Chile peppers

Other Names: Ají, chile, guindilla, or pimienta (Spanish); berberé or mitmita (Amharic); biber (Turkish); bisbas (Arabic); cabé or lombok (Indonesian); chili-pfeffer (German); csilipaprika (Hungarian); diavoletto or peperoncino (Italian); hari mirch or lal mirch (Hindi); la jiao or lup-chew (Chinese); ot (Vietnamese); pilipili hoho (Swahili); pilpel adom or tsili (Hebrew); piment fort (French); piperi kagien or tsili (Greek); piripíri (Portuguese); pisi hui or prik (Thai); Spaanse peper (Dutch); togarashi (Japanese).

General Description: Chiles are a huge group in five main species of the Capsicum (pepper) family with thousands of varieties around the world that all contain capsaicin—a substance that makes them spicy. Each type of chile has subtle flavors besides their heat, which may lie anywhere between tingling and searing. Capsaicin is found mainly in the spongy white tissue to which the seeds cling. The Scoville method of measuring chile heat ranges from Anaheims at 1,000 units to Scotch bonnets and habaneros at up to 300,000. Generally, the smaller the chile, the hotter it will be. However, within varieties, individual chiles vary greatly one to the next. Capsaicin can irritate or even burn skin and inner tissues, but it also causes the brain to release endorphins, creating a sense of well-being and stimulation. People develop a tolerance for the hotness, so that those who are accustomed to eating chiles can eat much hotter food than novices.

All chiles start out green with distinct heat and herbal, vegetable-like flavor. Ripe chiles may be yellow, red, orange, brown, purple, or almost black. Ripened varieties are generally sweeter, fruitier, and often hotter. Dried chiles are more full-bodied and concentrated with a fruity, raisin-like flavor, which may be accompanied by smoky notes depending on the variety and how it was dried. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the use of specific chile varieties is essential to the character of individual dishes; in Asia and the Indian subcontinent, chiles are simply classified by size and whether they are green or red, fresh or dried.

India is by far the largest grower of chiles in the world. Bedagi karnataka are medium-large deep red chiles with pungent flavor though relatively mild spice. Also from southern India is the rounded, oblong yellow curd chiles, also called tanjone chiles.

The most important chile species economically is Capsicum annuum; milder members of this genus are called paprika. In this family, New Mexico chiles have a fairly mild, earthy flavor; they’re long and tapered and may be brown, green, red, orange, or yellow. They’re commonly dried and sold whole, or sold in powdered form as New Mexico chile powder. Chile pasilla, a popular Mexican chile, is dried for use in mole sauces and has a fruity character with a note of licorice. The smoke-dried, purplish brown ancho is large and shaped like a long, pointed heart. Called poblano (pasilla in California) when fresh, it has full-bodied flavor and moderate heat. The longer, narrower, dark brown chile mulato is similar to the ancho, and has a smoky flavor. Dark green, oblong jalapeños are the most common hot chile in the United States. Serrano peppers resemble thin jalapeños. Chipotles are tobacco-colored, finger-sized, smoke-dried red jalapeños. They may be found powdered or whole but are commonly packed in small cans in adobo (tomato-garlic sauce). The Pakistani heart-shaped dundicut chile, prominent in Balti cooking, is another cultivar in this species. Vermilion-colored, heart-shaped Spanish piquillo peppers are sweet and slightly piquant with thin-walled flesh and concentrated fruity flavor. Small, round, burgundy red ñora peppers are intensely flavored and sweet fleshed. They are sun-dried and added to stews or soups and used to flavor chorizo; they’re much more common in Spanish cuisine than hot chiles. Chile de arbol, meaning “tree chile,” comes from a plant with thick woody stems. Bright red in color and slender and tapered in shape, these peppers originated in Mexico, where they are popular. They are also known as rat tail, bird beak, or cow horn chiles. Red Holland chiles are a long, medium-large hybrid variety with a pointed tip that resemble cayenne peppers in flavor and heat. Sold fully ripened and deep red, they are available fresh all year because they are greenhouse-grown in Holland for export.

After C. annuum, the next most common species, C. frutescens, generally includes small and hotter types, such as bird’s-eye and tabasco peppers. Chile pequín’s small, pointed, and glossy fruits start out purple, turning orange and then red, and have a spicy fruit flavor. Chiltepíns are tiny and round, ripening to purple; they’re used dried. The Brazilian malagueta pepper, believed to be the wild form of the tabasco pepper, is not to be confused with the same term used for grains of paradise. Vietnamese chiles are fiery hot, about 1 1/2 inches in length, and shaped like a long, thin, pointy cone. Small plastic bags of these fresh mixed green and red chiles are sold in Vietnamese groceries.

The fruity chiles known as ají in South America are in the C. baccatum species. The most common cultivar is the yellow ají amarillo, referred to as cusqueño in dried form. This flavorful species, which has been grown in the southern Andes for thousands of years, is commonly oblong and yellow when ripe. Guajillo or cascabel chiles are dried mirasols, which have a distinctive, relatively mild earthy flavor with plum and raisin notes.

