The Heating Properties of Chile Peppers

Chile peppers. They are hot, they clearly cause sweating, they must belong in the tropics. Or so the common reasoning goes.

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Okay, that’s too easy a line of argument, so science has been going a bit deeper. Chile peppers also seem to have anti-microbial properties, which are particularly helpful in tropical regions where foods, especially meat, would quickly spoil in the heat. This hypothesis is pretty well-established, thanks not least to “Antimicrobial Functions of Spices: Why Some Like It Hot,” a study of regions and recipes by Jennifer Billing and Paul W. Sherman (published in “The Quarterly Review of Biology”, Vol. 73, No.1, March 1998).

There is only one problem:

Already during Columbus’ voyages, there are mentions of “a spice that is hot as pepper,” which is of course where the chile “pepper” got its name from. There is basically no mention of comfortable sweating, though…  However, there were apparently reports (by his accompanying physician – I can never find it again, though), that the Indians they encountered ‘braved the cold of their winters by eating peppers’.

Admittedly,  it is a strange statement considering they were in the Caribbean, where the winters tend not to be something to “brave.” Looking at the occurrence of chile peppers in world regions (though not necessarily in published recipes), there is an obvious relationship between sometimes cold and high altitude areas that often gets overlooked, though:

In ancient Peruvian civilization, chile peppers seem to have been connected with the Amazonian lowlands, given how they are found in the claws of the Tello Stela’s cayman (which is itself a, and also holds other, lowland species). However, there are also those species of Capsicum which originated in the Andes and have been grown there for thousands of years, apparently. Capsicum baccatum and C. pubescens are still predominantly Andean species of chile peppers even to this day. And the cuisine likes to use them – and not just in the tropical lowlands.

In Mexico, too, chile peppers are not just found in the hot, (sub)tropical parts, but also in the colder, mountainous interiors of the country. Not least the chiltepin, the probable precursor to the wide variety found within C. annuum, is to be found in the semi-deserts of Northern Mexico and the American Southwest, where it sometimes encounters frost. Yet, people like to it eat; not just in summer heat.

The relationship does not just hold true for the Capsicum’s origins.

Interestingly, and especially so given that there is rather little known about it, chile peppers made it into Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. They were integrated into these parts with such vengeance that it took only some 300 years from the beginning of their global spread to  chile pepper’s appearance as part of the traditional Tibetan medicine; and it got to the point that a dish made of chile peppers and cheese, ema datsi, is hailed as Bhutan’s national food. In a TV report on Bhutanese life and health issues, following a German doctor working there, it was even claimed that excessive consumption of chile peppers was a major health issue in the country…

In China, the relationship of cold and chilli even gets pointed out directly: Hot pot and breakfast soups, in particular, are considered warming foods for the winter. Traveling to see the Longji rice terraces in Guangxi, the guide also pointed out that one would see quite a lot of chile pepper being sold there – which was because the winters got cold, there was not much heating, but there was that “fire” of the peppers.

The regional spread speaks to the same connection. Hunan and Sichuan are the most prominent places where the chile peppers got introduced rather quickly and where they found themselves widely adopted – and they are areas which get very hot summers as well as bitingly cold winters.
Chilli-BurnerThe warm(ing) relationship with chilli does not even end with food. Old stories tell of cowboys putting chile pepper powder in their socks to get warm feet, and some modern textiles (from Japan) have capsaicin worked  into the fabric to make them heat you up. Similar usage may not necessarily be made for warming, however, but can also be for slimming… and then, of course, there are all the ideas of how chile pepper “heat” and people’s “hot” characters are related.

The effect of eating chile peppers in the cold may be somewhat misleading, rather like the recommendation to drink alcohol in order to warm up. It gives a boost to circulation, but may end up making one more cold because it causes the pores to open… Then again, one can eat more chilies than imbibe alcohol, and since they contain more Vitamin C than citrus fruits, there may be quite the positive protective effect against colds… if not the cold.

Either way, summer and winter, I can recommend chilli…

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