I was craving the pain of it; wildly anticipating the rush of heat, the throbbing on my tongue, the profuse sweating. Autumn is particularly suited to scratching my itch. The garden is now abundant with mature Habanero peppers, having been primped and preened and fawned over for months. Innocently they hang from spindly branches, like small holiday ornaments; bursts of orange, yellow and red hidden behind long green fronds. Their thin, waxy flesh belies the danger enclosed in the colorful little packages. But behind Habanero’s heat lie complex flavors of citrus, stone fruit and smoke. Perhaps I project the latter element while envisioning a fire roaring on my tongue.
Scientists theorize the high I continually seek from eating chilies is produced by surging endorphins. The brain releases this natural pain reliever in response to the joyful agony of eating capsaicin, the spice element in chilies, which affects all mammals. It’s likely that capsaicin was a natural adaptation by peppers so animals wouldn’t eat them. Indeed, it’s only the refined human palate that has embraced chilies and the pleasurable pain they inflict.
Originating more than 6,000 years ago from lands along the Amazon River, hot peppers (capsicums) had a place on the tables of Central and South America. Christopher Columbus ensured their infiltration into the kitchens of Europe, Asia and Africa, and by the 1500s, Habaneros were in demand by gourmands in China and India. Chilies were one of the first domesticated plants in the New World and are now enjoyed with gusto each day by one in four persons, masochistic epicures all.
My first flirt with the fire was many years ago; sitting on a fine-sanded beach in southern Thailand, wearing only a gauzy wrap and eating grilled shrimp with my fingers. Coated in a searing pepper sauce, the crustaceans were unbelievably piquant. The young Thai boys manning the coals giggled as I ordered yet another platter, my eyes red and watering. More than a dozen shrimp later, I earned an iced cold liter of Singha beer, as well as their begrudging respect.
Unlike many other addictions, my cravings for Habanero peppers will never find me draining my bank account at 3am or being the object of an embarrassing family intervention. The habit-forming little orbs even claim health benefits, as the hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin they contain. These colorless, odorless compounds boast antioxidants, decrease cholesterol, and kill off the stomach bacteria that cause ulcers. Before there was better living through chemistry, our ancestors planted chilies to naturally ward off microbes. Capsaicin even boost immunity, and increase heat production and oxygen consumption 20 minutes after eating, meaning your body is burning calories.
The Habanero was recently listed in the Guinness Book of World’s Records as the hottest chili, but has since been displaced. But make no mistake: Habanero chilies are intensely hot, rating 100,000-350,000 on the Scoville scale, which measures capsaicinoid content in peppers through liquid chromography. An obsessive American pharmacist and pepper aficionado Wilbur Scoville created the scale in 1912; the Pimento pepper having a couple hundred units and the Infinity chili boasting a score of around one million.
Although it’s easy to build up a tolerance, the tongue becoming de-sensitized to the fire, I still remain enthralled by chilies, hence the variety and abundance of peppers in my garden. Like most peppers, Habaneros thrive in hot weather and need infrequent watering, as moist roots mean bitter peppers.
It is the mystical Black Habanero I seek to plant for next Spring’s pepper pot. A cross of Purple Habanero and Long Chocolate Habanero, it is reputed to be very hot and exotically flavorful with notes of raisin, earning a Scoville rating of 400,000-450,000 units.
The dehydrator is now constantly whirring, emitting wafts of dark, smoky aromas, and ensuring mountains of dried peppers to enliven my winter suppers. Tonight however, small slivers of fresh Habanero, chopped cilantro and shaved garlic will be tucked into the folds of a pork roast, infusing the lovingly butchered swine with the heat of the final days of summer.