Knowing My Peppers

I always thought I’d an interesting childhood. My earliest memories of growing up were running after my sisters and the army kids in the Sungai Besi base camp. While our fathers were busy fighting for our country and our mothers were busy keeping the homes in order or exchanging food recipes, the kids ran wild and played among trees, mango-stealing monkeys and occasionally, artillery trucks. Food then was richly influenced by the Malays- spicy chile peppers, coconut rich and sweet foods.

I was about 7 years old when my mother put a bowlful of curry noodles in front of me. That was my dinner and I was expected to finish it. I did. Since then, I have to have some kind of chile in my meals. It is both a curse and a blessing (more of the latter). One could argue having too much chile in a meal is like eating for one thing and not tasting the other flavors. I argue it’s the other way- chile adds boldness and flavor to food.

I dedicate this entry to my favorite things in my diet: chiles and peppers.

Anaheim chile: Named after the California city, usually medium green in color and has a long, narrow shape. The red strain is called chile Colorado. Used as stuffed peppers or in salsas. Dried red versions are used for the decorative Ristra wreath

Ancho chile: 3 to 4 inch long, broad, dried chile. Deep reddish brown in color. Mild to pungent flavor. The dried version is the sweetest of the dried chiles. The fresh green state is called Poblano chile

Banana chile: see Hungarian wax chile

Banana pepper: see sweet peppers

Bell pepper: see sweet peppers

Bird chile: see Thai chile

Bull’s horn: see sweet peppers

Capsaicin: potent compound that gives some chiles their fiery nature. Up to 80% of the capsaicin is found in the seeds and membranes of a chile, whether it is fresh, dried, cooked or frozen. Only removing the chile’s seeds and veins reduce its heat. The caustic oils found in chiles cause an intense burning sensation, which can severely irritate skin and eyes. Known for its decongestant qualities and causes the brain to produce endorphins, which promote a sense of well-being

Capsicum: hundreds of varieties of plant-bearing fruits called peppers, all of which belong to the nightshade family. Fall into two categories- chiles and sweet peppers

Caribe chile: yellow, intensely hot chile. Named after an Indian tribe who inhabited the Caribbean during the 15th century

Cascabel chile: Spanish word for little round bell or rattle. When this chile is shaken, it makes a rattling sound. Dried, plum-shaped, dark blood-red colored. Ranges from 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter. Rich, nutty flavor and medium heat. Used in sauce, soups and dishes. Also known as chile bola

Cayenne chile: bright red, extremely hot, pungent chile. 2 to 5 inches long and about 0.5 inch in diameter. Sold dried and used in soups and sauces. Used to make cayenne pepper

Charleston hot chile: new variety of cayenne chile and said to be 20 times hotter than the jalapeño. 3 to 4 inches long. Changes color as it ripens, from yellow-green to golden to orange and finally to crimson red. Can be found in farmer’s markets or specially produced shops

Cherry pepper: also known as Hungarian cherry pepper. 1 to 2 inches in diameter, round and bring red in color. Slight sweet flavor and range from mild to medium hot. Found fresh or pickled

Chihuacle negro: grown in Mexico’s Oaxaca region. Dried and range from chocolate brown to deep purple. Shape like a small bell pepper. Moderately hot and has a rich, fruity flavor

Chilaca chile: Dried version is known as pasilla. Mild to medium hot, rich flavored. Narrow and grow up to 9 inches long and has a twisted shape. Found fresh in US farmer’s markets

Chilcostle chile: moderately hot dried chile with a unique spicy flavor. Narrow and 3 to 5 inches long. Deep paprika colored skin mottled with dark orange streaks. Grown in Oaxaca, Mexico

Chile, chilie pepper, hot pepper, chilli: The capsicum genus, chile was brought back by Christopher Columbus from the New World. An important element in cuisines from all over the world. There are more than 200 varieties in the world and over 100 of which are indigenous to Mexico. Ranges from 0.25 inch to 12 inches in length and from thin, long and narrow to plum and globular. Heat ranges from mildly warm to mouth-blistering hot. Yellow to green to red to black in color. Can be found in canned, dried, fresh, cooked or frozen. Choose those with deep, vivid colors and avoid chiles with any sign of shriveling or soft spots. Generally, the larger the chile, the milder it is. Small chiles are much hotter because proportionally they contain more seeds and veins (see capsaicin) than larger specimens. After working with these fiery ones, it is extremely important to wash your hand thoroughly. I usually wear gloves when handling chiles. If no gloves are available, use plastic bags and any kitchen tools available like kitchen shears or knives. Can be used to make a plethora of by-products including chili paste, tabasco sauce, cayenne, and dried red pepper flakes. A rich source of vitamins A,C and E, folic acid and potassium

Chile bola: see cascabel chile

Chile negro: see pasilla chile

Chile pequeño: see pequín chile

Chile seco: see serrano chile

Chili pepper: see chile

Chiltepín: see pequín chile

Chipotle chile: actually a dried, smoked and hot jalapeño. Has a wrinkled, dark brown skin and a smoky, sweet almost chocolaty flavor. Found dried, pickled and canned in Adobo sauce. Used in stews and sauces. Pickled variety is eaten as appertizers

