What is a chili pepper? My Cultural Experience with Red Chili Peppers

Written by Nicole Busboom, EFNEP Extension Assistant

This February, my family traveled to Thailand and experienced Asian cuisine. This was such a rewarding cultural learning experience for me. I definitely didn’t know what to expect regarding the food culture.  We soon realized that a lot of the food was fresh, locally grown and was very flavorful with chilies and spices. I thought the food was delicious and even brought back dried red chili peppers that I bought from a local Thai farmer.

Red Chili Pepper

Many Thai dishes such as Tom Yum Goong, Pad Thai, Som Tam (spicy salad), Thai fried rice, Sriracha, red, green and yellow curries include chili peppers.  These are just a few of the dishes I tried during my travel. As I reflected on the Asian cuisine, I wanted to know more about the chili pepper. Why are they used in cooking? What makes them considered hot?

ingredients3

Chili peppers are actually good for you. They contain three times as much vitamin C as oranges, and they are also loaded with vitamins A and E, as well as folic acid and potassium. The “hot” in hot peppers is due to capsaicin: a colorless, odorless oil-like compound is found in the fruit of a plant that is a close relative of the tomato. Capsaicin is primarily found in the membrane that holds the seeds. Capsaicin is also found in smaller amounts in other spices, such as oregano, cinnamon, and cilantro.

thai spices

The hotness of a pepper depends on the capsaicin content. When you eat a hot pepper, it definitely feels like your mouth is on fire, but if you were to stick a thermometer in your mouth, it would not register an increase in temperature. Believe it or not, even the hottest peppers do not really get hot. They trigger pain receptors in your tongue, mouth and back of your throat that send a signal to the brain, which is interpreted as heat. Since capsaicin is an irritant, this feeling of heat is the body’s way of compelling you to take some food or drink in an effort to remove the irritant.

Did you know that you can build up a tolerance to eating hot foods? The general consensus is that the pain receptors in the tongue and the mouth become desensitized over time if you have eaten a lot of hot food, allowing you to eat increasingly hotter foods.

thai cooking class1

A popular tourist attraction in Thailand is taking a Thai cooking class. My family attended a class at the ‘Kitchen Restaurant and Thai Cooking Class’ at Kata Beach in Phuket.  Here we are making Tom Yum Goong, a delicious soup that has a lot of flavor, including local grown chili peppers and is a featured main dish in many restaurants throughout Asia.  

thai soup

Hot and Sour Thai Soup: Tom Yum Soup

  • Servings: 8
  • Time: 45mins
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print


Lemongrass and lime leaves are for flavor, and should be avoided when eating this soup.

Ingredients

  • 2 quarts chicken broth
  • 2 stalks fresh lemongrass, sliced on a bias in 2-inch pieces
  • 4 Kaffir lime leaves OR 2 Tbsp. fresh lime zest
  • 1-inch piece fresh ginger, sliced
  • 2 red chilies, sliced (I added extra because the dried chilies I had were small)
  • 2 Tbsp. fish sauce
  • 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 1 (8-ounce) can straw mushrooms, rinsed and halved
  • 1 lb. large shrimp, peeled with tails on
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • 1 handful fresh cilantro, chopped

Directions

  1. In a large saucepan, bring the stock to a boil. Add the lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves (OR lime zest), ginger, and chilies. Lower the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer 15 minutes.
  2. Uncover and add the fish sauce, sugar, and mushrooms. Simmer for 5 minutes. Toss in the shrimp and cook for about 8 minutes until they turn pink.
  3. Remove from the heat and add the lime juice, green onions, and cilantro. Taste for salt and spices; you should have an equal balance of spice, salty, and sour.


This post was reviewed by Morgan Hartline MS, RD, LMNT. Photos by Nicole Busboom. 

Resources:

American Chemical Society https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/resources/highschool/chemmatters/past-issues/archive-2013-2014/peppers.html

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