Of all the ingredients available to the enthusiastic cook, chilies are perhaps the most challenging. They can transform the simplest dish into a taste sensation, providing a whole range of special effects, from the tantalizing tingle on the tongue to an explosion of fiery flavor.
These powerful pods originated in South America, but now form a very important part of many of the world’s major cuisines. India is the largest producer and exporter of chilies, with much of the crop going for local consumption. Thailand, Japan, Turkey, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania are also prime producers, exporting chilies to other countries around the globe.
The country most closely associated with chilies, however, is Mexico. A mecca for chili-lovers, every region has its own varieties. Chilies are valued not merely for their heat, but for their flavor, and accomplished Mexican cooks will often use several different types in a single dish, in order to obtain a precise taste.
Fortunately for those of us who like to have some warning as to whether the contents of our shopping basket will be fragrant or fiery, there are several rating systems for the heat in chilies. Possibly the best known of these grades chilies in Scoville units, but these are somewhat unwieldy, being measured in thousands, and a simpler system, grading chilies out of ten, is more often used today. The hottest chili is generally held to be the habanero, with a heat scale rating of 10, while mild bell peppers register zero.
What makes one chili hotter than another is the amount of capsaicin each contains. This chemical, largely located in the fibrous placenta and seeds, is a powerful irritant, which is why chilies must always be handled with care. As compensation for this inconvenience, capsaicin stimulates the brain to produce hormones called endorphins, so these sizzling stars of the culinary stage not only taste great but make us feel good, too.
THE CHILLI FAMILY
There are more than two hundred different types of chili, but only a few of the most popular varieties like serranos, jalapenos, and cayennes make it on to supermarket shelves. Even then, they are often unimaginatively described. A label that merely reads “red chilies” or even “hot red chilies” is not very helpful, so the onus is on all of us who love good food to learn how to identify the various varieties.
How do you know whether chili is hot or not? Are small chilies hotter than big ones? Are red chilies hotter than green? The answer to the last two questions is no. Although some of the world’s hottest chilies are tiny, there are a few large varieties that are real scorchers. Colour isn’t an infallible indicator either. Most chilies start out green and ripen to red, but some start yellow and ripen to red, and yet others start yellow and stay yellow, and across the spectrum, you’ll find hot varieties.
To confuse the issue still further, chilies on the same plant can have different degrees of heat, and in at least one type of chili, the top of the fruit is hotter than the bottom. The best way to familiarize yourself with chilies is to try as many varieties as possible. This means growing your own or finding a good supplier, either via the Internet or by chatting to other chiliheads, as aficionados are commonly known.
Chili seeds are available by mail order, as are fresh and dried chilies. The latter travel well can be stored like other spices, and are delicious when rehydrated. In the descriptions that follow, chilies are listed by heat, with 10 being the hottest.
Heat scale 3: Dried poblanos, these are larger than most other dried chilies. Open the packet and savor the wonderful fruity aroma — similar to dates or dried figs. Like poblanos, anchos can be stuffed but also taste great in stir-fries.
Heat scale 2-3: About 15cm/6in long and 5cm/2in wide, these chilies are good candidates for roasting and stuffing. The flavor is fresh and fruity, like a cross between tart apples and green bell peppers.
Heat scale 3: These dried chilies are about 15cm/6in long, with rough skin. They have a mild, slightly bitter flavor, suggestive of green tea. Guajillos are used in many classic salsas.
Heat scale 3: Juicy and refreshing, these dark green chilies ripen to a rich, dark red. They taste great sliced into salads and have an affinity for tropical fruit, especially mangoes.
Heat scale 3: A dried chili with a thin, wrinkled, dark brown skin, this is related to the anchor. The flavor is smoky and herby.
Heat scale 3: Big and beautiful, poblanos look like sweet bell peppers and are perfect for stuffing. The flavor bears a passing resemblance to that of bell pepper, but is spicier, with peachy overtones. See also Ancho.
Heat scale 3-4: Very dark brown in color, these skinny, dried chilies are generally about 10cm/4in long. When rehydrated, they taste lemony, with a hint of cucumber and apple.
Heat scale 4: The name translates as “little rattle”, and refers to the sound the seeds make inside these round dried chilies. The woody, nutty flavor is best appreciated when the skin is removed. Soak them, then either scrape the flesh off the skin (as when eating a whole kiwi fruit) or press it through a sieve.
Heat scale 4: Pungent, with thick walls, these sweet chilies look like large versions of the fruit for which they are named. The skins can be tough, so they are best peeled.
Heat scale 4: Not to be confused with the much hotter Aji Amarillo, this is a pale orange dried chili, which is ideal for use in yellow salsas and Mexican moles. It has a citrus flavor and is often used to give depth to soups.
Heat scale 4: Quite large and about 15cm/6in in length, pasillas are dried chilaca chilies. Their fruity, licorice flavor works well with seafood, mole sauce, and mushrooms.
Heat scale 5: Plump and cylindrical, with tapered ends, these fresh chilies are most often sold red, although you will sometimes find green or yellow ones in the shops. They resemble jalapenos in appearance and can be substituted for them.
Heat scale 4-7: Green and red jalapenos are frequently seen in our supermarkets. Plump and stubby, like fat fingers, they have shiny skins. The flavor is piquant, almost grassy, and they are widely used in salsas, salads, dips, and stews.
Hungarian Wax Chillies
Heat scale 5: These really do look waxy, like novelty candles. Unlike many chilies, they start off yellow, not green. It is not necessary to peel them, and they are often used in salads and salsas.
