The chilli – a small pepper that packs a lot of punch. This fiery ingredient is popular all over the world and is versatile enough to feature in dishes of virtually every cuisine on the globe. But what makes them so hot – literally and figuratively? Read on to find out…

Is it getting hot in here?

If you like chillies you’re not alone – they have been part of the human diet since at least 7500 BC. Though they originated in the Americas through trade, chillies eventually spread all over the world and became popular in Europe as a substitute to peppercorn, which at the time was very costly. Today, India is the largest producer, consumer and exporter of chillies anywhere and among the most popular varieties are the bell pepper, Jalapeno and Habanero.

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Not all Chillies are created equal – some are hot, while some are very hot. You can tell the difference using the Scoville scale, which measures the pungency of chili peppers – the higher the rating, the hotter the pepper. Pimento and Banana Peppers both have a Scouville heat unit below 900, and are considered very mild chillies. In contrast, a Jalapeno has a heat unit of between 2,500- 5,000. The famous Scotch Bonnet registers between 100,000- 325,000 Scoville units. The exceptionally hot Ghost Pepper has a scale of more than a million Scoville units – that’s 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce.

Chillies are known to have some noticeable physical effects, too – they can stimulate the body, awaken the senses, raise body temperature and stimulate the appetite by increasing the flow of saliva and gastric juices. For the uninitiated, a chili like the Ghost Pepper could even lead to blistering of the lips and palate.

I can’t take the heat!

If you like chillies and want to take on their spicy powers the best thing to do is build up your tolerance over time. Much the same way salt-free foods taste bland to people who typically sprinkle it all over everything, at first chillies can feel unbearable to someone who isn’t used to eating spicy food.

If you overdo it, try not to reach for a glass of water. This can actually spread the heat to other parts of your mouth and make it feel worse. Rather than drinking liquids, grab for absorbent foods like bread and rice to quash the burning sensation.

The best of UK chilli conventions

This fest in Brighton’s Victoria Gardens is on from the 20th-22nd September in 2013 and features tastings, chilli-eating competitions and cookery demos.

Hosted each year in July, the Birmingham Chilli Festival is a weekend of heat in Birmingham’s city centre. Two days of exciting cooking demonstrations culminate in the ultimate chilli eating championship. You can also enjoy live music and street entertainment all over the city while the festival is on, so book yourself into a Birmingham hotel and enjoy it all.

Located in the leafy town of Stevenage, the Benington Chilli Festival takes place over the August long weekend and features 60 of the nation’s best independent chilli traders demonstrating everything that can be made with chilli – from sauces to chocolate.

Taking place this year in the last weekend of August, the 3rd annual Chilli Fiesta at Millets Farm in Oxfordshire has all the makings of a good time – a traditional Mariachi band, chilli inspired menus, and chilli plants to buy and plant at home.

Taking over Perth for the first time on the 21st and 22nd September, this special event has all the makings of a great chilli fest – from hot curry to chilli cocktails, there will be food, drink and music aplenty.

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Catherine Halsey is a blogger who writes about a range of topics. Chillies have always been a spicy part of her food adventures and there is nothing better than getting together with other chilli enthusiasts.

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