Chili Peppers or Hot Peppers: Varieties, Nutrition and Culinary Uses

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Try to imagine Indian food without the fiery heat of chilie peppers, its almost unthinkable. Yet before the 15th century and the discovery and cultivation of chilies outside of the tropical Americas, that was the case. There are litrelly dozens of varieti

It’s hard to imagine Thai, Indian or any Asian cuisine without the fiery heat of chili peppers, hot peppers or chilies, as they are also known. But before the 15th century and the voyages of Columbus, chili peppers were unknown outside of the tropical Americas. The introduction of chili peppers to Africa and Asia was in large part due to the Portuguese navigator, Ferdinand Magellan.

For the botanically minded, hot peppers are divided into about ten different species. For example, capsicum pubescens, capsicum baccatum, and so on. However for culinary purposes we are mostly concerned with the species, capsicum annuum and C. frutescens, as these varieties are hot, mild, flavorful and sweet. Bell peppers, capsicum annuum, have almost no heat, yet combined with hotter peppers they are used to make Hungarian paprika, which is either sweet or hot. 

And then there are the hot peppers, which most of us refer to as chilies. The heat in chilies is caused by an oily substance called capsicum which is located around the rib and seeds. In order to help us understand which chilies have the most power and how much to use when cooking, the pharmacist William Scoville developed a system to measure the amount of heat in chili varieties. The system measures the amount of capsicum in parts per million, which is then converted to Scoville units. One part per million equals 15 Scoville units. Another thing to remember is that even chilies from the same plant can vary greatly in heat. That is why there is such a discrepancy in heat calculation. 

The many varieties of chile peppers vary greatly in size, color and heat. Below is a short selection.

Anaheim: These chilies are elongated and flat, about 6 inches long. They are green when unripe and red when ripe. Their flavor is sweet and mild although compared to a bell pepper, they have a little spice. Roasting them brings out their sweetness and they can also be stuffed.

Cubanelle and Hungarian Wax: These two chilies are a similar size and shape and are often confused. Cubanelles are yellow-green and Hungarian wax are either red or green. Both are sweet and mild and can be used interchangeably. Only 500-800 in Scoville units.

Hatch: This chile pepper is named after a town in southern Mew Mexico. It looks similar to an Anaheim but is hotter. This chile is green when harvested, turning red as it ripens. It measure between 1,000 and 8,000 on the Scoville scale.

Chilhuacle Negro: A black variety of chillie that’s hard to find fresh outside of Mexico, but can be found dried. They are often used to make mole sauce. They are also grown in red and yellow varieties. Not to be confused with chilaca or chili negro which is elongated, dark brown or green.

Jalapeño: Probably the worlds best known chile and certainly the easiest to find. This chile is available in red or green, although red is hard to find and there doesn’t seem to be any difference in heat between the two. The Jalapeño can measure between 2,500 and 10,000 Scoville units. Of particular interest to cooks are chipotle chilies, which are smoked jalapeños. Chipotles are available dried and also canned with adobo sauce. They add a unique flavor to sauces and soups, but they can be fiery. Remove the seeds to reduce heat.

Serrano: Like Jalapeños Serrano chilies are available in green and red verieties, although Serranos are hotter than Jalapeños. For cooking purposes substitute one Serrano for two jalapenos. Serranos have a hot yet rich flavor, and can measure a sweat inducing 15,000 to 30,000 Scoville units.

Kashmiri: This is an elongated, tapered chili, red in color, with a mild flavor. Kashmiri chilies are primarily used dried by Indian cooks to give their cuisine its red color.

Thai Bird’s Eye: Also known as bird or Thai chilies, they are one of the worlds smallest chilies measuring about 1 inch long. They are green when unripe and red when mature. Thai chilies usually pack a punch and can measure between 40,000 and 100,000 units.

Togarashi: Another tiny yet scorching chile, these chilies are used in Japanese cuisine, particulary as a condiment.

Aji Lemon Drop( Capsicum boccatum): This is a small yellow chili with a wonderful lemon flavor that originates from Peru. This chile measures 100,000 to 150,000 Scoville units. These days it is also produced at a chilie farm in Devon, England.

Cayenne: The Cayenne chili is the principle pepper used to make the ground spice, Cayenne Pepper( Capsicum frutescens). These peppers are long, slender and about 1-2 inches in length. The Cayenne is named after Cayenne in French Guiana and Cayenne pepper is popular in both Latin American and Indian cuisine, where it is used in curry powder.

Pablano or Pasilla: This large, up to 5 inches long, dark green chili is mild in heat, but very flavorful. Dried red pablanos are called anchos and green are known as mulatos.

Scotch Bonnet: These lantern shaped chilies are available in pretty orange and yellow colors but appearnaces can be deceiving. The Scotch bonnet competes with the habanero at about 100,000 to 300,000 Scoville units. Scotch bonnet chilies are used in Jamaican cuisine to make fiery sauces.

Habanero: This fiery lantern shaped, orange chili has the repuatation of being the worlds hottest chili at 100,000 to 300,000 Scoville units. However, a variety of hanbanero called red savina, at 576,000 units is said to be the hottest.

Nutritional Value: Chili peppers are members of the deadly nightshade family, as are physalis, tamarillo and tomato. After they were initially discovered people were afraid to eat them and they were grown purely as ornamentals. Only later did we discover their gastronomical uses and incredible nutritional value.

It’s a little known fact that pound for pound chile pepers actually contain more vitamin C than oranges. However, it would be difficult to eat the amount of chilies necessary in one sitting, therefore citrus fruits are a more practical source of vitamin C. Chilies are a good source of fiber. People often remove the seeds from chilie peppers which reduces their heat, though removing the seeds cuts the amount of fiber in half. There is also a myth that capsicum is bad for the digestion and may cause acid reflux. In fact capsicum stimulates salivation and aids the flow of gastric juices, therefore aiding digestion.

The nutritional value of chilie peppers varies greatly from one variety to another. Red peppers are the most nutritious as they contain more vitamin A, or beta carotene, and vitamin C. Green chilies are least nutritious. Chilies also contain vitamin E, or tocopherol. Tocopherol provides antioxidant activity which help protect cells against damaging, chronic disease causing, free radicals. Chilies are a significant source of vitamin B6 and folate, or vitamin B9.

The red savina habanero is said to be the worlds hottest chile pepper.

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Roberta Baxter
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