Pedal to the Metal

Towers of Terror


Hot Potatoes


Mexico (population 82 million) is one of two geographical neighbors of United States. Mexico is endowed with an ongoing horrific economic problem. Entrenched socialism coupled with horrific corruption has made the country an economic “basket case”, with high poverty and unemployment. The North American Free Trade agreement (NAFTA) has made significant inroads into increased US-Mexico trade, and encouraged investment by US corporations into manufacturing plants in Mexico (due to lower labor costs). Sadly, NAFTA has failed to overcome the corruption and mismanagement and spark the real growth of the Mexican economy. Torrents of people from Mexico pour through the massive US-Mexico border looking for jobs and making illegal immigration a political and economic hot potato.


In a surprise move, last week, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Compaq decided to merge. The merger has set the techno-centric community abuzz. Is it a brilliant move, or a complete blunder? Only time will tell, but for now, contrary to the gushing press releases, the merger seems to be a desperate mating attempt by two dinosaurs.


Not to be outdone for the shine of limelight, the US Justice Department, last week, decided to drop its efforts of splitting up Microsoft. Microsoft with its power and glory has been a thorn in the sides of the regulators and other governmental bean counters. Prodded by a plethora of also-rans in the software business, the Justice Department wanted to split up Microsoft. Fragmenting Microsoft is a good idea in theory, but in reality, it would replace one large powerful monopoly and with two rather large, probably more powerful monopolies.


Last week, with much fanfare, the president of Mexico, Mr. Vicente Fox came for his first state visit to the United States with an agenda of sparking Mexican economic growth and finding a resolution to the Mexican immigration problem. Since 1929 the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) held the power in Mexico. For the first time in 75 years the opposition party in Mexico won the presidential elections putting the charismatic leader, Mr. Fox in power. The HP-Compaq merger and the Microsoft non-splitting decision seemed to be designed to upstage the Fox visit, but all likelihood, they were mere coincidences.


Like all powerful visitors, Vicente Fox was treated to a banquet at the White House. The liquor served was Tequila, a classic Mexican drink made from the sap of Blue Agave (a kind of cactus) and the food included a lot of dishes spiced with a variety of chili peppers, including spicy potatoes with chipotle-apple-sauce. (Chipotle is a kind of chili pepper). Even the dessert included a dipping sauce flavored with red chili peppers. Chili peppers have been a part of South and Central American cuisine, for longer than any other part of the world.


In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail with three ships to find an oversea route to the mysterious East. The legendary traveler Marco Polo had returned a few hundred years back with glorious tales of the food and fortunes of the East. The Egyptians controlled the land route to India, from where came the most prized spice of them all, the black pepper. Black pepper was so sought after and so expensive that it used to be sold one berry at a time. There is evidence of black pepper being used as currency for trade.


While India was the source of many kinds of spices, these are not commonly used in European cuisine, even today. Cinnamon and black pepper are spices of choice in Europe, and these were found only in India. Spain at this point was quite desperate to find a sea route to India and China, to break the Egyptian monopoly, hence the journey by Columbus.


Of course, as we all know, Columbus was thrown off course, by the deviations of the magnetic compass, and landed in the Caribbean Islands off the coast of Central America, and never found India. However, Columbus and the others to follow found a wealth of treasures in the “new world”, treasures much more valuable to human life than gold, jewels or black pepper. These treasures were mainly food items, not known to human civilization in the old world. The food items discovered in the new world are quite interesting. Vegetables such as corn, potato, tomato, bell pepper, chili pepper, vanilla, beans, pumpkin, tapioca, avocado, gourds, squash; nuts such as peanut, pecan, cashew, fruits such as pineapple, blueberry; flowers such as sunflower, petunia, dahlia, marigold, were all discovered in the Americas. Cocoa, the source of chocolate was discovered in the new world, as was the herb quinine and the ubiquitous tobacco.


The speed at which the lowly potato became the staple food in a wide range of cultures is quite amazing. The potato is a good source of vitamin B anc C and complex carbohydrates, and is a rather nutritious vegetable. When the potato crop in Ireland failed for several years due to a fungus, the result was the great potato famine (1845-49). This famine is so well known that most people think the potato originated in Ireland. It did not. The majority of the human race had not eaten the potato till after year 1500. Tobacco, once introduced to the unsuspecting masses, spread like a malignant tumor everywhere. While tobacco is definitely a scourge, the potato changed the eating habits of almost all people of the world.


Although not the most important, but definitely one of the most fascinating food to be introduced to the human palate, from the new world is the chili pepper. The chili pepper is what makes food hot. It burns the tongue and the mouth and can cause trauma of the eyes and nose, yet people love it. It is surprising to note that Indian food (or Thai food) before early 1500 could not have included the much-loved chili pepper.


The fire in the pepper comes from a chemical called capsaicin. The level of capsaicin is a determinant of how hot the food is. Capsaicin is soluble in oil and alcohol but not in water. This explains why food cooked in oil and chili tastes hotter. Also, it explains why drinking water does not provide relief from the burning caused by hot food (butter or beer, is better).

The measure of hotness was first invented by a pharmacist called Wilbur Scoville in 1915 and is called the Scoville scale. The original Scoville scale was a measure of the dilution in sugar water required for a group of trained tasters to just barely perceive the heat of a chili preparation. Today the rating is obtained by high-pressure liquid chromatography, and is not a subjective measurement. There are about five kinds of capsaicin in peppers, the Scoville measure, measures them all.

The most common form of chili pepper is used in Indian cooking is the Cayenne pepper and it rates a fiery 35,000 on the Scoville scale. The Cayenne is about 2-3 inches long, and depending on ripeness can be green, yellow or red. A smaller version of the Cayenne, also called the Thai Chili (rated at 70,000) is used in India and Thailand. The chili family is actually quite large and varied with about 50 different kinds. The mild chilis include the Ancho (1,000) and the Poblano (3,000), which have wonderful flavors. The medium hotness comes from the Guajillo (5,000) and Serrano (7,000-25,000).

The hottest pepper known is the Habanero with a Scoville rating of about 250,000. The Habanero is quite dangerous. It has a sweet, gentle and likable flavor and a slow acting heat that is totally overwhelming. It is popular in sauces where the flavor is retained, but the heat is toned down by dilution.

The medical community has studied the pepper extensively. The capsaicin in chili has been found to have therapeutic properties for the treatment of pain caused by damaged nerves. Ingesting capsaicin may cause acute discomfort (or, as some of us prefer, heavenly delight) but it has not been shown to cause any form of harm. Ulcers and stomach problems have not been linked to consumption of the enchanting chili.

While the English language has just one word “chili” for the berry and the confusing word “hot” for the sensation, cultures that imbibe in chili have a richer vocabulary. The Mexican language has a large number of words describing the various types and forms of chili. A Jalapeno is a kind of chili, but when a Jalapeno is dried and smoked, it becomes a Chipotle. Often the fresh and dried forms of a particular chili has different names, for example Poblano is fresh and Pasillo is dry, Ancho is fresh, Negro is dry. The richness of expression simply is a measure of the popularity and use of a variety of chili in Mexican foods.

Today, we cannot imagine a world devoid of chocolate or tomato or potato or corn or hot chili or even the much-maligned tobacco. Yet for the first umpteen thousands of years of human civilization, people had to do without them. They probably did not miss it, as they did not know, but they have no idea what they really missed. The American continent has really provided mankind with things even better than the Internet.


Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at



Partha Dasgupta