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When Chillies are Too Hot

Kasma Loha-unchit, December 12th, 2010

How do you deal with a burning mouth from a very hot chilli pepper?

Many people do not realize that the hotness of chillies, which comes from the natural chemical capsaicin, is not water soluble. Have you ever noticed that when your mouth is on fire, no matter how much ice-cold water or beer you drink, the burning sensations linger? Water or beer only temporarily relieves the burning while you are drinking it, but as soon as you stop, you find the hot flames still leaping.

Chopping Chillies

Chopping chillies

Instead of water, try milk next time, or something that contains cream or oil— capsaicin is oil soluble. A dessert with coconut milk can end a spicy meal nicely as it douses out the fire in your mouth. Some people have also found a full-bodied red wine to help during a meal, more so than white wine. Chewing and swallowing mouthfuls of plain warm rice is another way to wipe away traces of capsaicin in your mouth—better yet, rice mixed with sauce from non-spicy stir-fried vegetables as it contains some oil.
Coconut Milk

Coconut milk

If you have sensitive skin, you may wish to take precautions when working with chillies. When slicing the peppers, try not to touch the interior lining because it contains the highest concentration of capsaicin. Hold the peppers by the shiny skin and when de-seeding, use the blad of a knife instead of your fingers to scrape out the seeds. Or, you can simply avoid the seeds all together by slicing the peppers lengthwise around the inner core that contains the seeds and hot membranes. But if your mouth can take the heat, don’t bother to deseed the chillies at all.

Limes can help

If after taking these precautions you still find your fingers burning and throbbing, wash your hands several times with a soap that contains a high concentration of oil or cream. Fresh sap from the aloe vera plant and oil-based ointments of aloe, comfrey or calendula also help relieve some of the burn. Lime juice can be effective, too, and I have heard that a strong vinegar works equally well. When you prepare a big Thai meal, save the rind of the fresh limes squeezed for a sauce or salad; the remaining drops of juice combined with the essential oils in the zest will help clean your hands later of traces of capsaicin. If you have ultra-sensitive skin, wearing thin rubber gloves when working with chilli peppers is advisable. Just as people with fair complexions tend to get sunburned easily, I believe that they, too, are particularly susceptible to chilli burns.
Roasting Chillies

Roasting chillies

Whether or not you have sensitive hands, always remember that when cooking Thai, avoid rubbing your eyes with your hands at any time. Your fingers may not burn from touching chillies, but your eyes certainly will. Capsaicin is very easily picked up by your fingers, and even the minutest trace can burn the sensitive linings around the eyes. If this accident does happen, do not panic. Wash with the suggested antidotes and avoid rubbing; the burning will fade away in time.

When roasting chilli peppers, especially the dried variety, make sure there is plenty of ventilation. Dried peppers can burn easily (turn them frequently and watch them carefully), and burnt chilli fumes in the air are painfully irritating to the linings of your throat and lungs. For the same reason, when stir-frying with chillies and chilli pastes over high heat, make sure the fan over your stove is turned on.

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Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, December 2010.

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