Monday, June 05, 2006

Standin in line to see the show tonight and there's a light on

I may have developed an addiction over the past few weeks--an addiction to chili peppers. It all started when the labuyo plants (we have four or five of them) in front of the house erupted in an orgy of bright red fruit, and I noticed a little old lady from I-dont-know-where merrily picking them and placing them in a small plastic bag which was already helf-full. "The birds are just eating them, I might as well pick them," she apologized when I looked questioningly at her one morning on my way home from the bakery. I wouldnt have minded her picking the fruit up, especially if she was right and that they were all just going to the birds. I just thought it was rather rude that she didnt ask anybody for permission first. And she was trampling on some of the other plants, especially on the lemon grass. "Ok. Just make sure to leave some for us. And please dont step on the tanglad."

The old lady did leave some for us. The green ones. These soon ripened after a few days and soon there were more chili peppers than I could ever use. I placed some of the them in a bilao and dried them on the roof. And the chili plants just kept on giving. To make them dry faster, I thought I'd freeze them overnight first before drying them. The freezing process makes the water in the pods expand and bust through the cell wall and this made them easier to dry. I was right. I ran some of the dried pods through a grinder and soon I had a jar full of chili pepper flakes which I then sprinkled on everything I ate. I sprinkled them on steamed rice, on fish, on eggs, adobo, pasta. I even placed a dried pod in my hot chocolate, Aztec style. Soon I moved on from dried chili to fresh chili.

At first, they burned my mouth, but I wanted to see how far I could push it. I added more and more chili to my food and fought through the pain until I found myself inured to it. It still makes me sweat but I can eat a whole labuyo pod now without discomfort... as long as they stay on my tongue first. If the chili makes its way to my throat without my salivary glands working on them first, they still burn. Once youve gotten over the heat, you can taste the fresh fruit taste, and it's delicious. Every meal is now accompanied by five or six fresh chilis, chopped fine, with olive or canola oil.

Here's what Ive learned:

1) Contrary to popular belief, chili doesnt cause hemorrhoids. Ive had hemorrhoids before, way before I started eating copious amounts of chili, and eating chili didnt aggravate this pre-exisitng condition. Although it is easy to imagine the capsaicin (the active ingredient in chili--the one causing the burn) making a hemorrhoid more painful. At the start of my culinary fling with chili, the burn coming in was matched by the burn going out. But as my body got used to the capsaicin, the burn subsided. That includes the burn in my butt when I poop.

2) Chili isnt all about heat. It's rich in vitamins A and C, the B vitamins, and the minerals potassium, magnesium, and iron. Recently, capsaicin has been found to make prostate cancer cells commit suicide.

3) There has been a debate on what species the siling labuyo belongs to. Yes, botanists and chili geeks do debate these things. There are those who say that it's subspecies of Capsicum frutescens (relative of the Tabasco chili) and there are those who say that it's a subspecies of Capsicum chinensis (relative of the habanero chili). But a more recent contender is the Capsicum annuum chili (relative of the jalapeno and serrano chilis), albeit one of the more fiery members of that species, with strengths up to 100,000 Scoville units. (Scoville units are measure of the chili's heat.) Although at one time, the Guinness people listed siling labuyo as the hottest chili on earth (since corrected), the champion is the Habanero chili which can get up to 600,000 Scoville units... and still climbing as botanists develop even more lethal strains. I think we Pinoys use siling labuyo as a generic term for these three species of chili. Since it's not really a major part of our diet, our ancestors didnt see the need to differentiate them. Hence anything that looks like a small, hot, red chili is siling labuyo no matter what species it is. (We also did this to the maya, erstwhile national bird. We call 2 species of bird maya: Passer montanus and Lonchura malacca.) The chili in front of our house most likely belongs to the Capsicum annuum species. Its flowers look like serrano flowers.

4) The chili labeled as siling labuyo in supermarkets isnt. It's probably a Capsicum frutescens imported from Taiwan. Theyre longer and redder, like the ones in the picture above. And hardier since they have to survive the trip... and theyre not as hot. Theyre probably cayenne peppers.

5) The so-called 'chili high' is probably caused by the release of endorphins, the body's natural pain killers. The heat of a chili is not a 'taste' like sweet, sour, bitter, etc., but is a sensation caused by capsaicin's effect on pain receptors. The body reacts by releasing endorphins and endorphins are chemically quite similar to morphine. It could explain the addiction. For the record, I hardly ever notice a perceptible 'high' after a meal with chili. But what do I know? I dotn know what a high feels like.

There's a reason why these plants developed capsaicin, one of which probably is to keep mammals away, and since Im a mammal, I would do well to listen. Birds arent affected by capsaicin. In fact, birds are a very efficient seed propagation vector for these savvy plants. There have been conflicting studies on the part capsaicin plays in the development of stomach cancers. Some studies say they cause it, while others say they prevent it. Most likely, different people react differently depending on their own personal genetic code. Eventually, I may have to cut back. But not yet.

Photo from Used without permission. (

Addendum 06 June 2006: Here's a useful site for aspiring chili-heads.


grifter said...

you don't know "what a high feels like?" what th-!? you don't say. you're practically high all the time, so that's probably why. and you also probably had too much chili, you're numb. lay off the sauce.

the fact that you may be travelling to amsterdam in the near future does not bode well for this situation.

Anonymous said...

I thought I saw a study which says that people with a history of hemorrhoids and who consume quantities of chili die early. Consuming a labuyo (for hemorrhoid-history people) is reducing life expectancy by about a week.