The art of taste and flavour: chilli

Categories: Expert guidance

Sybil Kapoor on the pepping powers of chilli

Words: Sybil Kapoor
Image: Regula Ysewijn

When I experiment with new, fresh-flavoured dishes, I love to use chilli. It adds an extra edge of excitement to my recipes and stimulates jaded appetites. 

As I expect many readers know, chilli belongs to the capsicum family. There are some 200 varieties, all of which can be eaten fresh or dried and vary greatly in shape, size, heat and flavour. 

Once ripe, chillies have a sweet taste, but their lure stems from their heat, which comes from capsaicin, an odourless, tasteless, irritant alkaloid. Capsaicin works by exciting the palate, which in turn heightens our sense of taste, flavour and texture. This ensures that every chilli-flavoured mouthful tastes interesting—provided, of course, that you like the sensation.

Capsaicin promotes the production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, which stimulate that delicious sense of pleasure and well-being familiar to all chilli lovers. 

A sophisticated analytical system
Scientists measure the different capsaicinoid levels in chillies in Scoville Heat Units. This is a sophisticated analytical system which refers to the number of times that extracts of chillies dissolved in alcohol can be diluted with sugar-water before the capsaicin can no longer be tasted. Bell peppers, for example, can range from naught to 600, while habaneros average between 80,000 and 150,000 SHU. Even chillies from the same plant can vary in heat.

The key to cooking with chilli is restraint, particularly as the more chilli you eat, the less sensitive you become to its heat. The merest hint of chilli will make something taste more intense. One of the best recipes to test this out for yourself is my sticky orange chilli vodka cake. Macerate a sauterne almond cake in a dried mild Kashmiri chilli, orange and vodka syrup. The almonds and oranges taste exquisite, but few realise that their cake is infused with chilli. 

Sweetness ameliorates mild chilli heat to an exciting tingle in the mouth, while bringing out the inherent flavour in the chilli. In other words, it is worth experimenting with chilli in sweet dishes, such as sorbets, fruit sugar syrups, preserves and chocolate dishes. Imagine eating a chilli-spiced marmalade or a chilli chocolate fondant pudding.

Drenched in syrup
One of my favourite fruit salads is tropical fruit drenched in syrup infused with chilli, cloves, vanilla, peppercorns and lemon zest, finished with lemon juice.

If you love chilli, you will find a wonder-world of chillies waiting to be explored and integrated into your culinary repertoire. Dried chillies, for example, can add incredible depth of flavour to a dish. Mild dried ancho chillies, for instance, have a lovely smoky flavour that is delicious in bean soups and with spiced meat. Tiny red pequin chillies, on the other hand, are like spicy fire-crackers, so are better added to hot dishes such as a stir-fried prawns, spring onion and cashew nuts.

Ground dried chillies such as cayenne pepper and paprika are ideal when you want to add a subtle chilli note. A pinch of cayenne pepper in scrambled eggs or twice baked cheese soufflés cuts the creamy texture of such dishes by stimulating the appetite. 

Addictive depth of flavour
Smoked paprika, sweet or hot, will add an addictive depth of flavour to recipes as varied as soy, lemon, honey and paprika marinated chicken, and tomato, roasted aubergine and chickpea stew.

Fresh chillies literally seem to add freshness to a dish. Perhaps it is because their heat heightens our awareness of acidity, or perhaps it is because they increase our perception of texture. A Thai-style salad of red cabbage, carrot, coriander and red onion, for example, dressed with lime juice, palm sugar, chilli and fish sauce is transformed into an ultra-crunchy light dish.

Add a little Thai chilli to a simple vinaigrette and a black bean, avocado, roasted pepper and tomato salad becomes lusciously soft and exciting.

Pineapple chilli salsa
You can even layer the different flavours and heats of chilli. Coat some salmon fillet or steak in Cajun spice (which includes sweet paprika and cayenne pepper), fry over a high heat to blacken it and serve with a pineapple chilli salsa. Your mouth will tingle with the different tastes.

Nor should you dismiss ingredients that are already spiced—fried picante chorizo, for instance, tastes amazing in a warm salad of potatoes with roasted sweet peppers and anaheim chillies. 

The more you understand the heat and flavour profiles of your chillies, the more fun you can have playing with them to create delicious new dishes. Your kitchen will become a culinary laboratory, making your family and friends very happy guinea pigs.