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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Spice, Medicine, and More: Hot Pepper

It might be called capsicum, cayenne pepper, chili pepper, or tabasco pepper. Regardless of the variety of plant or what it is called, these peppers have one thing in common - their hot, pungent taste. Depending on the variety, the taste varies from mildly pungent to extremely pungent.

Imported within the last few hundred years to China, hot pepper was originally called fan jiao, or "barbarian's spice". (Just as whites used to call all nonwhites savages, the Chinese called all people outside of China barbarians.) Hot pepper was later called la qie, "pungent eggplant", because of its resemblance to the shape of an eggplant, and is now more commonly known as la jiao ("pungent spice").

Botanically, hot pepper is the fruit of Capsicum frutescens, Capsicum annuum or other Capsicum species of the nightshade family. Capsicum annuum is an annual herb up to 1 m (3 ft.) tall, but the other species are usually perennial shrubs. They are all native to tropical America and are now grown all over the world. Some varieties of C. annuum produce hot pepper, while otehr varieties of the same plant yield nonpungent fruits which are known as green pepper, paprika, bell pepper, or sweet pepper.

Hot peppers are widely used in seasoning foods and in folk medicine. The most common forms in which they are used for home seasoning are ground, pickled, and as tabasco sauce. Ground pepper soaked in vegetable oil is also a favorite of many Chinese. In America, extracts of hot pepper known as capsicum extracts, or oleoresin, are widely used in processed foods, including meat products, desserts, baked goods, alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. They also used to be popoular components of some topical pharmaceutical preparations for treating arthritis, rheumatism, neuralgia, and lumbago but are now seldom used for these purposes in America. However, one can still find them used in certain commercial preparations for stopping thumb sucking or nail biting in children.

The pungent taste is due to its constituent capsaicin and its derivatives. Their concentrations in dried hot pepper range from less than 0.1% (mildly hot) to 1.5% (extremely hot). Dried hot pepper also contains about 13% protein, 9% fat, 60% carbohydrates, minerals and an exceptionally large amount of vitamin A (close to the amount present in dehydrated carrots). Fresh hot pepper also contains a large amount of vitamin C (several times that in oranges) most of which is destroyed during the drying process. In order to benefit from the high nutritive value of hot pepper one has to have numbed tastebuds, since ordinarily one can hardly ingest enough hot pepper for it to be a worthwhile source of nutrients.

In traditional Western folk medicine, hot pepper is used internally to stimulate appetite and aid digestion, and generally as a tonic. Externally, it is used as a counterirritant in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis, and other inflammatory conditions.

Hot pepper is a strong local stimulant or irritant to the skin, mucous membranes, and eyes. The smoke of burning hot pepper is especially irritating to the mucous membranes and was once used for torture in the Malay Peninsula. Prolonged contact with hot pepper or its extracts can result in dermatitis. Hot pepper also caused tumors in the livers of experimental rats when the rats were fed a diet that contained 10% hot pepper. All these undesirable effects of hot pepper are mentioned here to remind you to use it with moderation.

In Chinese medicine, hot pepper is generally used in the dried form; the ripe fruit is collected in late summer or early autumn and is usually sun-dried. It is traditionally used to increase appetite, to aid digestion, and to treat arthritis and rheumatism, as in Western folk medicine. In addition, it is used in treating abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, chilblains, ringworm, malaria, poisonous snakebite, bruises, and hematomas.

The use of hot pepper for treating chilblains has been well documented, first in an 18th -century herbal, then n later herbals, and finally in modern Chinese medical journals. In modern usage, for treating chilblains and frostbite, a weak decoction or water extract of the pepper is used before the blisters break. This can be prepared by boiling 30g. (1 oz.) of hot pepper (cut up) in 2,000 to 3,000 ml. (2-3 qt.) of water for three to five minutes and straining off the residue. The liquid is used while still warm to wash the affected areas. Alternatively, an ointment prepared from 30 g. (about 1 oz.) ground hot pepper with seeds, 15 g. (about 0.5 oz.) camphor, and 250 g. (8.8 oz) Vaseline can be used. The ointment is rubbed on the chilblains or frostbite until a local burning sensation is felt. In one report, in a medical journal from northeastern China, of 200 patients treated with a weak hot-pepper decoction once daily for up to eleven days (but mostly for under five days), 188 were reported cured, eight had some response, while four did not respond. Best results were obtained with chilblains or frostbite of the hands and feet.

To treat traumatic injuries such as bruises and sprains causing hematomas (swellings containing blood) or swollen and painful joints, an ointment made with one part dried pepper and five parts Vaseline is used. Prepared by adding the ground hot pepper to the melted Vaseline, which is then mixed well and cooled until it congeals, this ointment is applied once daily, or once every two days, directly to the injured area. In a 1965 report from a journal of traditional medicine from Zhejiang, seven of 12 patients thus treated were cured and three improved, while two did not respond to this treatment. In the effective cases, four to nine applications were usually used.

In addition to uses above, modern Chinese medicine also uses hot pepper externally to treat parotiditis (mumps) and leg ulcers.

The usual internal daily dose of hot pepper is 1 to 2.5 g (0.04 - 0.09 oz.). It should not be taken by persons with any of the following conditions: sores, boils, toothache, eye diseses, or hemorrhoids.

One of the oldest remedies for treating chilblains calls for simply peeling off the skin of hot pepper and leaving it directly on the chilblain.

The use of hot pepper in the treatment of poisonous snakebite is described in a 19th-century herbal. For this purpose, it recommended that the bitten person simply chew 11 to 12 whole hot peppers and the pain and swelling would subside. Blisters would appear and a yellow liquid would exude from the wounded area while the patient was healing. Alternatively, the hot pepper could be chewed into a mash and then applied directly to the woiund with the same effects. Instead of the usual pungent taste, the patient would gind the hot pepper to taste sweet. I wonder how much truth there is in this century-old record. If it were true, the hot pepper must react with the snake venom to change the physiology of the tastebuds.

Hot pepper is readily available in groceries and super markets.

This information is excerpted from Dr. Albert Leung’s book, Chinese Healing Foods and Herbs. This publication includes further information and home remedies using hot pepper as well as over 45 other herbs.

Learn more about hot pepper and read further about Dr. Leung and his writings! Visit www.earthpower.com.

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