TOGI: Chilli, Chili Pepper, Chile

Chilli, Chili Pepper, Chile

Why do people love it even though it’s painful and torturous? What about chilli makes it spicy? Where did chilli originate from? How did it become part of culinary cultures worldwide?

Welcome to The Odd Gratuitous Inquiry (TOGI), a podcast where I investigate unnecessary questions and speculate answers no one asked for.

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The Odd Gratuitous Inquiry (TOGI) podcast
The Odd Gratuitous Inquiry (TOGI) podcast



Do you enjoy eating chilli?

In Singapore, we eat chilli in many different cuisines. The chilli comes in different forms. chilli crab. Chicken rice chilli. Green chilli with fried kway teow. Sambal chilli with nasi lemak. Chopped red chilli with fish soup. chilli in curry.

And then there’s the Americans. If you go to the US and request for chilli, you’re gonna get a surprise. It’s actually chilli con carne, meat stew with chilli. But that’s the Americans for you. They call football soccer, their national non-football football league the world league, and some meat dish chilli. So, let’s put them aside for now.

I’m talking about chilli peppers. The spicy fruit of the plant from the capsicum family.

Chilli is well loved by many people in Singapore, in SEA, and all over the world.

But it’s torture. Eating chilli is actually painful. But we still consume loads of it.

Have you heard the story about a childcare teacher in Singapore who got charged for disciplining a 4-year-old boy by allegedly rubbing chilli on his mouth and face. Something similar happened in Florida, USA. A teacher soaked spiked her own soda with chilli sauce, knowing that an autistic elementary school kid likes to drink from her soda.

That’s all really messed up.

Chilli compounds are also used in pepper sprays, which are often used by women against baddies.

But when it comes to ourselves, we happily inflict ourselves with the spicy heat of chilli.

For some, it’s a sort of happy, even romantic or sexual, self-infliction. In the 6th sonnet of “Sonnets to a Red-Haired Lady and Famous Love Affairs” by Don Marquis (the Americans pronounce it maar-kee, the British pronounce it maa-kwes)) (Donald Robert Perry Marquis, an American newspaper columnist, humorist, poet, playwright and author) published in 1922, he wrote:

“My Torchlight Dame! My Frail Incomparable!

My sunset Afterglow! My Aureole!

Does your head symbolize your ardent soul?

Then must your spirit sting its earthly shell

As hot as pepper-sauce that’s served in hell!

Shake out those billowy flames and let ’em roll

Across the world until the very Pole

Melts into love and steams beneath their spell!”

So yes, people have had love affairs with chilli for some time.

Why Does Chilli Cause Pain?

Why does chilli burn and cause pain?

There are spicy chemical compounds in chilli known as capsaicin.

These compounds trigger the temperature sensation receptor in our bodies known as TRPV1.

So, although a chilli can be eaten cold, it makes us feel like our tongues are burning.

The spiciness of chilli is measured by the Scoville scale, which was invented in 1912 by a scientist Wilbur Scoville. (His name unfortunately sounds like the name of some suburb plagued by infectious yeast, Scoville.)

The higher the concentration of capsaicin, the hotter the chilli. Scoville extracted capsaicin with alcohol and then added it to a solution of sugar and water. It is then diluted with water until a person can drink it without feeling the heat. The amount of dilution represents the heat of the chilli.

Today, a modern method is used known as high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). Chillies are ground into powder, added to a solvent, and placed into a machine. It extracts the capsaicin and measures its amount. No poor lad has to drink goodness knows how many cups of chilli water.

So, why do we eat chilli if it causes us pain?

Well, the brain releases endorphins and dopamines when you eat chilli. Endorphins are the natural painkillers of the body. It’s produced by your body during exercise and sex. Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter that gives us a sense of reward and punishment. Produced when you eat chocolate. Oh, that’s why there’s chilli chocolate. Double dopamine hit! Bam!

A 2014 study done in the U.S. shows that personality affects whether you like chilli. Sensation seeking or intrinsic factors mattered more in women liking and consuming chilli. For men, sensitivity to punishment & reward mattered more.

The study authors suggest: “the association of sensation seeking with liking and intake suggests that for individuals high in Sensation Seeking, there may be an innate rewarding aspect of capsaicin as a stimulus. Conversely, for other personality constructs that associated only with spicy food intake, the enjoyable aspect of consuming capsaicin may potentially be related more to social aspects of consuming spicy foods”, like social praise.

In my own words, women who seek sensation are more likely to enjoy chilli. Men who enjoy chilli are probably eating it to get a shot with those women. So… if you go on a date, feed the other person lots of chilli and see what happens…

Apparently, young children in all cultures are averse to chilli. It’s only when we get older and want more ‘kick’ in our boring lives–and we can’t be taking roller coasters or bungee jumping everyday–that we find thrill in things like eating chilli.

