Chilli Misconceptions 6: The Addictive Quality of Chile Peppers

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It’s just too perfect a statement to spare us from it: Chilli is addictive.

Can’t you see that people who have become fond of hot eating don’t want to give up their spice? Aren’t they, rather, getting used to higher and higher levels of heat and eating ever more chilli?

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No Drugs. Photo by Creativity103 on Flickr (CC-BY)

See, addiction!

Except, it isn’t.

Describing the liking for chilli in such a way doesn’t just make addictions sound like a fun pastime, even though actual addictions and substance abuse are serious problems. It also misunderstands the real use of the chilli.

In Europe and the USA, among ‘Westerners’ who have only come to the exotic chilli later in their lives, a rising tolerance for pungency and a rising popularity of greater pungencies can be seen.

There are ever-new world record-hot chile peppers developed (and perhaps, invented) by professional growers, and they seem to be popular like anything. True that.

This search for ever-greater extremes is not a property of the peppers, however, but a problem with customers drawn to extreme marketing using ever greater exaggerations – and that, only if it isn’t just a result of the tendency of marketing and media themselves.

Many of the customers might not really care about such extremes, but extremes are seen as the only messages that stand a chance anymore. Someone who doesn’t know anything much about the chilli cannot judge its merits by more than a message that stands out – and what stands out more than “Heat Level 10; New World Record!” How do you get attention on Youtube and in blogs if not with a headline like “That was so hot, I nearly died!!!!” *

This machismo and this marketing – and with them, the supposedly addictive quality of the chilli – is pretty far removed from what the true “chilli cuisines” of the world do.

Sure, there will be some playing around with different pungencies and different tolerances for them, but everyone will mainly get used to the sort of pungency that is usual and that they personally like. There is little hunt after ever-higher pungencies, but rather a search for the right relation of aromas and pungencies for the various foods and for their eaters.

More often than not, that pungency will be a middling one, since everyone should be able to handle that – and that’s what cooking is about, after all: the whole family (or whoever gets to eat it) should eat and enjoy it. And it should be tasty, not ever-more pungent.

And what about the rising tolerance for the chile pepper’s heat? Doesn’t that mean that people will eat food that’s hotter and hotter? Well, everyone has a level at which things turn uncomfortable, and the way people get used to pungent eating in places where that’s traditional isn’t this strange fashion that is much talked about, but simply a part of growing up.

Time for us to grow up, too.

So, bring on the chilli – but the one fitting for the eater and the food.

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