With Longrain’s launch of a Hot & Spicy summer menu we ask; why do humans crave spicy food in hot weather? Are we programmed to fight fire with fire? Or has chilli simply developed a masochistic following?
The first answer comes to us from science.
Chilli Peppers contain capsaicin, a natural chemical that sends a burning sensation from the nerve endings in the mouth to the brain. Naturally the body defends itself against this pain sensation by secreting endorphins, natural painkillers that cause a physical "rush". This is what keeps us craving for more chilli.
If you have ever eaten a chilli straight, you know what the effects are. You experience a warm sensation and your nose begins to run. This is because capsaicin is a vasodilator, which means it opens up your blood vessels and increases circulation of blood and oxygen throughout the body, while it also releases the congestion caused by inflammation.
But it doesn’t stop there. chillies are also a good source of antioxidants, high in vitamin C, rich in vitamin A, as well as other useful minerals, such as iron and potassium.
The second explanation as to why hot climates enjoy chilli in their cuisine comes to us from history. The chilli pepper has spread to the four corners of the globe by enhancing and illuminating all ingredients in its path.
The chilli pepper originated in Mexico in Central America. Just two or three years after Columbus brought capsicum seeds back to Europe in 1493, Portuguese merchants took the chilli plants to Asia, where chill set about transforming cuisines.
Looking back, we can see that chilli flourished in Asia because of the dynamic way it changed the palate and texture of regional dishes, but also because of its work as an effective preservative. In hot climates chilli became extremely useful in preventing the spread of microbes and communicable diseases. Its firey scientific nature helped it penetrate all the cuisines of South East Asia.
Thai cooking didn’t always include chilli.
In the North of Thailand the cooking showed more influence from China. Chillies didn't even reach Thailand until the 16th century when they were brought over by the Portuguese.
Now the Thai pepper or scud chilli grown in Thailand and neighbouring countries, is classified as “very hot” on the Scoville heat index. Thai chilli is one of the smallest peppers, measuring less than an inch in size, but it has a heat score of between 50,000 and 100,000.
In our Australian climate any heat seeking foodie now has a great range of choices for hot and spicy food. Yet each year, without fail, Longrain comes alive in the summer months with spicy food lovers craving hot and spicy food.
“I think with most chilli addicts there is a visceral desire to fight fire with fire,” says Longrain founder Sam Christie.
One theory is that the sweat on your brow after you eat spicy food brings a cooling effect to the body. But to me it’s more than that, it’s a whole body feeling,” says Christie.
Cuisine from Thailand may be legendary for its chilli fire power, but it’s not just the heat derived from powerful Serrano chilies, or from firey bird’s eyes that makes its mark. The heat of green peppercorns or spicy Sriracha fill out the high notes in a symphony of spice and combine with other aromatics to create balance.
In Thai cooking it’s all about harmony and balance. This is achieved by a chef combining up to 10-12 key ingredients.
Christie says the balance in the current Hot & Spicy menu comes from a series of hot, salty, sour, and sweet dishes alongside the drinks selection. The new menu promotes a simple summer drink’s pairing of Tiger beer.
“Throughout Thailand the power of chillies or green peppercorns is usually tempered by the presence of coconut and lime, or by tea and water.
“Thai households traditionally offer visitors healthy oolong tea, or an array of psychedelic coloured sugary drinks –but I think my all-time favourite way of countering chill and spice on the palate is ice cold beer or the excellent acidity of a crisp, aromatic white,” Christie says.
The Hot & Spicy menu launched on January 11 and will be available until 28 February.
Click here to download the menu.