Monday, September 7, 2009

Chili: An obsession among Bhutanese


Imagine if all countries were asked to send one person for a gathering at a certain place and showcase a talent which will distinguish themselves from all the others. What could that lone Bhutanese possibly do? Showcase Buddhism? Lozees and Tsangmos? Zhundras and Boedras? Dramestse Nga Chham? Well, what about ema-datse and our ability to consume spicy chillies?

After all, ema-datse is considered our national dish and just the sight of chillies is enough to send shivers down the spine for those foreigners. So here is a rule of thumb – the more chillies you add to your dish, the further they [ foreigners ] will stay away from your food. I think the affinity for spiciness is more of a conditioned rather than an innate characteristic for Bhutanese. As little toddlers, the number of times you hear that you are handsome or beautiful is in proportion to the amount of chillies you eat; And toddlers can do anything just to hear that they are good looking.

Foreigners often say that chili is used as a vegetable – not a spice – in Bhutan; If only they knew chili is the taste of Bhutan. Two or three chillies and a pinch of salt is all we need to have a hefty meal. [If you need prove for this statement, flashback to your school days!] It is hard to imagine Bhutanese dish without chillies. Bhutanese eat chillies whether raw or cooked, minced or roasted, fresh or dried, but no Bhutanese dish is complete without it. It isn't just another vegetable – or fruit if you want to get real scientific – we eat everyday; it is an integral part of our culture and life.

It is hard to believe that South America is the actual homeland of chillies. Countries like Bolivia and Ecuador are home to dozens of wild chili species which are believed to be the ancestors of all the world's chillies. Scientist believe that people in South America have been using chillies for at least 8000 years based on the discovery of traces of chilies on ancient milling stones and cooking pots from Bahamas to southern Chile. The evidence gathered from the study of potsherds from archaeological sites shows that Americas began domesticating chilies more than 6000 years ago.

After the discovery of American continent and the Caribbeans, chilies spread around the world rapidly. In 1492, Christopher Columbus encountered cultivated chili plants by the Arawak Indians in Hispaniola , and mistakenly called them “peppers.” Pepper, which belongs to the Piper genus, is a spice which is native to the Indian subcontinent, while chili belongs to the Capsicum genus. The mistake is attributed to another mistake Columbus made by falsely believing that he reached India when he landed on the West Indies. He later wrote that those people “deem it very wholesome and eat nothing without it.”

Columbus took chilies to Spain and introduced them to other Europeans. Soon the Portuguese traded them to Africa from their trading post in Pernambuco, Brazil. Within 50 years, Pernambuco chilies were cultivated in India, Japan, and China. India could be the only possible place from where Bhutanese got their first chili seed. Without written records about it, it will be hard to say when chillies found their place in the Bhutanese cuisines. But I think it is safe to speculate that Bhutanese got the taste of chillies only during the late sixteenth century – at the very earliest.

Chili have many varieties and it ranges from very mild bell peppers to the Naga Jolokia, the hottest chilli. Naga jolokia is a inter-specific hybrid found in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur. The spiciness of chilies is attributed to a heat generating compound called capsaicin. Capsaicin stimulates the neural sensors by affecting the taste buds, nerve cells and nasal membranes of tongue and mouth. The sensors also detects rising temperature due to the heat generated by capsaicin and it notifies the brain. The brain then releases endorphins, and increases the heart beat and perspiration rate. The flow of adrenaline is attributed to the enticing experience while eating chilies.

According to an article titled 'Hot News about Chili Peppers', published in the Chemical and Engineering News ( Aug. 2008), capsaicin alters the way our body uses the energy produced by the hydrolysis of ATP. Normally, the energy generated is being used by SERCA proteins to move calcium ions to and from Sarcoplasmic reticulum, a special type of endoplasmic reticulum found in smooth and striated muscle fibers . The sarcoplasmic reticulum releases calcium ions during muscle contraction and absorb them during relaxation. In the presence of capsaicin, the conformation of SERCA is altered and hence most of the energy is being released as heat energy.

