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Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Spiced Chili And Spicy Chili Peppers

Why do humans love to eat chili peppers when they cause us so much pain?

Red Peppers

Photo: Simon Whitaker (flickr)

Theories abound explaining why humans are drawn to the painful taste of capsaicin, the key chemical giving chili peppers their spicy kick.

My mom’s chili was always one of my favorite meals growing up. She kept it simple, and mild — just a pound of ground beef, an onion, a can of tomato sauce, and a can of dark red kidney beans. Shake on some chili powder, and you’ve got a meal!

When I recently started experimenting with vegetarianism, though, I wanted to find a way to make chili just as hearty without the carne. This recipe is rich in spices, and incorporates two kinds of beans. You can always use more bean variety, and experiment with other veggies to keep it interesting. I think soy chorizo would also be a great addition.

As for chili peppers, my recipe is mild, like my mom’s. I added a bit of hot chili pepper sauce, but my tolerance for chilies is still embarrassingly low. It’s something I’m working on.

Jalapeños still frighten me. Once, when cutting one, I made the grave mistake of rubbing the skin underneath my nose. Never again! I must have scrubbed the skin with soap for 15 minutes until the pain finally subsided.

Humans’ Unique Love Of Chili Peppers

An article published earlier this week in the New York Times discusses why humans love to eat chili peppers when they cause us so much pain. There are quite a few theories out there, but what’s more interesting is the fact that humans are the only animals known to enjoy eating painfully spicy foods.

Is this what sets us apart from our fellow creatures?

Theories abound explaining why humans are drawn to the painful taste of capsaicin, the key chemical giving chili peppers their spicy kick. But humans are the only animal known to take pleasure in eating painfully spicy foods, suggests Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania.

If this is true, then Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, thinks we may have finally found the feature that sets humans definitively apart from other animals on the planet. He states: “Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

Tabasco

Photo: patchattack (flicker)

Are humans the only species who like spicy foods?

Granted, it’s true that birds, immune to the pain-inducing effects of capsaicin, might enjoy the fruit if they could taste it. As it is, birds rather than mammals are responsible for the spread of chili pepper seeds, since most mammals (besides humans) avoid the plant for the pain it causes.

Feel The Heat

The sensation you feel when eating a chili pepper is, in fact, pain. The chemical capsaicin reacts with pain receptors in your body as if you’ve just been burned. That’s why it feels hot.

Yet this seemingly negative reaction is balanced by chemical benefits.

According to Vincenzo Di Marzo, of the Institute of Biomolecular Chemistry in Naples, the sensation of heat enhances the flavors of other food. It’s also been found to increase salivation, possibly contributing to that heightened sense of taste.

Relief From Pain

Studies of arthritis patients have shown that treatment with capsaicin, applied topically, can actually reduce pain over time. The idea is that exposure to pain causes the body’s signaling to effectively “turn off” — leaving patients free of arthritis pain.

The Thrill Of The Ride

Is our unique love of spicy food a sign of higher brain function as a species? Dr. Rozin suggests that the pleasure we find in the pain of chilies is similar to the fun we find in riding a roller coaster. “Mind over body,” he said. “My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.”

Spiced (Not Spicy) Vegetarian Chili

This chili recipe puts the emphasis on spice rather than capsicum-tinged heat. But feel free to add hot sauce as needed, or desired.

Vegetarian Chili

Photo: Sarah Kaiser

Yummy chili doesn't have to be spicy!

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium red onion
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 1 tablespoons cumin
  • 4 cups cooked kidney beans
  • 2 cups cooked pinto beans
  • 2 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes
  • 3 chopped medium zucchini
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon hot sauce

Method:

  1. Heat vegetable oil in a large pot until sizzling. Add diced onion and green pepper; saute until onion becomes translucent.
  2. Add cumin, cook until aromatic.
  3. Add tomatoes and beans*. If the mixture is too thick, add 1/2 can of water (using one of the cans from the tomatoes).
  4. *Note: I used dry beans to make this, but you could also use cans. For dry beans – they double in size, so keep that in mind for cooking. If using cans – there are about 2 cups of beans in one regular-sized can.

  5. Add the rest of the spices—chili powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and hot sauce. Bring mixture to a boil, then turn down to low heat and allow to simmer, covered, for about 20-30 minutes. Taste, adjust spices as needed.
  6. Add zucchini 10 minutes before done (so it doesn’t get overcooked).

*Note: I used dry beans to make this, but you could also use cans. For dry beans – they double in size, so keep that in mind for cooking. If using cans – there are about 2 cups of beans in one regular-sized can.

We enjoyed this recipe topped with plain nonfat yogurt, shredded cheddar cheese, and corn chips. The nonfat yogurt is a healthier alternative to sour cream, and the corn chips are perfect for dipping.

The weather’s just now getting colder here in southern Indiana. We were having a strange bout of Indian (ha!) summer for most of September, but now as the month comes to a close the nights are pretty nippy. A warm bowl of chili was just what I needed to fight the fall chill—I think you’ll like it, too!

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Sarah Kaiser

Sarah Kaiser is a student-turned-townie living in Bloomington, Indiana. A social media specialist at Solution Tree, she spends her days tweeting and her nights foraging at the local summer market for new tastes and flavors. And occasionally rocking out on the ukulele.

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