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A Beginner’s Guide to Chillies | Beat The Heat

The next time someone asks you how hot Indian food is, show off your knowledge and respond with numbers than using cliche terms like moderate, extremely spicy and bearable. Bring out the connoisseur in you and throw the Scoville Heat Unit at them!  Before you give me that “what the hell are you talking about, sister?”  look, keep reading!

All around the globe chillies are used in more ways than one, either wholly, chopped up, dried and powdered, converted into a paste, modified into a sauce, or just crushed with other aromatics. No matter how they are incorporated into your meal the ultimate goal remains the same: to provide heat! The method of incorporation depends heavily on the kind of chilli used with over 400 varieties around the world, all of them belonging to the genus – Capsicum!
PS: Observe the leaves of these chillies!

What Makes Chillies Hot? 

Capsaicinoids. That is the culprit you are looking for. They are a class of compounds found in members of the capsicum family, and the most common compound is capsaicin. It is found in almost all chilli peppers, but not in pepper. Don’t get them mixed, pepper aka black gold has a compound called piperine that imparts a different kind of spice and heat when compared to capsaicin. it is capsaicin that is used in pepper spray and not piperine, it can get confusing, but let’s clear it out. Pepper spray is also called capsicum spray, all good now? Since I am not a chemistry geek, I am going to leave this topic here, we know enough I believe.

How do we measure this heat?

Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). This measures the pungency of each variant of chilli. The Scoville scale is a tool used to measure the hotness of a chilli pepper by the amount of the capsaicin it contains. Okay, let us break it down further. Simply put, it is a measurement of sugar – water, i.e, it calculates the pungency and heat of the chilli by determining the amount of sugar water that is needed to dilute the chilli concentrate or mash until a point where you no longer feel the heat. For example, if a jalapeno measures 3,000 Scoville Heat Units on the Scoville scale, then the extract of the chilli must be diluted 3000 times before the heat is barely detectable.

Deeper Dive

SHU can range between 0 – even as high as 2 million. The world’s hottest chilli as per 2020 is Carolina Reaper which measures a whopping 22,00,000 on the Scoville scale. Our humble capsicum/ bell peppers measure zero. This measurement tool or scale was developed by pharmacologist Wilber Scoville and is named after him. Dragon’s breath is the latest competitor to Carolina reaper with a potential measure of 2.48 million on the Scoville scale. We now know why most of the chillies have dangerous names!
Just to give you a reference of how the heat increases as we go up the Scoville scale,  a ghost pepper that measures 1,041,427 SHU is almost 200 times hotter than a jalapeno!

Let us look at some of the chillies that we know and their SHU

Type of Chilli

Scoville Heat Unit

Bell Pepper


Banana Pepper (imagine mulaku Bhajji and Moru Mulaku)


Kashmiri Chilli (for the colour)


Jalapeno (extra on my sub please)


Guntur Sannam (has a GI tag)


Cayenne Pepper and Tabasco (you know that sauce, don’t you?)


Bird’s eye chilli (Our Kanthari mulaku is a variant of this)


Scotch Bonnet (not the drink) and Habanero


But Jholokia (the Indian heatwave)


Naga Viper (was the hottest chilli in the world until Carolina Reaper took over)

13,82,118- 13,90,000

Carolina Reaper (Hell!)

22,00,000 – 22,00,000

If you were thinking that throwing out the seeds can actually help you munch on most of the chillies mentioned above, let me give you a reality check, the hottest part of chilli is not the seed but the placenta, the white flesh that holds the seeds. The capsaicin in the chillies are fat-soluble, which means it dilutes faster in fat, now you know why the spicy food challenges come with a glass of milk and not cold water! But somehow, my brain circles back to basics of Ayurveda and the principle of ‘Ushnam Ushnena Shanthi’ – heat cures heat. Have you tried eating spicy food and drinking hot water, it burns initially but calms you down almost instantly!

The greener chillies are said to be spicier than the red ones, they ripen to a bright red, start losing moisture and crinkle as they age. India is the largest producer of chillies in the world and most of India’s production happen in Andhra Pradesh! It would be interesting for you to know that even the Kashmiri Red Chilli powder that we use comes from the variant cultivated in Andhra and not Kashmir.

Even though as a country we lead in the production of the hottest of spices, it reached India only 450 years ago via the Portuguese. 4 indigenous variants have already bagged the GI tag (if you want to read more about GI tags, check out my article: GI tag and Food).

  1. Bydagi Chilli:  Measuring 50,000-100,000 on the Scoville scale, Bydagi/ Bedgi is native to Karnataka. It is mildly spiced with a deep red colour that makes chicken ghee roast a crowd favourite. The dried variant sports a dark and deep red colour and is only 6 -10 times hotter than a Jalapeno.
  2. Guntur Sannam: Andhra’s very own Guntur sees a huge demand worldwide. The easiest to produce and the most grown variety of chilli in Andhra Pradesh.
  3. Mizo Chilli: Though Naga Viper is famous, the one with a legal tag within the country is Mizoram’s 1/2 inch long small bomb. It is also known as a bird’s eye chilli, Kanthari Mulaku from Kerala belongs to the same family, but is thinner when compared to this.
  4. Bhiwapur Chilli: The town of Bhiwapur in Maharashtra is famed for this chilli and the main occupation revolves around the production of it. This like the Bedgi sports a deep red colour.

Do you know why the ‘hottest wings challenge’ or 2X and 4X spicy noodles have a huge market share? As the body prepares itself to fight off the heat, it releases endorphins, the hormones considered to be natural pain killers, thus giving you a high! If you are well tolerant of the pungency, spicy food can make you happy and give you a feeling of elation!

Head to your kitchen, slit a chilli open and plant the seeds, water it every day and provide it with ample sunlight! The more we observe the goodness around us and find the joy in the smallest of things,  the better we appreciate and respect. This article was also a result of my daily garden muse.

1) The Flavour of Spice: Marryam H Reshii
2) Why chillies are hot ( click to read)

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  1. Abhimanyu Prasad says:

    Always wondered how Scoville was measured but never looked into it. Well written and informative post as always!

    1. thankgodimfat says:

      Thank you so much! I am glad this helped

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