Scientist believe that the spiciness in chilies have a evolutionary purpose. Fruits in general needs to lure birds and animals for a successful germination. But at the same time, they will have to keep away predators. Capsaicin is produced by a gland near the stem and the rate of production increases as the fruit ripens. In an experiment conducted at the University of Washington, rodents ate the mild chilies but avoided the hot ones. Interestingly, chilies have no effect [spicy affect] on birds. However it is found that capsaicin slows the digestive system of birds; this gives time for the seeds to germinate. An in-depth study of chilies in Bolivia revealed that capsaicin also protects the fruits from fungal inflection. It is observed that the more spicier ( more capsaicin ) the chili is, the less fungal inflection it suffered. It is also observed that the more moisture the place has, the more spicier the chilies grown. This is primarily because the growth of fungus is more prevalent in moist places.

While the reasons for the popularity of chilies in Bhutan is entirely up to wild speculations, these characteristics of chili might have contributed to it in small ways. It is quite natural for people to cultivate fruits and grains which grows well and have less predators. Since the practice of shifting cultivation is common in Bhutan, and the capability of chili to keeps away predators naturally, it might have been an idle plant to cultivate [ If this little theory of mine sounds stupid, just forget it]. While some people believe that the cold weather of Bhutan might explain the romance of Bhutanese with chilies, I am left wondering why didn't the people living in the Appalachian mountains eat chilies like we do. The weather is much harsher there than in most parts of Bhutan and chilies have been introduced to them by the English as early as 1600's. Whatever the reasons might be, it is just simply stunning for Bhutanese people to not only incorporate chilies in Bhutanese dish, but also make it an integral part of it just within few hundred years. ( I think an even more interesting thing would be to know the Bhutanese dishes before the advent of chilies. )

The scale which scientist use to measure the spiciness of chilies was invented by Wilbur Scoville in 1912. A solution of chili extract is diluted with sugar water until a panel of trained tasters no longer feels the heat; the degree of dilution gives the Scoville rating. The unit for the measurement is called Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). Due to its dependence on humans to judge the saturation point, it is quite unreliable scientifically. Nowadays, high-performance liquid chromatography ( HPLC ) is being used to measure the concentration of capsaicin and other caspsaicinoids. The result is being processed with a mathematical formula to yield a result in American Spice Trade Association pungency unit. This unit can be directly converted to SHU. Bell pepper have a rating of zero SHU and Naga Jolokia measures 855,000–1,041,427 SHUs. Pure capsaicin measures about 15 to 16 million SHU.

Apart from its usage by Bhutanese as an integral part of dishes, chilies have several beneficial uses. Chilies were found to have an ability to reduce food spoilage and can also be used for medicinal purpose. Mayans were the first to use chilies in treating wounds, gastrointestinal problems and earaches. Capsaicins are also used in local anesthetics. The presence of chili in meals reduces the amount of insulin needed to lower the blood sugar level. Interestingly, chili is found to have an ability to lower obesity level; this explains why I am gaining weight now. While I am not sure about its truth, I heard from elders in villages that applying/rubbing chilies on the eyes when you have conjunctivitis will cure you from it. [ Try at your own risk. ] As is the case with anything, beneficial characteristics comes with destructive characteristics . The high consumption of chilies is the main cause of stomach ulcers and gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) . I heard that stomach ulcers is one of the highest problems associated with Bhutanese, correct me if I ma wrong.

While I will agree that people eat food to enjoy the taste - other than the obvious reason to supply energy source for our body - and not to torture themselves with capsaicins, we Bhutanese have a weird way of enjoying food. Perhaps Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine, was completely wrong when he called Bhutan’s dishes the “the world’s worst cuisine.” As far as I am concerned, you know what's my rating, don't you?

[Reference: National Geographic Society Magazine 2009]

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