Samuel Muston: If you can't stand the heat, opt for chillies that add flavour

  • @SAMuston

The sauce flowed from the bottle in one blood-red wave, surging out across the plate of pasta like a spicy tsunami. In the time it took to squeeze the bottle of Sriracha, the lovingly prepared (by me) spaghetti alla puttanesca on my friend's plate was ruined. I know this is the pasta of easy virtue – its name translates as "whore's pasta", after all – but still, I wondered, was it necessary to soak it with so much chilli sauce?

My friend raised his hand in a Caesarish gesture, and deployed the line used by dubious American doctors on TV to justify pretty much any misdemeanour, "I have an addiction. It is an illness."

It was a good joke, and it also got me thinking. For some people, it seems, the bottle of chilli sauce has become the condiment of choice. Where once the bottle of ketchup was brought out with every meal (ketchup with curry, anyone?), now, all too often, it is the chilli sauce which stands sentry at breakfast lunch and dinner.

One friend of mine collects bottles of chilli sauce, going to ever greater (and more expensive) lengths to find stronger, more scorching versions he can sneak into pho noodle soup and watch his friends cough, sneeze and weep after just a single spoonful. Yet another person I know eats pickled chillies as if they were brined olives.

Is it masochism? Is it madness? Or is it, in fact, an addiction as my friend jokingly claimed? For answers, I turned to someone who has eaten more chillies than anyone I know, Malin Eriksson, a chilli expert and chef who is tasked by Santa Maria, the spice merchant, with tracking down the world's best tongue-tickling peppers. She explains that the capsaicin in the little red devils stimulate TRPV1 heat receptors on our tongue, giving, in some cases, that burning feeling.

But, she doesn't think you can be really addicted to them. "If you had tried a scorpion chilli as I have, which is 1,460,000 on the scoville scale [an anchou chilli, the kind most commonly used in Mexican cooking, is 1,000], you wouldn't want to do it again."

Those who unthinkingly souse food in the hottest sauces are missing a trick, she says. "Chillies are about so much more than heat," she says. And certainly, it does seem strange that in a world in which you can buy a thousand different salts and peppercorns, we categorise chillies as simply "hot" or "not too hot".

There are more than a thousand varieties of chilli, with new ones being cross-bred all the time. Each one is affected, like wine grapes, by terroir (hot areas tend to grow chillies with concentrated flavours, for example). Indeed, to hear Malin talking about them, is to be immediately reminded of a sommelier. Mexican anchos are "plummy and coffee-rich in flavour"; while chipotle moritas are "smoky with hints of chocolate".

Yes, it sounded pseudy to me, too, until I tried the ones she sent me. It was similar to when you first start noticing the flavours in wine – revelatory.

So put down the Sriracha, step away from the Tabasco, try some other chillies, be they in a bottle or fresh, and give your tastebuds the break they deserve.