Heat scale 6-7: There are several varieties, including one that is yellow when fully ripe, and a large brown aji that is frequently dried. The chilies average about 10cm/4in in length and look rather like miniature windsocks.
Heat scale 6-8: These popular chilies range from 7.5cm/3in to 17cm/1/2in in length and have a sweet yet fiery flavor. The basis of cayenne pepper, they are also used in sauces.
Heat scale 6-10: Smoke-dried jalapenos, these have wrinkled, dark red skin and thick flesh. Chipotles need long, slow cooking to soften them and bring out their intriguing smoky flavor.
Heat scale 7: Usually sold green, Serranos are about 4cm/1 1/2in long and slender. An important ingredient in guacamole, the flavor is clean and crisp, with a suggestion of citrus.
Heat scale 8: Very small and extremely hot, these come from a highly volatile family of chilies that are found in Africa, Asia, the United States, and the Caribbean, and often labeled simply as “Thai chilies”.
Heat scale 8: More often sold dried than fresh, these smooth cayenne-type chilies are slim and curvaceous. A warm orange-red color, these chilies combine blistering heat with a clean, grassy flavor.
Heat scale 9: This delicious chili is very hot and fruity. About the size of a crab apple, it is the only variety of chili to have purple/black seeds.
Heat scale 10: These lantern-shaped chilies have a wonderful, fruity flavor, and a surprisingly delicate aroma, but they are ultra hot, so handle them with extreme care. Always wear strong gloves, and don’t stand over a food processor when blending them, or the fumes may burn your face.
Heat scale 10: Often confused with habanero chilies, which they closely resemble. Scotch bonnets are grown in Jamaica and are the main ingredient of jerk seasoning.
The universal passion for chilies has spawned a huge industry in chili products. Here are some hot favorites:
Anyone buying chili powder could be forgiven for expecting the jar to contain powdered chili, but this product is, in fact, a blend of several ingredients, designed specifically for making chili con carne. In addition to ground hot chilies, it tends to include cumin, oregano, salt, and garlic powder.
Pure powders – the whole chili and nothing but the chili are less easy to come by but are available from specialist shops and by mail order. Ancho, Caribe and New Mexico red powders are relatively mild (heat scale 3). Pasilla, a rich, dark powder, registers 4 on the heat scale, while chipotle is a little hotter.
Dried chili flakes are widely available. Sprinkle them on pizzas or add to cooked dishes for a last-minute lift. Crushed dried green jalapeno chilies are a useful storecupboard item, combining considerable heat with a delicious sweetness.
One of the world’s most famous chili pastes – harissa – comes from North Africa. A spicy blend of red chilies, coriander, and cumin, it can be served solo or with puréed tomatoes as a side dish for dipping pieces of barbecued meat. A little harissa is wonderful added to soups and stews. A hot chili paste is easy to make at home. Simply seed fresh chilies, then purée them in a food processor until smooth. Store small amounts in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 6 months.
Cayenne pepper is a very fine ground powder from the capsicum frutescens variety of chili. The placenta and seeds are included, so it is very hot.
Paprika is a fine, rich red powder made from mild chilies. The core and seeds are removed, but the flavor can still be quite pungent. Look out for pimenton dulce, delicious smoked paprika from Estramadura in Spain.
The world’s most famous chili sauce is Tabasco, developed in Louisiana by E Mcllhenny in the latter half of the 19th century. Chilies are matured in oak barrels to develop the sauce’s unique flavor. Try mixing a few drops with fresh lime juice as a baste next time you grill (broil) salmon steaks, or add to sauces, soups or casseroles. Also available is Tabasco Jalapeno Sauce — often referred to as green Tabasco sauce. Milder in flavor than the red version, it is good with nachos, hamburgers or on pizza.
Chilli sauces are also widely used, Asia. Chinese chili sauce is quite hot and spicy, with a hint of fruitiness thanks to the inclusion of apples or plums. For a milder flavor. look out for sweet chili sauce, which is a blend, of red chilies, sugar and tamarind juice from Sichuan. Vietnamese chili sauce is very hot, while the Thai sauce tends to be thicker and spicier. Bottled chili sauces are used both for cooking and as a dip.
These have a pleasant smell and a concentrated flavor. much stronger than chili sauce, and should be used sparingly. Toss them with pasta. add a dash to a stir-fry, or drizzle them over pizzas. In China and South-east Asia, chili oil is a popular dipping sauce. Two types are widely sold. The first is a simple infusion of dried chilies. onions, garlic, and salt in vegetable oil. The second. X0 chili oil is flavored with dried scallops.
Convenient Chillies Jars of whole chilies in white wine vinegar are handy for the home cook. Also, look out for minced (ground) chilies. After opening, jars must be tightly closed, kept in the refrigerator and the contents consumed by the use-by date.
Preparing Fresh Chillies
As many cooks have found to their cost, the capsaicin in chilies is a powerful irritant, especially to sensitive areas like the eyes, nose, and mouth. Wear gloves or wash your hands well in hot soapy water after handling chilies. 1 Using a sharp knife, cut each chili in half lengthwise. Trim the stalk end from both halves. Scrape out the seeds and membrane. Finely chop or slice the chilies. If preferred, the seeds can be left in. This will give a hotter result.
Preparing Dried Chillies
1 Wipe off surface dirt from the chilies. Soak in hot water to cover for 20-30 minutes until softened. 2 Drain, cut off any stalks, then slit the chilies and scrape out the seeds. Slice or chop. For a purée, process with a little of the soaking water. Sieve if necessary.