C. chinense, the species that includes the hottest chiles, is most important in the Caribbean. Scotch bonnets are light green, yellow, or red bonnet-shaped peppers. They were used by the Carib Indians for torturing captives and for seasoning pepper-pot stew. Habaneros are cherry-sized, squat, lantern-shaped, orange pods famed for their intense heat and underlying sweet apple-tomato flavor. Rocotillos come from the Cayman Islands and Congo peppers from Trinidad. Take care when handling and eating the above chiles because their exceptional heat makes them extremely potent. The ají panca, a Chilean cultivar, is mild and fruity. Ose utoro in Nigeria and other African cultivars were introduced to Africa by repatriated slaves.

The hardy C. pubescens is native to the Andes and, even today, cultivation outside that region is rare. This small group includes the rocoto chile, which is thick fleshed, small, round, and mild enough to be stuffed and baked; the Cuzco chile, an ancient strain from Cuzco, Peru; and the manzano amarillo (yellow rocoto or canario), with rather hot, blocky, long, canary yellow fruits and sweet, crisp flesh.

Hot sauces are made the world over using a huge variety of chiles, sometimes mixed with garlic and other spices and brewed with vinegar. They include American cayenne pepper sauces, Caribbean habanero sauces, African piri-piri sauce, and Mexican Cholula® sauce. Tabasco® sauce is made on McIlhenney Island, Louisiana, with almost the entire American crop of tabasco peppers.

Chile pastes like Indonesian sambal oelek and Turkish kirmizi biber are chiles mashed with garlic and other seasonings and packed in oil. Chile oil is made by steeping the peppers in oil and straining it. Small whole hot chiles, like piri-piri or bird’s-eye, may be packed in vinegar and used as a table condiment. Thai chiles (prik dong in Thai) are 1 to 3 inches long, slightly curved, and deep green ripening to bright red. When fully ripe, these potent peppers are commonly packed in glass jars. In Asia, dried red chiles are often fried in hot oil until dark brown; the oil is then used to prepare stir-fries.

Chiles that have been dried and crumbled, either with or without seeds, are a convenient way to season food. Aleppo pepper, which originated in Aleppo, the culinary capital of Syria, is coarsely ground red chiles; it’s gritty, dark red, earthy, robust, and mildly hot with a rich fruity flavor. Korean pepper flakes are used in huge quantities in Korean cooking; these deep red flakes are made from only the flesh of the pepper. Pepe rosso picante, Italian-style crushed red pepper flakes commonly sprinkled on pizzas, include seeds. Piri-piri is a general term for chiles in South Africa, Angola, and parts of India. In powdered form, it’s generally a blend of very hot red chiles. Chipotles and mirasols can also be made into flakes and powders.

Season: Many varieties of fresh chiles can be found year-round, with the greatest variety in hot summer months and in areas with a large Hispanic population.

Purchase and Avoid: The selection of chiles will vary depending on the ethnicity of customers—Asian chiles in Asian markets, Caribbean in Caribbean markets, and so on. Choose firm, plump, crisp fresh chiles with a shiny skin and fresh smell. For the most flesh, get the heaviest ones for their size. Avoid wrinkled, soft fresh chiles with any mushiness toward the stem end or soft, brown spoiled spots. Look for dried chile peppers that are whole and flexible rather than brittle and cracked. Deeper-colored chile powders are generally ground from the flesh of the chile only; lighter-colored powders may have been ground with their seeds, making for a hotter product.

Storage: Place fresh chiles in a plastic bag and refrigerate up to 1 week. Store dried chiles out of the light. Store ground chile powders in the freezer.


  • Handle fresh chiles with care. Protect your hands from the capsaicin by wearing rubber gloves, or by coating your hands first with oil, as native cooks have done for centuries.
  • Once your hands or gloves have been in contact with chiles, don’t touch your lips, eyes, face, or delicate body parts. To prevent burning those sensitive areas later, scrub your hands and arms vigorously with plenty of hot, soapy water.
  • Toast either whole dried chiles or seeded and trimmed chiles in a dry pan over medium heat until the aromas are released.
  • Soak dried chiles in warm water to soften, then remove the spongy tissue and seeds, if desired.
  • Fry small whole chiles in oil before adding other ingredients to the pan; remove before serving.

Serving Suggestions: Make Mexican salsa by mixing chopped serrano or jalapeño chiles with diced onions, diced tomatoes, chopped cilantro, and salt. Mix ground chiles with garlic to make a rub for meat. Make a Thai curry with shrimp or chicken, coconut milk, fish sauce, and thinly sliced hot green chiles.

Food Affinities: Avocado, beans, beef, ceviche, cheese, chicken, chickpeas, Chinese fermented black beans, cilantro, coconut milk, cumin, curry, fish, garlic, ginger, lamb, lemon, lime, mint, mole sauce, olive oil, onion, orange, oregano, pasta, peanut, pork, potato, rice, seafood, sesame, soy, tomatillo, tomato.

from Quirk Books: www.quirkbooks.com