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Pungent Spices - Chili Peppers - Capsicum species

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Chili Peppers - Capsicum species

Native to Central and South America and the Caribbean islands, chili peppers (or chile or hot peppers) have been cultivated there for thousands of years. Columbus took plants back to Spain, and the Spaniards named them pimiento (pepper) because of their pungency. Capsicum fruits are still called peppers even though they are not related to the pepper vine. Today chili peppers are the biggest spice crop; hundreds of different varieties are grown in all tropical regions and eaten daily by about a quarter of the world’s population.

Culinary uses

Chili peppers are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, and provide that added benefit to the millions of people who eat them as a cheap means of pepping up a bland and unvarying diet. Chilies are used extensively in their native region, throughout Asia, in Africa, and in the American southwest. India is the largest producer and consumer of chilies, fresh green or dried red (which are usually ground), and each region uses its local varieties. Mexican cooking makes the most sophisticated use of chili peppers, both fresh and dried.

The pungent bite of chilies is due to the presence of capsaicin in their seeds, white fleshy parts, and skin. The capsaicin content depends on the variety of chili pepper and its degree of ripeness; removing seeds and veins will reduce the heat of the chili. Capsaicin stimulates the digestive process and the circulation, which induces perspiration and has a cooling effect on the body.

Essential to berbere, chili powder (which is actually a combination of spices), curry powders and pastes, harissa, jerk seasoning, kimchi, moles, nam prik, pipián, romesco sauce, sambals.

Combines well with most spices, bay, coriander, rau ram, coconut milk, lemon and lime juice.

The heat of chili peppers is rated on a scale of 1–10, from 1 for mild peppers to 10 for extremely hot scotch bonnets.

Tasting notes

Chili peppers range in taste from mild and tingling to explosively hot. The fruits of C. frutescens are generally hotter than those of C. annuum, and those of C. chinense are hottest of all. Large, fleshy varieties tend to be milder than small, thin-skinned peppers.

Parts used

Fresh and dried fruits. Immature chilies are green; they ripen to yellow, orange, red, brown, or purple, and may be used fresh or dried.

Buying and storing

All fresh chilies should be shiny, smooth-skinned, and firm to the touch. They keep in the refrigerator vegetable crisper for a week or more. They can be blanched and frozen, but if frozen raw most lose their flavor and piquancy. Dried chilies vary in appearance according to the variety. A specialist merchant will tell you the country of origin, the type, flavor characteristics, and heat level. Dried chilies keep almost indefinitely in an airtight container.


Most chilies are grown as annuals. Green chilies are picked 3 months after planting; varieties normally used ripe are left longer on the plant. Chilies may be dried in the sun or artificially.

Whole fresh chili peppers

Chilies come in many colors, shapes, and sizes; they can be as tiny as a young pea or as long as 12in (30cm). Many of them stimulate the appetite not only with pungency but with fruity, floral, smoky, nutty, tobacco, or licorice flavors.

Whole dried chili peppers

Drying changes the flavors of chilies. Similarly, the taste of green, immature chilies alters as they ripen and redden.

Ground hot chili

Ground chili is made from dried hot red chilies. Heat rather than flavor is often the characteristic of these products, 5–9/10 on the heat scale, depending on the variety.

Dried chili or pepper flakes

Produced from mild to moderately hot chili peppers, 2–5/10, these are often used as a table condiment in Hungary, Turkey, and the Middle East. Hotter chili flakes are used as a condiment in Korea and Japan.

Chili threads

Red chili peppers are an essential Korean ingredient. Very fine chili threads are used as a garnish.

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