They can be so sweet, flavorful and delicious. Some are hot and some are not.
Peppers are among my favorite edibles. You can go wild with peppers: chop and chomp; stuff and bake; slice and sauté; batter and fry; oh me, oh my.
I enjoy the flavor of peppers, but sometimes I also desire that kick of capsaicin. That's the chemical that puts the heat in many peppers. Some peppers have none; some have beaucoup. Beaucoup means a lot, and a lot can be good.
Growing up in an Irish-German clan in the Midwest, I knew of only that mild but yummy bell pepper, until I joined the U.S. Marine Corps. I have nothing against bell peppers, mind you. Contrariwise, I'll take a tasty stuffed bell pepper any day of the week and devour it with delight. Chili rellenos can be mild, too, and I'll destroy a plate of chili rellenos in mere minutes.
My introduction to peppery heat came within my first months in the Marine Corps, when I tasted my first pepper-induced fire in Mexico. Later that year, the Corps sent me on an all expenses-paid trip to beautiful Vietnam. My Marine instructors had taught me all about fighting and surviving in a combat zone, but they forgot to warn me about Southeast Asian chili peppers. I didn't know I'd get into a firefight in my mouth at a Vietnamese noodle stand!
By 1968, while Richard Nixon was saying "Sock it to me!" on television's "Laugh In," I was mimicking him to the Vietnamese vendor who used all those fiery peppers, pepper sauce and pepper oil in her stir-fry dishes. Nuoc mam sauce? Chili-garlic sauce? Thai chilies? Sock it to me!
Those chilies in Asia – not to mention those peppers over yonder in Europe – are not native to those continents. Peppers first appeared in the Americas, where the Spanish took a liking to their wonderfulness and introduced them elsewhere, which became everywhere.
Peppers generally fall into one of three groups: bell peppers, sweet peppers and hot peppers. Bells contain no capsaicin. Sweet peppers have only trace amounts, but their sweet goodness makes up for any lack of spiciness, in my opinion. Hot peppers, such as all of those crazy-good chili peppers, possess varying degrees of hotness to go along with their crazy goodness. Pleasantly hot or not, I eat peppers quite a lot.
I do have my limits on the heat, though. Just because I'm goofy about peppers doesn't mean I'm flat-out goofy. If I think my tongue is going to fall off and my eyes pop out and the top of my head explode 300 meters into the sky, I'll be careful. I want to stay away from a pepper that might exceed my tolerance level.
Wilbur Scoville helped us know how to stay within our tolerance levels. The chemist, in 1912, invented a heat scale for measuring the hotness of peppers. The entire pepper-eating world heard about his genius and adopted the Scoville Heat Unit.
Jalapeno peppers can kick out 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville units, or SHUs. We can handle that, right? Everybody loves nachos with jalapenos! How about jalapeno poppers? And remember last summer, when Hardee's and Carl's Jr. made those scrumptious, cheesy, southwestern patty melts with jalapenos? Holy hotness, they were delicious!
The ghost pepper is insanely hot. I'm afraid I must pass if you offer me ghost-pepper chow. It claims the title of hottest in the world. The ghost pepper – it's from India and also is known as the naga jolokia – can light up your life, or snuff it out, with a million SHUs. That's not hot; that's hellishly incendiary!
Incidentally, pure capsaicin measures 16 million SHUs. Hot stuff.
Have you ever eaten a pepper-based dish, but you picked out the peppers and put them to the side – maybe placed them on a separate dish, knowing you should eat them only if capture by the KGB were eminent, and you must die? I've performed that little ritual at Mandarin Garden many times, when I eat the kung pao shrimp. I always order the kung pao shrimp. You know why I order it. Don't act as if you don't. You know why. Because it's so perfectly hot and so damn delicious that I want to sing and shout a special Marine Corps cadence, or chant, all about the peppery heat and spectacular flavor of Mandarin Garden's kung pao shrimp. I'm crazy about Mandarin's kung pao.
I haven't eaten many of those dried, fiery chilies like you get in the kung pao, and I've never eaten a ghost pepper – probably never will. Plenty of other peppers, however, suit my palete just fine. Right now, I'm working my way through a big pile of sweet peppers that I bought on sale this past week. I've been consuming them with great joy every day. Sure, they're not really hot, but my Creole seasoning and Sriracha sauce and Louisiana hot sauce can take care of that in two shakes. Make that 22 shakes – 11 shakes of the Creole seasoning and 11 shakes of hot sauce.
Mmmm, peppers. Capsaicin infused or not, I guess I'm hot for peppers.