Two years ago, seven friends who also hap­pened To be chili en­thu­si­asts started a face­book group called chill­i­heads philip­pines. Their aim was just To Talk about and grow chili. Two years and Three chili fes­ti­vals later, only one of The seven friends is st

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The man we’re talk­ing about is Pon­chit Ponce En­rile, or Kuya Chili to his Chilli­head friends. To say he likes plants is an un­der­state­ment. “When I joined the Chill­i­heads, I was al­ready a [mem­ber] of many other gar­den­ing groups like Na­tive Fruit Trees and the Philip­pine Fruit Coun­cil,” En­rile says.

“Even­tu­ally, the Chill­i­heads gained more mem­bers be­cause we kept shar­ing our [Face­book] posts with other gar­den­ing groups,” he con­tin­ues. “But I noticed that even though the likes on our posts were in­creas­ing, no one was ac­tu­ally grow­ing any chill­ies. I thought, ‘What’s the point of hav­ing a chili group if we don’t plant any­thing?’ So I im­ported seeds my­self and sold them to our mem­bers at a good price. After that, ev­ery­one sud­denly wanted to start grow­ing their own chilies,” re­calls En­rile.

“We never re­ally ex­pected it to be­come this big,” he says. Every year, at­ten­dance at the chili fes­ti­val in­creases. Their third and most re­cent one took place just last Oc­to­ber in the Green Daisy Com­pound lo­cated along Mag­in­hawa Street, Teacher’s Vil­lage, Que­zon City. Plants and greens scaled the walls of the gazebo where stalls of bot­tled chili sauces, honey, and pods were all lined up for ea­ger cus­tomers.

Cer­tainly, de­mand for chili has shot up. “I don’t sell seeds any­more since the com­mu­nity learned how to buy seeds for them­selves. All they needed was some­one to ini­ti­ate every­thing,” ex­plains En­rile. “Our mem­bers post their sprouts on in­ter­na­tional plant­ing groups’ [sites] and most for­eign­ers are im­pressed with what our mem­bers have planted. Some of them even send seeds over kasi so­bra silang natuwa sa sprouts namin.” “It’s not easy grow­ing chili. I think that’s what at­tracts men so much to this hobby. When you think about it, chilies are a very ma­cho plant to grow,” says En­rile. Most mem­bers of Chill­i­heads Philip­pines are pre­dom­i­nantly mid­dle-aged men. That’s why every fes­ti­val looks like a very green inu­man ses­sion with the hottest plate of pu­lu­tan you’ll ever see—a hun­dred raw pieces of sil­ing labuyo.

The Chill­i­heads usu­ally spon­sor var­i­ous con­tests at their fes­ti­vals. One of the most an­tic­i­pated—and po­ten­tially painful ones—is the Labuyo 100. For this, the con­tes­tants must con­sume a hun­dred pieces of raw sil­ing labuyo with­out drink­ing any­thing from the start of the con­test un­til 15 min­utes after they fin­ish.

“Men, es­pe­cially for­eign­ers, treat chili-eat­ing as an ex­treme sport. They love the feel­ing of ac­com­plish­ing some­thing chal­leng­ing and chili is one of the most dif­fi­cult things to eat,” says En­rile.

Grow­ing it, how­ever, is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent story. “Every chili has dif­fer­ent needs. You must know what type of sun­light, soil, wa­ter it likes. Chili is not like other plants that you can just throw on the ground and ex­pect to grow. There are al­ways minute dif­fer­ences in grow­ing chili. Every grower has their own way of do­ing things and the ma­cho Pi­noy loves that.”

What chili grow­ers love even more is that they ac­tu­ally have some con­trol over how hot their chilies turn out. They even use the Scov­ille scale—which mea­sures the “hot­ness” level of a chili (or any­thing de­rived from chilies) in Scov­ille Heat Units, or SHU—TO rate their chilies.

“Dif­fer­ent grow­ers pre­fer dif­fer­ent lev­els of heat,” says En­rile. “The hottest pep­per that is nat­u­rally grown is the Carolina Reaper, it’s about 2,200,000 SHUS but no one wants to eat that be­cause it’s not just about the heat. With that said, every grower still wants to grow the hottest chilies but it’s more [to get] just brag­ging rights,” ex­plains En­rile.

So how do you make the hottest chilies? “The more stressed a chili plant is, the hot­ter its chilies be­come. You can deprive it of wa­ter, cut off its leaves, etc., just as long as you don’t kill it,” ex­plains En­rile. But be­fore you start grow­ing ghost pep­pers by the truck, it is im­por­tant to con­sider if there are even peo­ple who are will­ing to buy them—if you’re in it for the money, of course.

“Hot­ter chilies are more pop­u­lar in the US than in the Philip­pines. Filipinos like hot chilies but only those they can still en­joy with­out feel­ing pain,” says En­rile. “Even hot sauce com­pa­nies like mak­ing the type of hot sauce you’d want to use every day so you’d buy more. I think the thresh­old for Filipino taste is roughly around 300,000 SHU.”

Chilies above 300,000 SHU are com­monly called by en­thu­si­asts as su­per­hots. The ha­banero, a crowd favorite at the Chilli­head fes­ti­val, is de­scribed by most mem­bers as “fla­vor­ful while pack­ing just enough heat.” Our lo­cal sil­ing labuyo mea­sures up to about 60,000-100,000 SHU. This is not to be con­fused with the Tai­wan pep­per, a milder (6,000-10,000 SHU), length­ier chili that is heav­ily im­ported by the Philip­pines. It is this pep­per that din­ers usu­ally get to try at Philip­pine fast food res­tau­rants. “They are eas­ier to grow and look very pretty,” notes En­rile.

What makes chilies a plea­sure to eat is cap­saicin (a chem­i­cal that in­duces the burn­ing sen­sa­tion). While there are no real side ef­fects to eat­ing su­per­hots, the proper way of eat­ing them is to “chew and swal­low prop­erly; I can­not stress this enough,” says En­rile. “Peo­ple come and try to eat our chilies

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