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
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