Seems like it’s all about adults seeking pleasure. Pleasure with pain. Safe painful pleasure, that is. Because most chillies don’t cause most of us harm.

Well, not for some unfortunate ones. In 2011, a mid-30s National Guard veteran Brady Bennett went into a bar in Ohio, US, with his friend. He was offered a free shot. (Hmm, always be wary of free drinks.) He apparently ordered a Patron tequila with apple flavoring, whereas the bartender thought he asked for “some kind of crazy shot”. So, the bartender  served him tequila with Bhut Jolokia, a kind of Ghost Pepper. That ghost pepper is 200 times hotter than jalapeño. Brad apparently fell onto the floor with his nose, mouth, and lungs on fire, had difficulty breathing, and they had to call the ambulance. During the 911 call, one just hears sounds of Bennett moaning and groaning. He later claimed for medical bills. His lawyer said: “Over the course of the next two weeks, when he has to go to the bathroom, it is an excruciating experience.” Well. Now you know, don’t order any crazy shot. Never know what’s gonna hit you.

And if you’re an F&B establishment, here’s a tip if you’re going to serve really spicy chilli. Put up an obvious written notice to warn customers about the risks of the chilli or even make them sign a limitation of liability form before serving it.

Of course, chilli preference is also cultural. I have been to London, US, Europe, and the closest thing you can get to chilli there in most restaurants is a hollowed out bell pepper. The seeds are where the chilli’s heat is so they’re usually removed when cooking capsicums.

Some American researchers in 1998 Billing & Sherman actually studied cookbooks in 36 countries and concluded in their academic research that spicy food is consumed in hot climates (like Singapore) because of “their antibacterial properties that rid foods of pathogens and thereby contribute to people’s health, longevity and reproductive success”.

That’s like saying Asian people eat chilli because it keeps us from falling sick and helps us have more sex.

Now I see why some people don’t believe a thing “academics” say.

However, another more recent academic study in 2016 concludes otherwise:

“… Unlike animals who display a strong neophobic response to novel foods, that is until learning it is safe, human beings use a more sophisticated mechanism to solve the omnivore paradox -called culture. Our culinary culture determines not only what foods are allowed, but also how to prepare and season them. This knowledge is socially transmitted generationally and is resistant to change, although it maintains a gradual incorporation of novel food items, without losing the distinctive flavor that makes each culinary cuisine unique. It follows that the introduction of new foods into a culture must be done slowly. … Finally, to avoid food from becoming boring humans use combinations of ingredients, most frequently spices. … In summary, we suggest that the reason why people living in hot climates like their food spicy, is not presently for its historical antimicrobial properties, but because it is basically rooted in their culture.”

I mean, isn’t it obvious?

Another study done in 2017 by researchers from South Korea, Denmark and the U.S. tested people’s liking for spicy sauces paired with different food.

Two newly developed hot sauces [fermented red chilli pepper with soybean-paste-based sauce(GS) and fermented red chilli-pepper-based sauce(KS)] were compared with Tabasco sauce(TB) and Sriracha sauce(SR). … When the hot-sauce samples were applied to pizza and cream soup, the different cultures all preferred chilli soybean paste and chilli pepper sauce over tabasco sauce … In the case of grilled chicken and rice noodle soup, the Koreans liked all sauces, whereas the Americans preferred Sriracha sauce, and the Danish preferred the chilli soybean paste and chilli pepper sauce over Sriracha sauce. The Americans did not like hot-sauce samples with sweet and weak spiciness, whereas the Korean and Danish subjects disliked the hot-sauce sample when it was too spicy and not sufficiently sweet.

All this is to say… different cultures just take to different flavours and spiciness. Again, a bit duh.

History of Chilli

Chilli is found in cuisines and cultures all over the world.

But where did it originate from?

Most probably Mexico, or generally, South America.

Researchers rely on archaeological, ecological, paleobiolinguistic and genetic evidence to conclude that chilli was deliberately cultivated in Mexico at least 6000 years ago.

This may explain why I, along with many Singaporeans, enjoy Mexican food.

How did the chilli reach the rest of the world then?

We first begin with the famous Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. He went around searching for a trade route for the spice trade. What spice was he looking for? Black peppercorn! Black pepper was used not only as a rare spice but as currency to pay for stuff. Can you imagine, black pepper back in that day was probably more valuable than your Bitcoin today?

In those days, black pepper came from the Malabar Coast in Kerala, India. It would be traded through the Levant, i.e. modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Turkey, to Europe. The Ottomans cut off that trade route in the mid 1400s. So Columbus tried to find a new trade route to Asia. No luck.

