Anna Bergenström, Fanny Bergenström
27 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Fanny Bergenström

Mild, medium or hot …

Which chilli to choose? Chillies are a fascinating and exciting subject, after you get past the beginner’s level. Chillies are not just hot and spicy, they also bring out and accentuate other flavours in food. Once you get used to the heat, you start to discover a whole new set of nuances. You may detect a certain sweetness (especially in ripe, red chillies) or even fruity, flowery or earthy tones, and sometimes a sultry, pleasant smokiness as well. For us personally, the use of chilli has grown over the years, starting out with the occasional Southeast Asian dish and turning into a daily ‘must-have’, inspired by the Chilean side of the family. One example is the homemade chilli mix that we call ‘indispensable ají’ (ají is a Spanish word for chilli), because that’s simply what it’s become to us…

Every year, chilli sales increase all around the globe, and chilli is now the world’s most frequently used condiment. Chillies are also used for medicinal purposes, as their spiciness is considered beneficial to your health. Chillies are believed to release endorphins (the body’s own pain relievers), increase your metabolism and provide a general feeling of well-being.

Chillies and red capsicums are cousins

Fruits from the genus capsicum come in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes: red, orange, yellow, brown or purple, and round, pointy or oval. There are approximately 150 different varieties and thousands of hybrids, and the number increases every year. All chillies contain the strong substance capsaicin in greater or smaller amounts. Capsaicin can be found throughout the entire fruit, but is more concentrated near the stem, in the seeds and – particularly – in the membranes holding the seeds. Sometimes the same type of chilli varies significantly in heat, and the heat can even vary individually among fruits harvested from the same plant. As a general rule, the smaller and pointier the chilli, the hotter it is. But there are exceptions, like the puffy habanero, which is one of the hottest chillies. The heat of chillies is measured in Scoville heat units. Regular capsicums only measure 1 unit while jalapeños can reach 3000-6000, and one of the hottest varieties, savina habaneros, measures up to 577,000. The hottest of them all is said to be the naga jolokia from northern India, which can reach up to 1,000,000 Scoville units.

A brief history of chilli

A large part of the global population eats chilli on a daily basis, and countless varieties of chilli blends, oils and sauces are used in traditional cuisines all over the world. Some examples include harissa in northern Africa, smoky merquen in Chile, berbere in Ethiopia, curry paste in Thailand and sambals in Indonesia. However, chillies originally come from Peru and Mexico, where traces of chilli have been found in graves dating back to thousands of years BC. In 1493, when Christopher Columbus and his explorers arrived in the New World on his second voyage, they encountered chillies for the first time. They called them pimientos (Spanish for capsicum/pepper), because of their hot, peppery taste, and subsequently took the fruit back to Spain. Chillies soon spread to Asia via Spanish and Portuguese colonists, and became immensely popular in the Philippines, Korea, China and the small Portuguese territory of Goa in India. The hottest cuisines are currently found in Thailand, India and the Chinese province of Sichuan.

Poblano, jalapeño, chipotle and piri piri ...

The most common fresh chillies are often long, narrow and either green or red. They range anywhere from mild to fairly hot, and measure 2500-5000 Scoville units.

Jalapeño is a rather small, chubby, green Mexican chilli that is medium to hot and turns red when fully ripe. Jalapeños are used in all kinds of salsas, and are often sold pickled in vinegar and oil. Jalapeños are smoked instead of dried, and are then called chipotle. They are a very good variety for marinades and sauces.

Serrano is a Mexican green or red chilli, ranging from hot to very hot. Wonderful in a guacamole, ceviche or fresh salsa.

Poblano is mild when green and unripe, and mildly hot when mature. It is usually a deep red, almost brownish-black, with subtle flavour notes of cocoa. Widely used in Mexican dishes, such as in chiles rellenos (stuffed chillies). A dried poblano is called chile ancho.

Habanero, with its characteristic puffy pods, is a superhot chilli (it’s about 100 times hotter than the jalapeño) with floral, citrusy notes. It is a popular ingredient in really spicy dishes, but should always be used with caution. There is also a black habanero, and another variety called Scotch bonnet, which resembles a hat.

Cayenne is yet another very hot chilli that is often dried and ground into powder. Use cayenne with care: the heat only emerges after a while, so it’s best to add just a little at a time and allow the flavours to develop.

Piri piri is a tiny, superhot chilli that most people associate with African cooking, but which the Portuguese allegedly took from South America to their African colonies. Just two crumbled dried piri piri chillies may be enough to flavour an entire stew.

Bird’s eye is a small green or red, extremely spicy chilli, measuring 50,000-100,000 Scoville heat units. It is often used in South-East Asian cuisines, such as those of Indonesia and Thailand. There is also an even hotter African variety known as African bird’s eye.

Tabasco is a small and very hot chilli used in the famous Tabasco sauce. It is about as hot as bird’s eye chilli, and the two are closely related.

Peperoncini, also known as golden greek, is a mild to medium hot variety, often pickled in vinegar and salt, and a given accompaniment to kebabs.

Cascabel is a tiny, round chilli that is brownish-red and quite mild when dried. Great for flavouring savoury sauces and soups.

Chilli powder is sometimes pure, finely ground chilli, but more often a blend of chilli, garlic, cumin and oregano. Chilli flakes, on the other hand, are plain dried chillies that have been coarsely ground or crushed into flakes, often including the seeds.

Tips and tricks

When buying fresh chillies, the skin should be even and taut. If you’re not using them straight away, store the chillies in the vegetable drawer of the fridge. If sold tightly wrapped in plastic, make some air holes to prevent the chilli from softening.

Remember never to touch your eyes after cutting chillies – it will sting. One idea is to use thin latex gloves when chopping really hot chillies, another to rub a few drops of oil on your hands first, and then wash them properly when done. The oil prevents the heat from sticking to your skin as much. This is a useful trick, since water won’t dissolve capsaicin but oil or grease will. So, if you’ve eaten something too spicy, it’s much better to drink a glass of milk or eat some yoghurt (which contains a bit of fat) than to drink water.

When deseeding and chopping chillies, start by cutting off the stems plus a few millimetres of the chilli. Cut it in half lengthwise, use the point of a small sharp knife to remove the seeds and membrane, and then cut each half in two. Once the membrane and seeds are gone, it’s easy to chop or finely slice the chilli. Wash the knife and chopping board when you’re done. Note: the more seeds you add, the hotter the dish.

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