Chiles – No one is actually keeping score, but I bet if someone were, chilies would win as the New World’s most valuable contribution to world cuisine. The fruits of several species of the Capsicum genus have transformed the cooking of almost every region of the planet since Columbus delivered the first batch to his Spanish patrons at the close of the 15th century. (Although they are unrelated to the pepper that Europe was already familiar with, the Spanish called them pimiento (pepper) due to their pungency, and the name stuck.) It’s hard to imagine what many of the outstanding food cultures of the world were like before the introduction of what has become the world’s largest spice crop.
Chiles get their “heat” from a compound called capsaicin which is most concentrated in the seeds and white membranes, with lower concentrations in the flesh of the fruits. The amount of capsaicin depends on the variety of Chile as well as its ripeness, and experts agree that many other variables play a part in the ultimate spiciness of many varieties, including temperature, rainfall, and soil conditions. Ignoring this basic variability for a second, some chilies are spicier than others, as determined by the amount of capsaicin they contain. As a general rule, the larger, fleshier varieties are milder than the smaller, thinner-skinned varieties. Their “hotness” (it’s not actually heat, but rather a chemical stimulation of pain receptors in mucous membranes) is measured in Scoville units and ranges from zero Scoville units in the case of the mildest sweet bell peppers, to about 350,000 for the hottest habanero and Scotch bonnet varieties. It is said that capsaicin stimulates digestion and circulation, and it also provokes perspiration which accounts for the near-universal popularity of spicy foods in tropical climates.
With literally thousands of varieties under cultivation around the world, a comprehensive listing is far beyond the scope of this little article. However, this diversity points to the fact that Capsicum species are easy to grow just about anywhere, and the dedicated cook can have a personal crop of chilies growing in the backyard or in pots on window sills virtually anywhere in the world. Usually classified as annuals, chilies are easily grown from seed and will bear fruit in their first season. If you happen across a fresh or dried Chile you are particularly fond of, try saving some of the seeds and planting them in the spring. You will almost certainly be rewarded with your first crop in a matter of weeks, although the fruits may not be identical to the parent due to cross-pollination.
When fresh, they have a characteristically smooth and shiny skin in vibrant colours ranging from green to yellow, orange, fire engine red, and deep maroon, and may be eaten at any stage of maturity. They may be dried or frozen, although freezing will result in a loss of flavour and spiciness unless they are blanched first. In their dried form the flavor is concentrated and, ounce for ounce, the spiciness may increase as much as tenfold. Dried chilies will keep almost indefinitely in an airtight container.
The uses of chiles are almost too numerous to mention. They are used fresh and dried, whole, chopped, and ground, raw, pickled, and cooked in sauces, pastes, oils, preserves, and powders. They come in various guises and are marketed under various names: cayenne pepper is the pulverized form of the dried red cayenne chile; paprika is the dried and pulverized form of sweet and mildly spicy red chiles; chile powder is a mixture of powdered chiles (often ancho chiles) with other herbs and spices such as oregano and garlic; hot sauces are made by preserving chiles in brine or vinegar; chile oils are made by steeping chiles in oil for a period of time; pimientos are the preserved flesh of red chiles similar to bell peppers; and hot pepper flakes are the dried, crushed form of any of a variety of spicy red chiles.
The flavours range from mild to infernally hot, as we have already seen, but the flavour spectrum is not limited to degrees of spiciness. Different types of chilies are valued for their different flavour components everywhere chilies are used. Some are fresh and “green” (it’s a chlorophyll thing) in flavour while others can be slightly bitter (especially yellow chilies) to sweet with overtones of raisins, prunes, and chocolate. Some attack the tongue with their chemical assault, while others gently stimulate the back of the throat. Cooks in Central and South America and the Caribbean have been keenly aware of these differences for thousands of years and it is not uncommon for some traditional preparations to call for three, four, or even more types of chilies in order to form a combination of flavours from what each variety of Chile provides.
Yes, the flavours can be overwhelming (especially to the uninitiated), but they can also be exceedingly subtle as well. Chiles get my vote for the most important spice of all time.