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Chili Peppers

Chilis are the veggie people love because it makes their mouth hurt. Some people like just a shimmer of hurt, maybe a tickle. Others like a little more, something that makes you stop and take a deep breath. Still others go for a hurt that feels like it's going to tear the top of your head off, something that makes your face flush and break out in a pearly sweat.

Some people, of course, like no hurt in their food at all. They try to steer clear of chilis. But in the broad population, these people are in a distinct minority.

The hurt we're talking about comes from a burning sensation in the mouth, a fiery feeling. Different people are attracted to this feeling to different degrees. Some prefer just a tiny spark, something to spice up their food just a bit. Others want something more the level of, say, a birthday candle, with a slow, steady burn. Still others go for that blowtorch feeling, where they think smoke might actually be coming out of their ears.

To each his or her own. Fortunately, nature has provided us with a broad range of different types of chilis with different degrees of hotness, ranging from the barely noticeable cubanelle to the through-the-roof habanero. Later we'll show you a thermometer that lists close to a dozen different chilis in order of their burn rates, chilis that you can often find here in Arlington at one grocery store or another.

A 6th basic taste?

Some scientists point to the hotness that comes from chili peppers — and, to a lesser degree, from black pepper and a few other vegetables — as the sixth of the basic tastes our tongues experience when we put food in our mouth.

Do you know what the other five basic tastes are? They are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. When your parents were your age, only the first four of these were recognized by scientists and basic tastes. Then, less than 10 years ago, scientists finally found the taste buds for savory, the full, sort of meaty, feeling that veggies like home-grown tomatoes can produce in your mouth.

Today, some scientists — most of them from Asian parts of the world — now feel that a sixth basic taste should be added to this list. That's the burning sensation we feel in our mouths when we eat chili peppers, black pepper, and a few other vegetables like radishes, ginger, and horseradish. This taste sensation has been variously labeled hotness, pungence, and piquance; and it's a big contributor to the favorite foods of lots of different cultures around the world.