Chilli is the most pungent of the spices and in one variety or other is found almost everywhere in the world, although its uses vary greatly. In this index I have used the convention of referring to hot varieties of capsicum annuum and other capsicum species as chillies, but referring to sweet mild to medium varieties of c. annuum as paprika, for which there is a separate entry.
Aji amarillo chillies
Peruvian purple peppers
Bhut jolokia (ghost chilli)
Central African fatalii chilli
Assorted dried chillies
|Species:||The genus is capsicum. There are many varieties of chilli including c. annuum, c. praetermissum, c. cardenasii, c. pubescens and c. frutescens.|
Culinary use of chillies began thousands of years ago in the Andes, but they first left America with Columbus. When first brought to Europe they were not much liked, black pepper being preferred. Chillies brought to Asia by Spanish and Portuguese colonisers became part of local diets because they grew easily, whereas other pungent spices were difficult to cultivate.
Although most chillies belong to species c. annuum, it makes little sense to discuss mild and hot species together as their applications are distinct and all cuisines except Mexican and Hungarian make a clear distinction between them. The term "paprika" is generally used for the milder types and the term "chilli" used for hotter fruits.
Chillies are easy to grow and cultivation has spread across the world, especially to regions with tropical climates. India is the main producer, mostly for domestic consumption. There are many cultivars in Latin America (especially Mexico), but most belong to species capsicum annuum.
Fruits (berries often misnamed "pods"), which may be harvested ripe or unripe. Removals of seeds and veins from the fruits reduces the pungency. Chilli leaves are sometimes used in India to flavour drinks.
Solanacae (nightshade family).
Once your palate has become used to the fiery pungency, chilli can surprise you with its variety of flavours - fruity, earthy, smoky, fresh, sweet and flowery. Hotness is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), a subjective measure based on human tasting. The hottest chilli commonly used is capsicum chinense at 200,000 SHU or more, but the world's absolute hottest chilli, bhut jolokia (or naga jolokia) "ghost chilli" scores over 1 million SHU. Thai chillies are 100,000 SHU, but many common varieties such as Italian peperoncino are below 5,000 SHU. Fruits harvested at the same time from the same plant may differ significantly in hotness.
In many European languages the name of chilli is derived from that of black pepper, either as a simple variant as in Italian peperoncino and Hindi mirch (from Sanskrit maricha), or with reference to red colour as in French poivre rouge, to potency as in Spanish pimienta picante or to Spanish introduction as in Dutch spaanse peper. The Chinese la jiao "hot Sichuan pepper" classifies chilli as a hot variant of a native spice and the Italian diavoletto is a form of diavolo "devil".
In many European languages chilli is known as "Cayenne pepper", e.g. Portuguese pimenta de Caiena. The English name "chilli" is derived from a Mexican root meaning "red" and "chilli" is also the name of the spice in contemporary Mexican Spanish. The English term "chilli pepper" is sometimes a cause of serious culinary errors.
Species name frutescens means to be shrubby, from the Latin frutex "shrub" and fruticari "to sprout". Species pubescens "hairy" describes the leaves, but species chinense is a misnomer as it has nothing to do with China. The "bird pepper" or "bird chilli" wild forms have small, pungent fruits that separate easily and are dispersed by birds. Species praetermissum is an example of these types, the name being a Latin composite of missus "sent" and praeter "beyond".
The genus capsicum comprises five cultivars and some twenty wild species all of which originate in South America. Wild chillies have an intensive heat similar to that of tabasco chillies and are used in cooking in Brazil and Bolivia.
Species c. annuum is the most important and grows in America and Europe, with both mild and pungent fruits. One of the best known is the Mexican variety jalapeño, named after Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz. Jalapeños have no uniquely characteristic taste, but are more pungent than the large fruit varieties while much milder than typical South American or Asian chillies. Jalapeños are usually eaten unripe (green) and in the fresh state are often coarsely chopped and used to pep up salsas or used as a table condiment. They derive their main attraction not from taste or pungency but from their crispy texture which adds interest to salsa or guacamole.
The serrano chilli is in both shape and flavour similar to the jalapeño, but is much smaller and also more pungent, reaching almost the heat level of a green Thai chilli. Serranos "mountain chillies" are typical of rural Mexican cooking where they often replace the milder jalapeños. It is difficult to dry ripe, fleshy fruits such as jalapeños, which rot quicker than they dry. To preserve chillies, Mexican Indians developed a smoking procedure that yields products of unique culinary value. Dried and smoked chillies give a very special flavouring and impart an incomparable smoky flavour to the foods.
The term chipotle denotes any smoked chilli, but the name is now used almost exclusively to mean jalapeños smoked over pecan, hickory or mesquite. Chipotles have become popular in the US and are a key part of the cuisines of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Chipotles may be used in the same way as anchos or mulatos, i.e. rehydrated, pureed and fried to yield spicy products. More commonly, they are steeped in sauces or used in the powdered form, cooked or as a last-minute seasoning. Chipotles en adobo are whole chipotles stewed in a thin, well-seasoned tomato sauce, used as a snack or garnish for those who can tolerate their heat or as a flavouring for other foods. They can be processed with adobo liquid into a puree that makes a very flavourful dip.
