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Some like it hot

Posted on : 05 September 2016

WORDS: Alexandra Malfoy

Article first appeared RAS Times November 2011

Judging the best chilli products may not be everyone's idea of a good time. But what type of person does it take to taste and test the piquant product? There seems to be more to chillies, and the people who love them, than meets the eye.

If you like chillies, you're most probably a gregarious person. That's according to Sydney Royal Fine Food Judges Carol Selva Rajah, Scott Succow and Edward 'Ted' Davis.

"It's a food that people with an outgoing personality gravitate towards. You wouldn't eat chilli by yourself. You eat it in a group of people. If you're a chilli person, you're social. How much fun do you have when you're sitting at home and perspiring by yourself?" laughs Carol, who is a food writer, teacher and chef.

Carol, Scott and Ted are food connoisseurs and self-confessed chilli lovers (and in case you were wondering, are all quite outgoing in nature). They were recently tasked with judging the best chilli products at the Spring Sydney Royal Fine Food Show across four classes: sauces, chutneys, jams and relishes.

Judging chilli products may seem like a terrifying task to those with sensitive palates, with chillies renowned for leaving a burning sensation in the mouth. The heat from chillies is derived from capsicanoids, several compounds found in the tissue near the seeds. When eaten, capsaicinoids bind with pain receptors in the lining of the mouth that are responsible for sensing heat. These powerful compounds are also used in capsicum spray in the police force. Luckily for chilli consumers, repeated exposure to capsaicinoids depletes these receptors, enabling chillies to be eaten with less impact.

One of the most common myths about chilli products is 'the hotter the chilli the better'. For the judges the criterion is much more complex than just the heat of the product. It's a combination of sight, smell and taste.

"If the chilli is too hot, it's often negative as it masks other nuances and flavours in the product," explains Ted, who is 'partially' retired with a background in food teaching and restaurants. Ted continues his involvement with chillies through the Sydney Royal Fine Food Show and has judged chilli products for the past five years.

"With the products we're judging, we're looking for the positives in look, smell and taste. The texture is really important. It's as important as it looks, as it is in the mouth," he says.

Scott Succow, who hails from America but now teaches at Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney, says it's all about the right balance between flavours when selecting the finest chilli products.

"We're looking for something that has gone beyond the raw ingredient. Something with complexity, but that also has harmony. The ingredients need to complement each other, but you still need to know it is chilli. It’s really a balancing act. It needs to be pleasant but not harsh," he says.

For any products that did get the mouth burning and sweat on the brow, the judges had a tub of yoghurt on hand. "We use dairy to clear our palates in our judging role, to neutralise and move on to the next product," says Carol. People using water to quell the burning sensation after eating hot chilli products is a common mistake, she says. "Whatever you do, don’t drink water. Water spreads the chilli oil down your throat." The only way to get rid of the burning from a really hot chilli, Carol advises, is to eat a banana, which is a custom from India.

According to the three chilli connoisseurs, the standard of products entered into this year's competition was high, and the quality had improved from previous years. Last year no gold medal was awarded. This year a Hot Lime Pickle condiment took home the one and only gold award. The judges were full of praise for the product.

"There was plenty of lime but the chilli came through and it was beautifully pickled. There was no harshness in the rind and it didn't separate from the rest of the ingredients. The lime was there but it was mellow," says Ted. "The main thing was the chilli didn't get lost, because lime itself is a dominant flavour, but it balanced beautifully. It is a very good product."

Along with the one gold medal awarded, three silver and two bronze medals were awarded in the chilli classes. The Chilli products form part of the Regional Food Competition at the Sydney Royal Fine Food Show. Regional Food was introduced to the Show in 2003 to feature unique regional products from around Australia, and has since grown to include 33 classes across sweet, savoury and speciality products. This year, the chilli classes expanded to include sauces, dressings, jams, relishes and traditional kassoundi.

According to the judges, the future of the chilli and associated products looks promising. "Looking at the products today has renewed me with fresh hope we're going in the right direction. The good news for people that enjoy chillies is they've never been more available and there's never been more variety," says Ted.

Scott believes Australia is catching up to other leading chilli nations. "In the United States (of America), chillies are everywhere as there are cultures that hold the chilli up high and embrace it. Lately I have seen the appreciation and market here is growing," he says.

For what may seem like a strange love for some, there is no denying the enthusiasm and passion towards chillies from the three judges.

"People like a bit of fun in their life. Chilli is one of a few products that most people would smile when they talk about it. They smile for two reasons - because they like it, or because they have played party tricks tasting the hottest chilli. They hark back to the days... 'Oh I remember when...'" laughs Ted. "So there's a lot going for chillies."

"There's a lot of Vitamin C in them too, they're great for your health," adds Carol.

For Scott, it's the big, bold flavours that attract him to the product. "Chilli is one of the few things that can give you pleasure and pain at the same time," he says. "It's like going to a scary movie. You don't want to be scared, but you like it, because it gets your heart racing. That's what chillies do. They get your heart racing; they make you know you're alive."


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