This year is the centenary of chemist Wilbur Scoville’s Organoleptic system according to which chillies are assigned their heat rating. A black-and-white photograph from his heyday shows a young, slim man with a shock of hair and a slightly startled look in his eyes. He died in 1942, but his scale, developed while he was working at pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis — the maker and sellers of cocaine, among other things — is now used as the benchmark of heat.
Hardly a year goes by without a new claim to the crown of the hottest chilli. Guinness World Records has it as the Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T” from Australia, rated at a tongue-curling 1.5-million Scoville heat units. But even this has apparently been superseded by the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, which comes in at more than two million. The habanero, which means “from Havana”, ranges from 100 000 to 300 000 and the savoury jalapeño is down in the mid-thousands.
The Scoville figure refers to the number of times the extract of a particular chilli, dissolved in alcohol, can be diluted with sugar water before the irritant capsaicin — the heat — can no longer be tasted.
I could not find any descriptions of the early Scoville tests, but they were apparently carried out by five tasters who were limited to one tasting session a day and probably had no idea that their brains were being flooded with large amounts of dopamine, the chilli high that aficionados seek out.
Apart from chakalaka, the thick salsa often found at braais that can include anything from green pepper, tomato, baked beans, ginger and chilli, manufactured hot sauces are ubiquitous in South Africa — Nando’s, Banditos, Tabasco and so forth. But there are also freshly prepared versions that any number of restaurants — among them Italian, Chinese, Portuguese, Indian or Congolese — will have to hand.
Chillies were named by the Nahua and were being eaten and grown in Mexico in about 7 000BCE. Columbus came across them in the 1490s and it was not long before they had spread to Europe, South East Asia and the Middle East.
Cooks in India, the world’s top producer, will often lace their food with chilli, but the Swad (“taste” in Sanskrit) restaurant in Melrose Arch offers a chilli sauce — chopped ripe red chillies, garlic, salt and lemon juice — for those who want even more heat. Suchitra Nagarajan, the restaurant’s marketing manager, said another sauce was made with dry red chillies with dhania, cumin and methi seeds and curry leaves, urad and channa dhal.
The spices are roasted and ground and then simmered in a tamarind or coconut sauce. They also do one with chopped fresh green chilli and mint.
Heartburn from all over the world
Veronica Kona, chef at the Congolese restaurant Kin Malebo at the top of Rocky Street in Yeoville, makes her chilli sauce by blending piri-piri (also called pilli-pille, or peri-peri) chillies with onion, garlic, nutmeg, bay leaves and oil.
It has an excellent colour and consistency and an almost transparent heat that imparts itself to the meat or fish.
Another recipe from shopkeeper Consolate Mughemuzi, from Uvira in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, (she does not eat it herself — it gives her heartburn — but makes it for her husband) is a paste of finely chopped habanero chillies and ginger, onion, tomato, oil and lemon juice. She said some of her customers also added a small Maggi tomato stock cube.
The Troyeville Hotel, which serves Portuguese cuisine, goes through between 10 and 12 litres of its chillie sauce every week. Owner Lawrence Jones said it was made by simmering a bag of dried bird’s-eye chillies with olive oil, vinegar, paprika and a little sugar and salt in a 20-litre pot until it thickens, like a jam. It is then processed with a hand mouli grater, which does mean that some of the whole chillies slip through.
The sauce has a deep-red colour and is extremely hot, especially if you arrive after they have made a fresh batch. A friend of mine, unfamiliar with the sauce, once demanded that his meal be replaced because he had not been warned how hot it was.
Jones tells the story of a customer, Costa, who orders equal quantities of fresh green chillies, parsley and garlic cloves from the kitchen. While he waits for his order, he chops the ingredients on a side plate and then adds a little olive oil, a pinch of sugar and a spoonful or two of catemba — the Portuguese staple of red wine and Coke. It is now on the menu. Just ask for Costa’s salsa. It is really good with fish.
In South Africa, probably the hottest chilli you will find without too much trouble is the habanero. When ripe, they have a deep orange colour and a fruity scent.
The hottest sauce I have been able to make involves simmering a dozen or so habaneros in a little water and olive oil for an hour or two. Then remove the seeds and blend the pulp with the water and oil they were cooked in and season with salt. Treat it with extreme caution: even an eighth of a teaspoon is enough to flavour an entire plate of food and will still have you mopping your brow.