It's hard to imagine Sichuan cuisine without chillis, not to mention Indian, Thai or any Southeast Asian cooking. Yet the chilli was only introduced to Asia from South America (along with potatoes and tomatoes) and spread rapidly around the world, courtesy of the maritime powers of the Portuguese and Spanish.
Chillis are easy to grow, good for health with their vitamins, minerals and antioxidants - they were used as medicine before they became incorporated in our cuisines - and work as a food preservative. They also create such a feel-good factor that they can become addictive.
There are more than 150 kinds of chilli in the world, the most famous being the Jalapeno and Habereno, the Guajillo used in Mexican mole, the bird's eye chillis of Thailand and India, and, the hottest of them all, the ghost chilli (bhut jolkia). Chillis are used fresh, powdered, dried, marinated, pickled with sugar and salt, for making deeply coloured aromatic oils and in various pastes with ingredients such as beans or aromatic herbs.
Chef Tony Prumphun, of Koh Thai restaurant, explains that in Thai cooking fresh green chillis are used for spicy green pastes and dried red ones for red curry pastes and chilli jam, while fresh yellow ones are the most powerful.
For Indian cooking, it does not really matter which variety of chillis are used, says Zubin d'Souza, formerly of the still-missed Veda restaurant. 'Indian cooking relies on a blend of spices for flavour, and the chillis play a supporting role by adding heat.'
Sichuan cuisine has chillis at its heart alongside numbing Sichuan peppercorns. As Fuchsia Dunlop writes in her must-have cookbook Sichuan Cookery, folklore has it that the peppercorns' numbing effect allows people to consume more chillis than would otherwise be humanly possible. But chef Zhao Li, at the He Jiang restaurant in the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Happy Valley, points out that 60 per cent of Sichuan dishes are not hot at all, while 20 per cent are hot and only 20 per cent are very hot. Cooling coriander, crispy slices of lotus root, broths and sweet jellies refresh the palate between chilli hits.
Six years ago, chef Kenny Chan Kwok-keung, who is from Guangdong province and heads up the kitchen at Dong Lai Shun in The Royal Garden Hotel, used to think spicy food was boring. But while living in Sichuan province, he met someone who taught him to taste spicy food and he realised it had real complexity. If someone made a dish with only three of the four different chillis required, he would immediately know just from the aroma. His cooking in Hong Kong is very much geared towards the local palate, so he cooks only medium spicy dishes.
This seems a pity as there is no question that the more traditionally cooked Sichuan dishes are always the best. 'Why can't it be the other way around?' asks food and wine blogger Joseph Chan, who had the experience of not being able to talk for a couple of hours after chewing on particularly hot dried chillis. 'Let's start with authentic and then request a dumbing down if we cannot take the real thing. And what's the point of only eating to your taste?'
Similarly, Prumphun cooks Thai dishes to a moderate heat but will spice it up or tone it down for customers. Still, there is huge demand in Hong Kong for ultra-spicy food. Thai Hut in Wan Chai is open almost 24 hours a day.
Italian chef Fabrizio Napolitano of DiVino Group's restaurant Goccia Ristorante E Bar is very down on dishes where chilli kills the flavour. 'We use chilli with a little bit more wisdom,' he says. 'We just use it to enhance the flavour. Some cuisines consider chilli as a main ingredient. We consider it like putting sugar in coffee.'
Chillis grow beautifully in the south of Italy and are usually dried under the fierce sun, then ground into a powder. This gives a kick to seafood and a delicious fruity edge to other dishes. Napolitano uses a little chilli in rich tomato sauces and chocolate desserts,
So is chilli a flavour or a sensation? Debra Meiburg, master of wine, says chilli is a sensation. 'There is no particular tongue mapping. Most experts refer to it as a heat sensation, definitely not a taste.'
The fiery sensation is caused by the compound capsaicin, which affects the cells that sense temperature. 'So we are literally feeling the heat when we put a bird's eye chilli in our mouth,' Meiburg explains. 'These receptor cells are not specific to the mouth and actually run all the way down the alimentary canal, which explains why hot foods are often a little rough going down.' Meiburg says an off-dry white wine is the best choice to dissipate the chilli sensation, but cabernet sauvignon should be avoided. 'Tannin binds itself to loose proteins in our saliva, causing our tongue to feel dried out.'
The worst thing to drink in an attempt to offset the fiery sensation is water and, according to chef Chan, cola should also be avoided.