How the Chile Became Hot

IN 2007, A mysterious cloud, more scent than smoke, bloomed in a small corner of the seedy turned swanky Soho district of London. People started coughing and tearing up. The fire brigade was summoned, buildings evacuated, roads blocked. For three hours, firefighters — equipped with compressed-air tanks and lung-demand valves, to protect them from noxious gases — scoured the neighborhood for the source of the potential bioterror attack. Finally, they broke into a Thai restaurant and emerged with a nine-pound pot of charred chiles. The chef had been interrupted while making nam prik pao, a jammy, earthy-sweet chile paste that may be deployed as a condiment or a dip, or spread straight on toast.

Chiles are fruits, borne by plants of the genus Capsicum and the family Solanaceae, popularly known as nightshades and often demonized for their supposed inflammatory effects on the human body. There are thousands of varieties of chiles: They are smoky, musky, grassy, woodsy, dark and brooding, tart and bright, with notes as wide-ranging as chocolate, licorice, tobacco, raisin, lemon, cherry and blackberry. But such nuances of flavor are sometimes lost in cultures that have no history of cooking with chiles and see them primarily as torture devices — vehicles of fierce, punishing, even mind-melting heat. (Not all chiles are that hot, nor does everyone register such heat in the same way; within the Thai culinary canon, nam prik pao, typically made with spur chiles, is considered strong in flavor but mild.)

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