Many Tex-Mex, Cajun, North African and Asian recipes contain chillies in various proportions to add from just a little kick to a beer swilling, throat ripping heat. Chillies are one of the earliest cultivated crops and come from the south-west of the Americas. Christopher Columbus called the chillies ‘ peppers ‘ after the taste similar to the black and white peppercorns already used in Europe. Travellers were often in search of new sources of spices due to their immense rarity and value. The chilli spread through many of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies to particularly to Mexico, Goa, parts of China and Indonesia. Chillies can be served sliced and diced raw, or dried and flaked or ground to a powder and in numerous sauces and condiments such as Sriracha, Harissa and Thai Chilli paste.
Chillies are all part of the nightshade family of plants some common variations are the red and green Bell peppers ( green are simply unripe bell peppers ), Cayenne, Jalapeño*, Anaheim, Serrano and Poblano peppers ( which when dried are the Ancho pepper ) these collectively are Capsicum annuum peppers. Capsicum frutescens are the family of hotter chillies including the Piri piri, Tabasco and African Birdseye chillies. The hottest chillies are the Habanero, Scotch bonnet and Naga chillies from the Capsicum chinense chilli family. Chillies are high in Vitamin C, Potassium, Magnesium and Iron but do not add greatly to the overall nutritional content of a meal because of the relatively small amounts in a dish.
* The Chipotal pepper is a variety of smoked then dried jalapeño
Chillies come in many varieties here are just a few examples;
Sweet and Fresh – have distinct vegetal aromas reminiscent of freshly cut red bell peppers and fresh home grown tomatoes, Costeño, dried Anaheim, California or Colorado and Choricero peppers.
The Hot Ones – Can be like Cascabels with some complexity and depth of flavour or others like the Pequin or Arbol,which are all about heat.
Dried / Smoky – Some chile peppers, like Chipotles are dried and smoked Some are naturally just dried like Ñora or Guajillo used to make a mild salsa for tamales.
Rich and Fruity – Have distinct aromas of sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, chocolate, and coffee. These include some of the best-known Mexican chiles, like Ancho, Mulato, and Pasilla.
When preparing, try to handle cut and chopped chillies as little as possible. Many chefs wear disposable latex gloves. Wash and clean any equipment that comes in contact with the peppers thoroughly. The main active constituent in the chilli is the naturally occurring chemical Capsaicin. ( It is now the main ingredient in pepper spray and some animal deterrents ). The majority of the Capsaicin is found in the seeds and pith, if your not a fan of chilli heat remove these before preparing your chillies.
Chilli ‘ heat ‘ is measured in Scoville Heat Units, I’ve listed a few varieties of chilli pepper and their SHU to give you an idea of the scale and the relative strength of commercial available peppers. Interestingly some of the the hottest chillies in the world have recently been grown not in Mexico or Asia but in Grantham and Poole in the UK.
Bell Peppers 0 units
New Mexico Green Chillies 1500 + units
Jalapenos 2500 + units
Birds Eye Chillies 50,000 + units
Scotch Bonnets 100,000 + units
Habaneros 300,000 + units
Nag Viper chillies 1,300,000 units
for comparison Tabasco sauce is around 2000 units