Hot Chili Peppers in the Glistening Sun

Habanero Peppers - photo by Tom Franklin.Temperatures here in the Raleigh and Chapel Hill area have been climbing steadily over the past weeks, settling into the mid-to-upper 90s. It’s not hard to find people willing to complain about the heat and the humidity and how awful it is outside. When I hear such talk I just smile and nod my head. Sure it’s hot, but I know there is something growing in my garden that’s absorbing all of that wonderful heat and turning it into heat of a different kind.

If you aren’t familiar with the small, orange beauties pictured here, these are Habaneros, one of the hottest of the chili peppers. Picked just days ago, these will be added two or three at a time to fresh batches of my homemade salsa. Having grown and eaten Habaneros for years my wife and I both love the flavors and have a great respect the potential for explosive heat of these tiny pods. I chop these up carefully using a knife and fork, keeping my fingers safely away from the fiery oils on the inside of the pepper.

An adventuresome person who decided to pop one of these in his or her mouth and started chewing would, within seconds, feel the insides of their mouths become much like the molten surface of the sun. This is because of the high amounts of the chemical capsaicin contained within Habaneros. Capsaicin is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU). A standard bell pepper rates a 0 (zero) on the Scoville scale. Those Jalapeño peppers you sometimes see in restaurants? They clock in at a mere 2,500 – 8,000 SHU. Habaneros come in between 100,000 and 350,000 SHU.

That’s hot.

\If you appreciate the complexity that hot peppers bring to a dish or if you’re just curious as to why someone, anyone would decide to eat something that makes them feel like they’ve just chewed on some napalm, you should treat yourself to Richard Schweid’s “Hot Peppers: The Story of Cajuns and Capsicum.” Schweid’s book is a great read – part chili pepper history, part travel narrative through serious chili country, part portrait of the people of New Iberia, LA (the home of Tabasco peppers and sauce) and part recipe guide. The author treats each of these aspects of chilies with the admiration, reverence and humor they rightly deserve.

And, see those pretty little red peppers growing straight upright on the cover of Schwied’s book? They could be Tabasco peppers (30,000-50,000 SHU) or they could be Thai peppers (50,000-100,000). We’ve grown Thais in the past and they’re as deadly as they are tiny. Personally, I recommend eating a salsa made with both while you read Schweid’s book.

— tom