What makes hot things hot? Why are chillis hot and red peppers sweet? Why do parsnips taste sweet and horseradish blow your head off? Is it the same chemical which makes mustard and pepper and ginger hot?
Well, chilli peppers are a variety of capsicum and can be all different colours, shapes and sizes – and level of hotness! There are over 200 varieties of chilli and what makes them hot is capsacin, a volatile oil. Wilbur Scoville worked out a scale of hotness 101 years ago, and it’s called the Scoville scale; a sweet pepper is zero on the scale, Jalapeño and chipotle chillies range between 2,500 to 10,000 and habañero and Scotch bonnet go from 80,000 to 300,000 plus! Goodness knows what a naga chilli scores!
I adore horseradish which is a white root like a big knobbly parsnip… what I didn’t realise is that it is related to mustard, and it is mustard oil which makes it hot. It is most often used as a sauce to accompany roast beef, but it’s lovely with other things too, particularly fish. I thought it was a very old traditional vegetable in fact although it was traditional in central Europe, it didn’t arrive in England until the early 1600s but we took it to our hearts and planted it in our gardens and ate it with relish ( a little joke there!)
Mustard – a cousin to horseradish, is a lovely flavoured spice. The seeds are ground and then mixed with water to make the simplest condiment… or you can mix the powder with beer, wine, vinegar, oil… It accompanies most meats and you can use it in cooking too. The seeds themselves are used in a lot of Asian cooking with delicious results. Mustard and horseradish are part of the Brassica family, and one yummy vegetable I learned about from a WordPress friend was mustard greens… mmm!
Pepper, another wonderful and much-used condiment. It too originated in India, grows on a vine, is technically a drupe, and comes in many different varieties, and there are some peppercorns or berries which are called pepper (pink pepper, for example) which actually are from another plant altogether. Pepper is hot because of piperine, another volatile oil.
Ginger… use it from raw in cooking, crystallise it, preserve it in syrup, cover it in dark chocolate, dry it and grind it and use its powder in cakes and puddings and biscuits, make it into a cordial or a liqueur… however it’s used I love it! It’s a rhizome and is related to galangal, turmeric and cardamom. Oh, and if you’re poorly it is really good for you and can help lots of different complaints and illnesses… or just eat/ drink it and enjoy it to make you feel better.