The Pleasures of Pepper

Chili Peppers
Photo Courtesy of Artem Bali

My name is Sara and I’m an addict. I got hooked 15 years ago, in New Orleans with my first fix – a Cajun martini. It all looked so innocent: the bright-red chili pepper afloat in a goblet of icy vodka. I popped the pepper into my mouth. Within seconds, there was an explosion in my head. Everything went black, or red – it’s a little hazy. Suddenly, the searing pain vanished and in its place was a euphoria, a kind of “runners’ high” that happens when you get your second wind in a marathon.

What really happened? Capsaicin, the fiery natural chemical released by hot peppers induced an intense burning sensation in my nerve endings. The brain interpreted the signal and released a cavalry of endorphins – the body’s painkillers. The endorphins kicked in, causing a feeling of elation. Another Cajun martini, please – hold the vodka.

Craving peppers, I begin to prowl Asian, Caribbean and Latin American markets for “heat.” Scotch bonnet, habanero, Serrano, jalapeno, Peruvian, Anaheim, poblano. Names can be deceptive, but appearances are not: hot peppers are “outies” –small and thin-skinned with a cap the stem sits on.

From Christopher Columbus’ day – his doctor noted that the chili pepper seemed to have medicinal value – to research highlights of Hot Stuff: Peppers May Stop Pain – recently published by the American Chemical Society – there have been scientific studies done on capsaicin. Fresh hot peppers are loaded with vitamin C, antioxidants, bioflavonoids and phenolic acid – and they can speed up metabolism. When dried, the pepper’s vitamin A content increases 100 times. “Chili-heads” can eat a teaspoon of pure chili powder and an ounce of fresh chili to fulfill daily requirements.

And that’s not all: the Peruvian Indians used a certain pepper leaf as a sex stimulant and made a salve from a certain root, which, when applied to the clitoris, gives a warm, tingly feeling during oral sex; in China, an infusion of cubeb pepper leaves has been purported to produce desire – and more; the ancient Greeks employed powdered pepper mixed with other herbs “for the promotion of frequent copulation” and the Kama Sutra – the slim volume that tells you more than you’ll ever want to know about lifestyle, heterosexual intercourse and yoga positions – includes peppers in many of its love recipes.

So I’m standing over the kitchen sink, carefully washing and cleaning red and green chilis – and the doorbell rings. I open the door to a turbaned courier. He eyes my rubber-gloved hands and the peppers and gives me a long, slow, knowing look. “Have a nice evening, Miss,” he says.

Hot Pepper & Pine Nut Salsa


½ cup dried apricots, chopped

½ cup dried cherries, chopped

½ cup red onion, finely diced

2 large shallots, finely diced

5 sundried tomatoes, finely diced

1 tbsp fresh ginger, minced

1 jalapeno pepper, finely diced

3 tbsp honey

4 drops sesame oil

2 roma tomatoes, chopped

¼ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

¼ cup cilantro, chopped


Prepare first six ingredients and place in a bowl. Halve jalapeno pepper and carefully remove and discard membrane and seeds. Dice pepper and add to bowl. Do not touch eyes, mouth, or nose. Immediately wash hands, knife and board with soap. Add honey and sesame oil to bowl, then mix, cover, and refrigerate overnight. Before serving, chop the roma tomatoes and cilantro and add, along with the toasted pine nuts. Serve alongside meat, fowl, or fish, or leave on the buffet table.

Sara Waxman
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Publisher/Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.