Instead, he found the Caribbeans and called it India. And he found chilli and called it ‘chilli pepper’. He either thought it was like black pepper or he deliberately named it as such to make it almost as valuable as black pepper. He then brought it back to the king of Spain. But chilli only took root in Europe.

It was the Portuguese who eventually brought chilli to Asia. They took over Goa, India around the end of the 15th century under its colonial empire. The Portuguese expanded their empire eventually to Malacca in South-East Asia, Macau, present-day East Timor and the Spice Islands or Maluku Islands in Indonesia. (Maluku sounds like you had a baluku (that is, colloquially, a head bump) and then you malu, which is Malay for embarrassed. By the way, I googled “Malu” and some Cuban American singer influencer’s photo popped up.) A trading post was also set up by the Portuguese in Nagasaki, Japan. Traders then brought chilli to China, Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia.

As one would note, this chequered colonial history is plagued by injustice, brutality and oppression of indigenous peoples. This is the reality of trade and transplanting of culture in the past.

Well, at least today we can enjoy eating different types of chilli with our favourite food.

And capsaicin, the hot compound in chilli, is used as a pain relief in cream or plasters for muscular aches, arthritis, back aches, etc.

I also read that, apparently, the Chinese in Singapore used to use the leaves of the chilli plant to relieve toothaches; the Malays used chilli to treat diarrhoea, vomiting and cholera, and Indians used it to exorcise an “evil eye”. Let me know if you’ve tried it for any such purposes and how it went.

Chilli Today

Today, there are about 4,000 varieties of chilli.

If you’ve ever wondered whether green chilli is a different variety from red chilli, green chilli is actually the less ripe version of the same chilli, harvested earlier. I know this because I randomly threw some capsicum seeds into my planter and forgot about it. One day, a seedling sprouted, and eventually it grew into a plant with a tiny little chilli berry. It was green at first, then yellow, then red. I didn’t know what to do with it, because it was puny, all of 3 cm the size of a gummy bear. It was eventually used as a garnish for a steamed fish.

So, some well known chilli types are…

Jalapeno, which I have enjoyed in the form of baked bacon-wrapped jalapeno with cheddar.

Cayenne, not the Porsche car model, but the chilli. It is great as a sauce for chicken wings. Or in the dry rub for some grilled meats. It’s also the long red chilli we often chop and eat in Singapore with dishes like Bak Kut Teh.

Peri peri / piri piri – which in Swahili literally means pepper pepper. What comes to my mind immediately is the peri peri sauce for Nando’s chicken.

Bird’s Eye – a small type of chilli, whose seeds are often spread by birds. By the way, birds can’t taste capsaicin so they can eat the chilli without feeling the heat and thus spread the seeds all around. The chilli padi we have in Singapore is a Bird’s Eye.

Habanero, a rather spicy chilli which is often used in salsa.

Ghost pepper, which originated in the north-eastern Indian states of Nagaland and Assam, is one of the hottest chillis in the world. It is so spicy that touching it could irritate your skin. Be sure not to rub your eyes after handling it! It is used often in curries and chutneys.

Finally, what is apparently the spiciest chilli in the world is the Carolina Reaper. It is a man-made species, a cross between ghost pepper and red habanero. I’m honestly not sure if I have eaten it before. I doubt I have. Because I don’t think I’d survive it to tell the tale.

Which reminds me of a time when a friend, my wife and I had a holiday in New Zealand. We were famished after a long most amazing day of wine tasting in Marlborough. We drove to what was probably the only restaurant that was still open at that time and ordered dinner. The friendly manager served us a platter of chillis. He advised us to eat in sequence, starting with the least spicy. The first was less a chilli than a sweet capsicum. But by the time we hit the last chilli, I was dead.

I suppose that’s the thing with chilli. I know it will burn me, but I deliberately consume it anyway, believing it would give me a thrill that I must not miss. It is a painful pleasure. It is the disruption in my mundane cycle of life. It is the controlled madness that I choose to inflict upon myself, perhaps as a wilful subversion to the madness around me that I cannot control.

Maybe that’s why the rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers is named as such. And why they’re usually performing half- or even almost entirely naked. (Actually the genesis of their name is more mundane: it’s a mish-mash of Louis Armstrong’s jazz quintet the Hot Five and some other English band named Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers.)

And maybe that’s why, many of us love chilli in our food. We can’t be content with just a simple bowl of fish porridge. No, we must eat the fish with the chopped red chilli soaked in light soy sauce. Because that’s our way of resistance to the insanity of our life. Because that’s our little brief escape before we return to the mundanity of our lives.

And so, may you always be able to enjoy the risk of madness in eating all the chilli in the world.

Thanks for listening. If you’d like to suggest a topic or share your thoughts, write to me at

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