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Hot stuff: Chillis are the ultimate feel-good ingredient

It's a modern test of manliness that takes place in curry houses up and down the country every Saturday night: how hot a curry can you eat? The British can't get enough of the hot stuff, and the hotter the better. The Cinnamon Club restaurant in London recently made a record attempt with a curry called the Bollywood Burner, which it claimed was the world's hottest curry. They made anyone who wanted to try it sign a waiver.

It's a modern test of manliness that takes place in curry houses up and down the country every Saturday night: how hot a curry can you eat? The British can't get enough of the hot stuff, and the hotter the better. The Cinnamon Club restaurant in London recently made a record attempt with a curry called the Bollywood Burner, which it claimed was the world's hottest curry. They made anyone who wanted to try it sign a waiver.

The restaurant wasn't wrong to fear for the safety of its customers as chillies are not without their dangers: last month, a 33-year-old chef died after eating a super-hot chilli sauce that he had made with chillies grown in his father's allotment.

So what makes chillies hot? And how can you get the best out of the spicy little blighters without taking a trip to A&E? "The strength of chillies is measured on the Scoville scale," says Michael Michaud, who runs the mail-order chilli service, Peppers by Post (www.peppersbypost.biz) in Dorset.

"A sweet pepper has a Scoville heat unit of zero, a poblano pepper is about 500 to 1,000 and a jalapeno pepper is about 8,000, which is probably hot enough for most people. Any chilli hotter than that is really very hot. The heat comes from a family of chemicals called capsaicinoids, which are made in the stem and stalk and are found in the seeds, but are not made in the seeds."

The scale was invented by an American chemist called Wilbur Scoville in 1912. The scale measures the amount of capsaicin in each chilli, which reacts with chemoreceptors in the skin, especially in the mucous membranes.

As the body defends itself against the heat of a hot chilli it releases endorphins, which are the body's natural painkillers, which leaves you with a "high", explaining why there are quite so many lovers of painfully hot curries such as the vindaloo and the phaal.

Although eating too many very hot chillies in one go isn't good for you, chillies do have myriad health benefits. They are good for a stuffed-up nose, as capsaicin thins nasal mucus and clears your sinuses.

Capsaicin has been extracted from chillies to manufacture topical pain-relief creams for arthritis and shingles; it is also the active ingredient in a new anaesthetic developed by scientists at Harvard Medical School, which can block pain without affecting movement, touch or mental awareness, as other strong painkillers do.

"Our most popular chilli is the Dorset naga," says Michaud, "although we don't eat it ourselves. We developed it from a chilli popular in Bangladesh, called the naga morich – 'Morich' means chilli in Bengali. If you go into a shop that has a Bangladeshi clientele, you'll find this chilli, which is imported from Bangladesh.

"We happened to find one in a shop in Bournemouth and we grew it out and rebranded it as the Dorset naga. It scores about one million on the Scoville heat scale. Funnily enough, the Bangladeshis don't really cook with it, either. Sometimes they might put it in a curry, but normally they'll either break the chilli and rub each plate with it to get the heat out, or more commonly they'll give each guest a fruit and then the guests will break a bit off and eat it with the meal so that they can regulate how much they are getting. Not all Bangladeshis like it: it's too hot for some of them, too!"

The heat of a chilli isn't only dependent on the variety of the fruit, other factors affect how much of a kick each chilli has, meaning that cooking with chillies can be a bit of a lottery – one might be relatively mild but the next one, even of the same variety, might blow your head off.

"The quantity of the capsaicin also depends on the age of the fruit," says Michaud. "The older it is, the hotter it will be. We measured the Dorset naga when it was very ripe and it scored 9,000,000 heat units, but when it was green it was about 650,000,000. The other thing that makes a difference is the temperature it's grown in; if it's grown in hot conditions then the chilli will be hotter than if it's grown in a cooler atmosphere."

