Feel the Burn

With a multitude of healing properties it seems chillies really are the spice of life.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
With a multitude of healing properties it seems chillies really are the spice of life.
My Reading Room

With a heritage dating back over 6,000 years, chillies are one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world, and due to their varying scorch are considered one of the best for you. Associated with a host of health benefits, fiery chillies were probably the world’s first feel-good food.

Capsaicin, the active component found in a chilli’s membrane is the reason for that intense heat. “When we bite into a chilli or eat food that contains it, the capsaicin binds with pain receptors in the mouth and throat and our brain gets the message ‘Fire in the House!’” says Karin G. Reiter, a medical nutritionist and founder of consultancy Nutritious and Delicious. The brain reacts to this emergency call with a battery of responses. The heartbeat increases and we break out in a sweat as a rush of endorphins is released. This causes a chilli high, which has proven addictive for so many.

But that’s not all. Chillies contain vitamins A and C, the minerals iron, magnesium and potassium, as well as antioxidants and amino acids, qualifying them as a bona fide super food. “They can assist in anything from fighting bacterial infections to preventing heart disease,” says Reiter. “A recent study published in BMJ magazine suggested they can increase life expectancy,” she adds.

As familiar as we are with spiced dishes in Asia, it was the Aztecs who first bit off the heads of fiery chilli pods and began combining them with tomatoes to make the first versions of salsa. Europeans got them next, via Christopher Columbus, although they made the mistake of displaying them as exotic ornamentals rather than potent flavour enhancers.

By the 16th century, Portuguese colonialists brought the first pods to Asia, distributing them throughout India, Malaysia and Indonesia, says Diana Von Cranach, founder of Bali’s Puri Ganesha Villas and author of the book Chilitime. By the 17th century, missionaries arrived to Thailand bringing pods in their luggage with their crosses and where, “they were more successful introducing chillies than Christianity,” says Von Cranach.

Once in Asia, chillies spread, well, like wildfire. Easy to grow and far cheaper than other alternatives, they were readily adopted. “Before chillies were introduced, heat was added to dishes by using ginger,galangal, long pepper, green, black, white peppercorns, comet pepper in Indonesia and the Szechuan berry in Laos, China and Nepal,” Von Cranach outlines in the introduction to her book, which lists more than 50 chilli sauce recipes including sambals and pastes from across Asia, South America and the Middle East.

It seems there has been no slowdown ever since. “When I was young, there was chilli planted in every house in Thailand. All Thai families had their own ‘chilli garden’ and used them for cooking every day. It was in almost all the food I had,” says Chef Mumu at Hong Kong’s Mak Mak, which specialises in the cuisine of Central Thailand.

And today, the rest of the world is catching on. Since TV began promoting global food and food tourism, demand for the flavours of Asia and South America have grown in popularity across the US and Europe. Chefs have travelled from the east bringing spicier flavours with them, diversifying restaurant scenes first, and home kitchens second.

Last year, global sales of spicy chilli sauces grew twice the size of other packaged foods, according to a 2015 report by Euromonitor. This trend was led in part by the global discovery of old-world favourites such as sriracha and piri-piri hot sauces. Great news when we know that more chilli is so good for our health.

Capsaicin has been extracted for topical use in ointments and patches, used to treat conditions ranging from arthritis, inflammation and even dental issues. However, Reiter says chillies provide the most effective health kick when absorbed through the digestive tract, triggering the body’s response to send endorphins.

But is hotter better? As demand for chillies has grown, so too has bravado. Chilli producers are creating hotter varietals to meet demand from devoted chilliheads looking for their next heat hit. But from a chef’s point of view, chillies should be used to enhance other flavours rather than overpower them. Chef Mumu argues that a dish should be a well-balanced blend of spice, sweet, sour and umami.

And chillies with high-level heat actually deliver no greater health kick than their less fiery counterparts, says Reiter. She advises a daily helping of the seeded pods at whatever spice level you fancy.

A daily fix is easily achievable. Try a homemade chilli sauce or sambal in place of a chutney or spread in a sandwich, or drizzle a salad in a chilli dressing. Use chilli in your hot chocolate during winter for a warming hit, or blend lychee, lemon juice and chilli with a pinch each of salt and sugar mixed with iced soda water for a refreshing summertime buzz. Thrill seekers might even want to try spicing up their evenings by infusing a bottle of vodka with a handful of pods. And why not? It’s good for you.

My Reading Room

Mak Mak’s Yum Woon Sen

Chef Mumu shares one of her spicy favourites, Yum Woon Sen, a marinated minced pork and seafood salad with glass noodles. “The three-flavour dressing is easy to make, yet delicious,” says chef, and delivers a gentle flush of chilli heat.

Serves 6


Two handfuls each of minced pork, prawns (shell on) and cuttlefish 2 bundles of bean thread ‘glass’ noodles.

For the sauce:

3–4 red chillies

1 red chilli padi (birdseye)

2 sections of coriander root, crushed

5 cloves of garlic

Juice of 3–4 limes

100g palm sugar

200ml fish sauce


1. Soak glass noodles in room-temperature water for 15–20
minutes to soften.

2. Boil a pan of water and cook meat and seafood
individually, to done (about five minutes). Remove from pan and drain on
paper towels. Allow to cool and peel the prawns.

3. For the sauce: Chop
the chillies and garlic and crush the coriander root and combine with
the lime juice, sugar and fish sauce.

4. Warm a pan of water to boiling
and drop in the noodles momentarily, drain and place in a large bowl.

Add the minced pork, seafood and sauce to the bowl and mix well.