Introduced to Asia by the Portuguese in the early 16th Century, the humble chilli has become a staple spice in Indian, Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine. Without chilli there would be no Szechuan kung pao chicken, no sambal, no curry of any type and – unthinkable as it sounds – no Sarawak Laksa.
So what do humans, supposedly the most intelligent of mammals, do when they discover such nasty organisms? Well first they selectively breed them for many generations to massively increase the amount of toxin they produce, and then they eat them.
The plants in question are of course the capsicum family, better known as chillies. And the burning sensation they produce is one of the highlights of many different cuisines, from Mexico to Malaysia and beyond.
The chilli is a native of Central and South America, and was brought to the Old World after the European discovery of America by Columbus, along with a host of other edible or otherwise useful plants we nowadays take for granted*. Introduced to Asia by the Portuguese in the early 16th Century, the humble chilli has become a staple spice in Indian, Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine. Without chilli there would be no Szechuan kung pao chicken, no sambal, no curry of any type and – unthinkable as it sounds – no Sarawak Laksa.
The power of chillies – their “heat” or spiciness – is determined using the Scoville Scale, which measures the effect of capsaicin (the main active ingredient) and ranges from zero heat units (sweet bell peppers) to 2.2 million heat units (the fearsome Carolina Reaper, current world record holder).
Most of the chillies used in Sarawak are found on the lower to middle part of the scale, as Sarawakians wisely use chillies to season their food rather than show how tough they are.
There are five main types of chillies found in Sarawak – the dozens of different kinds you see in the markets are mostly different sizes or stages of ripeness of these principal five.
Cabik merah or red chilli, also known as cabik lombok, is the most widely used, served fresh when grown locally and dried or powdered if imported from the Indian subcontinent. An Indian derivative of the cayenne pepper, it is a medium strength chilli measuring 30,000 to 50,000 on the Scoville Scale.
Cabik padi or rice-grain chilli is originally a Thai variety that has become a Malaysian staple. It is a tiny, bright red chilli usually used as a condiment with kicap (dark soya sauce) and is the spiciest commonly served in restaurants, measuring 100,000 to 225,000 on the Scoville Scale.
Cabik rawit is an Indonesian variety similar in strength to (and often confused with) cabik padi. It is frequently grown as an ornamental plant due to its bright and erect yellow and red fruits. It is usually dried and ground for making spicy sambals. Cabik hijau or green chilli is probably of Chinese origin and closely related to the Mexican jalapeño. It is a mild chilli, rating 2,000 to 8,000 on the Scoville Scale, and an essential ingredient of kurmas, masak lemak dishes and green curries, as well as a tasty condiment when pickled in vinegar. Cabik gronong or strawberry chilli is the spiciest of Sarawak’s chillies (and often the hardest to find), rating 200,000 to 300,000 on the Scoville Scale. It is most likely a local variant of the habanero.
In Sarawak, cooks don’t pile on the chilli like they do in Terengganu or Padang. Instead, respecting the tastes of others like all good Sarawakians, they cook with only a little chilli to add a subtle bite to the dish – or even none at all – and then leave it up to the diner to add as much spiciness as desired. This can take the form of finely sliced green or red chillies, or even cabik padi, as well as various sambals (chilli pastes) of differing strengths. Visitors with a low chilli tolerance can safely tuck in.
So why do we eat foods that burn and irritate? American psychologist Paul Rozin cites eating chilli as an example of constrained risk, like riding a roller coaster or skydiving, where we voluntarily experience pain and fear in the knowledge that it probably won’t do us any real harm. Dr Rozin’s theory may apply to those who happily eat a plateful of Carolina Reapers and gasp in speechless pain for the next hour or two, but the spicy food lovers I know think turning right in rushhour traffic is a more than adequate adrenalin rush.
I prefer the more common explanation, that capsaicin binds with the receptors in the mouth and throat responsible for sensing heat. These receptors then send a message to the brain that the person has consumed something hot. The brain responds to the burning sensation by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and releasing endorphins. And we all know that lots of endorphins make you feel good, so eating chilli is surely a less stressful way of releasing them than running marathons.
The problem with this is that chilli becomes addictive, in everincreasing doses. I had a university roommate from Sumatra who refused to leave the house without a bottle of El Yucateco XXXtra Hot Habanero Sauce and would quietly douse his western meals with this near-radioactive substance. I sometimes wondered whether the people who washed his dishes ever experienced mysterious skin diseases.
Finally, if you eat too much chilli for your own tolerance level, drinking lots of water won’t help. Capsaicin isn’t water-soluble and requires fats or oils to dissolve it, so unskimmed milk or yogurt is a much better bet. This is why lassi is such a popular drink after a spicy Indian curry. However the best safeguard is to take your chilli fix complete with antidote – chilli-flavoured cheese. This wonderful Californian invention combines high-fat Monterey Jack cheese with 500,000-Scoville-Scale red savina habaneros to produce an intense chilli high that fades painlessly after only a few seconds. A case of having your chilli and eating it too.
Mike Reed, originally from London, is a tourism consultant, guidebook writer and self-confessed laksa addict. He came to Sarawak to visit a Gawai Antu 20-odd years ago and has been telling the world about the Land of the Hornbill ever since.