Habanero peppers.
Habanero peppers.

Ryan Tatsumoto
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

What condiment do you find on dining room tables in Hawai‘i almost as often as shoyu? A good guess would be home-concocted chili pepper water — you know, that suspension of ground Hawaiian chili peppers mashed with salt or sometimes fresh garlic or vinegar and usually stored in either a 16-ounce recycled water bottle or a reused memmi bottle. The 50th’s love of chili pepper water has inspired manufacturers to market their own version of the local favorite.

What’s a Chili Pepper?

All members of the pepper family are rooted in the genus Capsicum, which is part of the larger Solanaceae family — it includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and tobacco. What makes members of the Capsicum genus different is their level of capsaicin production, the compound that gives chili peppers its culinary heat.

The rating of capsaicin is measured in Scoville units — the higher the Scoville rating, the greater the heat on the palate. It is a subjective measurement, as dried peppers are mixed first with alcohol to extract the capsaicin and then diluted with sugar water, which is sampled by five trained tasters. The tasters are fed the continuously diluted samples until at least three of them can no longer detect any heat. Thus, the most diluted samples correspond with the hottest chili peppers. Your basic supermarket bell pepper would rate as zero Scoville units since it doesn’t produce capsaicin and does not need any additional dilution since there is no heat.

At the other end is the Carolina Reaper chili pepper, which rates over 1.5 million Scoville units. Pure capsaicin extract is rated at 18 million Scoville units, but it has no culinary application whatsoever. Of course, I’m a capsaicin lightweight, so I usually avoid anything over 20,000 Scoville units.

Why Eat Anything So Hot?

Hardcore “chili heads” swear that consuming copious amounts of chili peppers causes endorphins to be released in the brain. That, in turn, binds to the same subset of receptors as opiates such as morphine and oxycodone, giving chili heads the same response as someone who just took their dose of Roxicet. It’s like an addict who just injected his or her dose of opiates. As with any addictive substance, the chili head continues to seek hotter and hotter concoctions to relive that chili “buzz.” As crazy as it sounds, there is some science behind the capsaicin-endorphin connection.

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Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”

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