THEY CAN BE RED, green, orange or almost the colour of chocolate. They can be pointy, round, small, club-like, long, thin, globular, tapered, or shaped like a granny's bonnet. Their skin may be shiny, smooth or wrinkled and their walls may be thick or thin. Not all chillies are hot but don't be deceived - with only a few exceptions, most of the several hundred varieties of these enchanting little pods have some degree of pungency for the palate. Only a few are as mild as their sweet cousins the capsicums. The colour of chillies is no guide to the intensity of their flavour. Nor is the size. Yet these fiery little vegetables are utterly delicious and an essential part of the cuisine of many parts of the world. Some people even believe they are mildly addictive - in a nice and harmless way. It seems that when we eat hot chillies, the body produces endorphins - the same chemicals produced during a runner's high. Chillies belong to the same family as tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. They came originally from the West Indies but spread like wildfire to India and Asia and then to North Africa and Spain. In the United States, chilli gets only one 'L' (chili) and is often called a hot pepper. All chillies begin life green and turn yellow or red as they ripen. There is no rule that green or red have more heat so check the label for clues as to the pungency of the ones you have chosen. Fresh Chillies are high in Vitamin C — twice the amount found in citrus fruits. When dried the Vitamin A content increases as much as one hundred fold. Hot chillies e.g. 'Habanero' contain 357% more Vitamin C than an orange. Red chillies are a good source of beta carotene. The bite in chilli is called Capsaicin. Most of the capsaicin is contained in the seeds and the membrane which when removed makes the chilli milder. The burning feeling that you are left with on your tongue is caused by the relief of Capsaicin. This causes messages to be sent to your brain to release endorphins which are your body's natural pain killer. The endorphins then give you the feeling of relief and pleasure. The release of endorphins lowers the blood pressure, a major indicator in heart disease, and has even been implicated in the fight against cancer. Chilli is mildly antibacterial and is an excellent gargle for sore throats and laryngitis. In Victorian England, chilli peppers were prized for their warming properties in treating arthritis, chills, rheumatism, sprains and depression. Chillies have been used to repel garden pests, to stop barnacles on boats, as an aphrodisiac and as a cure for sore throats and varicose ulcers. Chilli antidotes include any dairy product, milk, ice cream, yogurt, chocolate, sugar, starchy foods like bread. CHILLIES CONTAIN CAPSAICINS. These are peppery compounds that can damage the eyes. Chillies produce capsaicins to avert insects attacking them while they're ripening on their bushes. It's amazing how capsaicins get around, so always prepare chillies wearing disposable gloves and thoroughly wash all knives, cutting boards and anything else that comes in contact with a cut chilli. Above all, make sure you never rub your eyes if you've been preparing any kind of chilli and do not allow chilli to come in contact with a cut or graze as it can burn the skin. Most of their heat is in the seeds and the membrane. If it's your first try, or you don't like too much heat, discard these. The seeds are particularly damaging to the eyes, so discard them carefully if you're not eating them. CHILLIES ARE RICH IN VITAMIN C, niacin (one of the B vitamins) and beta carotene. At least they would be, if you could eat enough of them! 100g of red chillies contains a week's supply of vitamin C but a single chilli divided in a dinner for 2, 3 or 4 makes no real nutritional contribution. However, chillies add loads of flavour, have virtually no fat or sodium and will never make you fat. Indeed, one study reported that those eating chilli increased their metabolic rate and lost weight! I wouldn't recommend it as a method but at least it's good to know that something that tastes so good has nothing nutritionally undesirable. Further research is needed, but the capsaicin in chillies makes your nose run because it shrinks the mucous membranes. This also gives relief if you think you are coming down with a cold.