fermented lime pickle. Ooooh, dinner is served.

Authentic, wholesome, comforting, aromatic and overwhelmingly delicious. Not much else to say except, you’re welcome.

Potting on the seedlings

A lot has happened since things kicked off this year. Our seeds were hot housed in the steamy propagator in the hope that germination would be quicker, more consistent and we would be a bit more successful with the chinense types. And things have indeed gone well. Hundreds of seeds germinated, hundreds of paper pots were made and now it is time to pot on the strongest of the plants to a more substantial home.

Paper pots
Germinated chilli seeds in their forever paper pots. Some seedlings just showing their leaves

How do we know it is time to pot on?

The seedlings are starting to show roots through the bottom of their paper pots. Many have two or more sets of leaves. The sun is shining in the UK and is forecast to be so for at least a couple more days. Perfect for a bit of window sunbathing to help the chillies settle in to their new pots. All good signs.

Seedlings ready to pot on

Using the specially formulated potting compost mix, the plants are tucked into 9cm square black pots. A layer of grit is put in the bottom and the paper pots are not removed, just buried within the new pot. Minimal root disturbance and the plants hopefully don’t feel swamped by the new pot.

Hey presto, 151 seedlings are potted on, fed and watered and basking in the sun.

Sunbathing in their new pots

Capsicum pubescens

Capsicum pubescens is a late entry to the heated propagator. Whilst using the last of our homegrown Rocoto chillies it was impossible to just throw the seeds away. So, they were introduced to the chitting pod. Having sworn we would get going earlier with the seeds this year, to allow the longest growing period possible, a quick diary check reveals that these seeds are starting off at pretty much the same time as last year. So much for planning.

Alberto Locato Rocoto

Four days later the roots have emerged. Much quicker than the chinense types and almost as quick as the speedy annuums.

chitted-rocoto-chillies
Chitted Rocoto seeds

And why did we bother with these seeds? Well, it turns out we’ve got a bit of a crush on these squishy fellas. There are far less varieties of Capsicum pubescens available on the market and you would certainly never see them in a UK food store to buy. The chilli fruit are all pretty similar with thick walls, juicy flesh and matt black seeds. With a round shape: some are a little more apple shaped, others lemony and some occasionally cheeked like bell peppers. Heat levels are medium to hot and they have a punchy fresh fruit flavour. They come in a range of -green-yellow-red but not purple or white. So far.

Capsicum pubescens are the smaller group of the five domesticated species of chilli. They are further away from others genetically. They trace back to pre-Incan times in Peru. In fact it is thought that the chilli remains found in the Guitarrero caves 10,000 years ago was a pubescens type. Historically significant as the chilli in question was found alongside evidence of campfires, grinding stones and human bones. It seems chillies were considered pretty valuable food stuffs. Not much has changed in 10,000 years then.

At The Birdhouse, we only grew one plant of this type last year: the high shine red Alberto Rocoto Locato. Gifted to us by my mother. It was easy to spot in the greenhouse as the plant grew differently to the others. For one, it had tiny white hairs on its leaves. Secondly, once it had got going, it split into two branches about 30cm up. It then sprawled out sideways and needed support from other plants. It snapped easily if knocked. It had bright violet flowers, with dusty white stamen. The chillies were late to set and took a long time to ripen to glossy red, maybe a 100 days or more. It matured about sometime similar to the Scotch Bonnets and they supposedly take 120 days. The plant was prolific despite being in a smallish 2.5 L pot. Whilst it was fed well it could probably have done with more root space.

Striking purple flowers

A quick bit of research tells us that these chillies are a fan of cooler nights, although still happy basking during the day. They are far more tolerant to lower temperatures generally. Although not frost tolerant. This bodes well for a UK climate and the need for a longish growing season. They are also long lived perennials, living up to 15 years. They can be climbers or tree formations. I think we might have a few Winter inmates this year. Let the pubescens journey begin.

Homegrown, homemade, chilli and squash soup

February soups at The Birdhouse are typically thick enough to put hairs on your chest. Hearty and wholesome, they keep you going through the gloom when you’d rather dive under the duvet as soon as the sun sets. However, the weather in the UK has been a little odd over the last week or so. Far milder than normal, with hardly any rain, light and bright. Spring is in the air, in the form of the scent of early flowers, the buzzing of insects. It is predicted to go on like this for the next week.

The warmer temperatures mean than a fresher soup is in order. A check in the stores reveals Crown Prince squashes, garlic and red chillies. Sounds perfect for the soup we’re after.

Homegrown Crown Prince squash

Peel the squash, easier said than done, it seems to fight back at every stage. Once battle is done, chunk it up and place it in a roaster with some whole garlic cloves. Splash liberally with olive oil, season then roast in a medium oven until soft and caramelised around the edges.

Chopped and ready to roast
Soup base

While the squash is roasting, prepare the soup base by sautéing roughly chopped onion, celery, carrot and leek in a pan. Add bay, rosemary and red chillies of your choice. Add the roasted squash and garlic. Top up with stock. We had a pot of smokey liquor left over from boiling a ham, perfect.

Squash soup ready to blitz

Bring the soup to a gentle boil and simmer until the veggies are cooked. Remove the bay leaf. Plug in the stick blender and blitz the hell out of that soup. Squash always makes such a smooth, velvety consistency, very satisfying. Add a slosh of double cream to enrich it and bind all the ingredients together. Check for seasoning, add chilli flakes or powder of your choice. We opted for Aleppo pepper, not too hot, vibrant red and sweet sun-dried tomato oiliness notes (no really).

A sprinkle of Apello pepper finishes the soup

Dinner is served.

Sweet Chillies for Valentine’s Day

We have four rocoto (Capsicum pubescens) chillies left from our bumper Autumn harvest. Surprisingly as they are such juicy chillies, the rocoto have stored very well indeed in the top of the fridge door. It seems like a special recipe is in order. How to preserve them and make those precious last chillies count? Today is Valentine’s Day so let’s go crazy!

How about candied chillies? With the intention of adding them to some knock-your-socks off florentines.

Sounds like a plan…

Heat a 50:50 mix of white sugar and water to form a sugar syrup. Add a few extra flavourings to enhance the fruity floral flavours of the rocoto: rose essence and scrapes of tangerine zest. Next, add the sliced, deseeded chillies and bubble away.

The house fills with the aromatic scent of rose and tangerine. Then I add the chillies and begin to choke. The capsaicin explodes into the air and hits the back of my throat, ticket tickle cough, tickle tickle cough.

And yet, sniffing the vapours rising from the saucepan is irresistible. Mmm, warming and aromatic.

As the candy mixture thickens it’s time to get ready to take the chillies out. Place a sheet of greaseproof paper and find a long pronged fork for fishing. There is a fair amount of caramel left in the pan so a handful of pistachios are thrown in to make a last minute chilli nut brittle. Why not?

The caramel brittle is too hot to taste. By the time it has cooled down I find out it is also hot-spicy. Rocoto are fierce and have a long burn. Excellent flavour with the tangerine peel and pistachio though. Must remember that when I make the florentines.

All that remains is to put the matt black seeds in the germinator because it would just be rude not to.