If in doubt, you can test each chilli by rubbing a small piece of the flesh against your lip or nibbling a tiny piece off the end, to check whether you're dealing with a scorcher.

When it comes to cooking, there's more to chilli than just the heat, adds Michaud. "There's two basic types of chilli, culinarily speaking. There's the spice type, which are usually small and you just add them to a dish for the heat– they don't add any intensity of flavour to a dish. The second kind is the vegetable type of chilli, like a pepper: they are a larger-fruited variety and they have thicker flesh. They have heat, but they add integrity to a dish and you know that they're there other than just by the heat.

"My favourite kind of chilli is the vegetable kind, particularly the ancho, which are also known as poblano. I grill it and peel it and toss it in a salad. It's not overly hot, it has a really nice rich flavour and a lovely texture."

If you're crazy for chilli, you could try growing your own in a pot indoors. All they need is plenty of heat and direct sunlight. Chilli seeds need to be sown early in the year and germination can take up to five weeks. They like good drainage and a loam-based seed compost.

When the seeds are germinating, they need to be kept at a heat of about 27-32C but they can still germinate at 21C. The best chilli houseplant is the fiesta, which is a pretty, medium-sized plant that is happy in a pot indoors on or a patio in the summer.

Chairman Mao's red braised pork

Serves 4

500g/1 lb 2 oz belly pork (skin optional)
2 tbsp groundnut oil
2 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
20 g/3/4 oz fresh ginger, skin left on and sliced
1 star anise }
2 dried red chillies
a small piece cassia bark or cinnamon stick
light soy sauce
salt and sugar
a few lengths of spring onion greens

Plunge the belly pork into a pan of boiling water and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes until partially cooked. Remove, and when cool enough to handle, cut into bite-sized chunks. Heat the oil and sugar in a wok over a gentle flame until the sugar melts, then raise the heat and stir until the melted sugar turns a rich caramel brown. Add the pork and the Shaoxing wine. Add enough water to just cover the pork, along with the ginger, star anise, chillies and cassia. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 40–50 minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time, turn up the heat to reduce the sauce and season with soy sauce, salt and a little sugar to taste. Add the spring onion greens just before serving.

From 'Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook' by Fuchsia Dunlop (Ebury Press)

Mark Hix's chunky chilli con carne

Serves 8-10

2tbsp corn or vegetable oil
500g minced beef or pork
500g stewing beef or pork, cut into rough 2cm chunks
2tsp ground cumin
1tbsp flour
2tsp fresh oregano or thyme
1tbsp tomato purée
1 x 350g-400g can chopped tomatoes
500g tinned red kidney beans
1 litre beef stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
4 medium red chillies, seeded and chopped

Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and fry the minced and diced beef on a high heat, stirring every so often until lightly coloured. Add the cumin, flour and tomato purée, then stir in the chopped tomatoes and beef stock.

Meanwhile, mix the onion, garlic and chilli in a blender with a little water until smooth, and add to the beef. Bring to the boil, season and simmer for 1 hour. Wash kidney beans and add to the beef and continue cooking for another 45 minutes, or until the beef chunks are tender.

Mark Hix is chef-in-residence on The Independent's Saturday magazine

Mallika Basu's Indian chilli vodka cocktail

Makes 2

4 green finger chillies
1/2 tsp black salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 lime
1 can of lemonade
2 single shots of Red Smirnoff
2 Martini glasses

Wash and pat the chillies dry. Make a 2cm slit along the thickest part of each one, taking care not to cut through. In a small cup, mix together the black salt and pepper. With the tip of the knife, stuff the slits with the salt and pepper mix.

Measure a shot of vodka into each glass and put in two chillies to soak for at least 10 minutes, while you slice the lime and crush the ice. Add a handful of crushed ice to each glass, top with lemonade and a sprinkle of the remaining spice mix. Decorate with a slice of lime to serve.

From www.quickindiancooking.com