It is often speculated that the varieties called tepín or chiltepín (c. annuum var. aviculare and c. annuum var. glabrisculum), which grow wild in the Northern Mexican desert and Texas, may have been cultivated by Ancient Mexican people and may be the ancestor of all cultivated varieties. Tepín remains a wild plant with the crop gathered, all attempts at commercial cultivation having failed. In addition to tepín, there is a cultivar class called pequín with small, elongated hot fruits. There are also types with long, pointed fruit which are of biting heat, e.g. chilli de arbol.
In Mexico, there is a continuous spectrum of peppers from the very mild to the very hot. All of them are normally referred to as chillies and they are of the same botanical species (except Yucatan habanero chillies, which are c. chinense). This contrasts with other countries, where only hot "chilli" and mild "paprika" types are known, but no intermediates.
The hardy c. pubescens has thick-flesh pods unsuitable for drying and is the hottest chilli large enough for stuffing. The most common cultivar is golden-yellow ají amarillo used to flavour the Andean speciality cuy (broiled or fried guinea pig). A form of c. baccatum known as piri píri has bell-shaped fruits and is extremely popular in Portugal and its former colonies.
Species c. chinense is known for its pungent, aromatic fruits. 6,500 years of cultivation has resulted in different colours (orange, red, brown) and shapes (lantern, squash, pointed). Examples include habanero in Cuba and Congo pepper in Trinidad. A group of yellow chillies is referred to as ají limo. Several chinense cultivars were introduced by repatriated slaves and are important in the cuisines of West Africa. The least important species is c. frutescens, whose best-known cultivar is Mexican tabasco.
Chillies can improve dishes whether used fresh or dried, ripe or unripe, cooked or raw. With experience, most people develop the ability to discern subtle flavours behind the heat. To an experienced palate, chilli acts as a flavour-enhancing seasoning. In Latin America, regions have their own chillies differing in hotness and flavour and each is used for specific dishes. In Asia, however, chillies have a more uniform flavour and are used for their pungency. De-veining to control heat, as in Latin America and Europe, is unusual in Asia.
In South-East Asia, ripe chillies are available all year and are preferred fresh. Thai curry paste is a mixtures of chilli and other fresh spices. Despite its often searing heat, Thai food is also aromatic due to use of fresh spices and herbs. Examples are gai pad krapao (a chicken dish with chillies and basil) and laab (a Northern Thai salad). Chilli-based condiments are typical in Thailand and the Indonesian fruit salad rujak (mango, palm sugar and chilli) makes an unforgettable impression. Indonesian hot chilli sauce sambal is provided at the table to adjust hotness and sambal is used in the rice dish nasi goreng.
Most Cantonese recipes do not use chilli, though it is sometimes served in sauces and dips. La jiao jiang is similar to Indonesian sambal ulek, but contains vegetable oil. In Sichuan and Hunan in China, chillies and garlic are popular and liberally used in stir-fries. Tianjan province is known for its flavourful chillies sold dried as tien tsin.
Although Vietnamese food is only moderately spiced, chilli is available at South Vietnamese tables either fresh or in the fish sauce nuoc mam.
In Japan, tōgarashi "chilli" plays only a minor role in condiments and for spicing soups, as the hotness is incompatible with the subtle flavours on which Japanese cuisine depends. In neighbouring Korea, chillies are much loved and are used ripe and dried or in form of the chilli bean paste kochu jang. Kim chi "pickled vegetables" form an important part of Korean diet. Most types of kim chi are hot due to the use of dried chillies, together with garlic, ginger, sugar, soy sauce, herbs and sesame oil.
South Indian and Sri Lankan cuisines use fresh green chillies in large amounts for stir-fries and deep-fried lentil snacks. For curries, dried red chillies are usually preferred. Quantities are often much greater than the most experienced Western palates can tolerate. In North India and Central Asia, chillies are normally used dried. Sold whole or ground at the market, they are fiery, intensively coloured and highly aromatic. For most applications they are fried in ghee "clarified butter" so the pungency is distributed through the food. Chillies from Kashmir have the best reputation, with a deep red colour and fragrance comparable to the best quality Hungarian sweet paprika.
Chillies appear in many spice mixtures such as Indian garam masala, Ethiopian berbere and Arab baharat. Asian examples include Japanese shichimi togarashi and Thai curry paste. Some spice preparations are made predominantly of chilli. These include Asian condiment sambal ulek, hot pepper sauces of Mexico and Tunisian harissa, often served as a condiment for cous-cous.
Although chillies are most popular in hot climates, an exception is Tibet. Tibetan food is mildly seasoned, but fiery chilli condiments are always available. A local recipe is churu sibeh, chillies mixed with pungent mould-ripened blue cheese. As it is difficult to ripen chillies at Tibetan altitudes, locals often employ unripe green chillies, which lack aroma but not hotness.
Most European countries do not use chilli in traditional dishes. The Mediterranean states and Hungary have a chilli tradition, but food is rarely very hot even in these countries. Consequently, there are only a few chilli cultivars in Europe, one being the Portuguese piri píri. Many hot chillies are used dried, e.g. Southern Italian peperoncino and piment d'espelette from the Basque Country. Also notable is the so-called "Hungarian cherry pepper", a compromise between pungency and flavour. This and other milder varieties are classed as paprika.