Cubanelle: see sweet peppers

Dorset Naga pepper: see Scoville scale

Fresno chile: short and cone-shaped. As hot as jalapeño. Ranges from light green to bright red when fully mature. Fresno is best used in small amounts as a seasoning

Gillett method: A method by which the heat level of a chile is measured using high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). This technique directly measaures the amount of capsaicin rather than using human sensory methods such as those employed when the Scoville scale was originally developed. The Gillett method measures the chile’s heat level in ASTA pungency units (named for the American Spice Trade Association). 1 ASTA pungency unit is equivalent to 15 Scoville heat units

Green pepper: see sweet peppers

Guajillo chile: Shiny smooth and deep burnished red and is pointy, long and narrow. The chile is very tough abd must be soaked longer than most dried chiles. Flavorful. Can be quite hot. Also called travieso, a reference to its not-so-playful sting. Used in sauces and cooked dishes

Güero chile: Generic term for yellow chiles such as Hungarian wax or Santa Fe Grande

Habañero chile: distinctly flavored, extremely hot and small and lantern shaped. Native to the Caribbean, the Yucatan and north coast of South America. Ranges from light green to bright orange when ripe. Used for sauces in fresh or dried form

Hot pepper: see chile

Hungarian cherry pepper: see cherry pepper

Hungarian wax chile: 3 to 5 inches in length and 1.5 inches in diameter, yellow chile. Mild to medium hot. Distinctly waxy flavor. Also known as banana chiles

Jalapeño chile: Named after Jalapa, capital of Veracruz, Mexico. Smooth, dark green to scarlet red when ripe. Range from hot to very hot. Has rounded tip and are about 2 inches long and 0.75 to 1 inch in diameter. Popular because they are easily seeded and available fresh and canned. Used in sauces, stuffed with cheese, fish or meat. Dried version is called chipotles

Jamaican hot chile: Extremely hot. 1 to 2 inches in diameter, small and has a distorted, irregular shape. Used in curries and condiments

Mulato chile: 4 to 5 inches long, dark brown chile is a type of dried poblano. Light fruity nuance and much more pronounced smoky character than its relative, the ancho. Used to make mole

Naga Jolokia pepper: see Scoville scale

Pasilla chile: fresh version is called chilaca. 6 to 8 inches long and 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter. Rich flavored, medium hot. Blackish brown in color, also why it is called chile negro. Sold whole and powdered. Used in sauces

Peppadew pepper: Trademarked name of a capsicum family pepper that is purported to be the first new fruit introduced to the world market since the kiwi’s debut some 30 years ago. It was discovered by Johan Steenkamp in 1994, growing wild in South Africa. He experimented with them, trademarked the name and patented a secret preparation technique. Also known as piquanté or sweet piquanté pepper. Resembles a cross between a cherry tomato and a very small red pepper. Unique blend of sweet and spicy flavor. Available in mild or hot versions through the result of pickling solution used during processing. Peppadew ketchup and other products are available in most supermarkets

Pepper, chile: see chile

Pepper, hot: see chile

Pepper, sweet green or red: see sweet peppers

Pepperoncini, peperoncini: Also known as Tuscan peppers. 2 to 3 inches long and has bright red, wrinkled skin. Slightly sweet flavor and medium to medium hot. Sold pickled and used as part of antipasto

Pequín chile: Tiny, oval, red orange dried chile. Fiery hot and have a slightly sweet, smoky flavor. Also called chile pequeño. In the wild form, it is known as tepín or chiltepín

Piquanté pepper: see Peppadew pepper

Poblano pepper: dark, almost black green in color. Rich flavor from mild to snappy. Darkest chile has the richest flavor. 2.5 to 3 inches wide and 4 to 5 inches long, tapering from top to bottom in a triangular shape. The best are found in central Mexico, but can be grown in US Southwest. Fresh ones can be found in Latin markets and in many supermarkets. Their peak season is summer and early fall. Also available in canned form. Ripe poblanos turn a reddish brown color and are sweeter than the green. Best known as the chile of choice for chiles rellenos

Red bell pepper: see sweet peppers

Red pepper, red pepper flakes: Generic term applied to any of several varieties of hot, red chilies. The most available forms are ground red pepper and red pepper flakes

Red savina: see Scoville scale

Santa Fe Grande chile: small, tapered, conical shape. Sold yellow but if allowed to mature longer, it turns orange or red. Slightly sweet taste and medium hot to hot. Used in cooked and raw dishes

Scotch bonnet chile: small 1 to 1.5 inch in diameter), irregular shaped chile. Yellow to orange to red in color. One of the hottest chiles and closely related to the fiery jamaican hot and the habañero

Scoville scale: developed by Wilbur Scoville in 1912. Measures chili pepper's heat level. The Scoville Organoleptic Test involved progressive dilutions of a pepper's extract with sugar water until a group of tasters could not detect a burning sensation. A number was assigned to a chile based on the amount of dilution required to reach this point. Though the test relied on the subjective nature of the human tastes, the scale is still in use today although the Gillet Method, which do not use human testers, is primarily relied on, with results calculated back to the Scoville scale. Pure capsaicin registers 15,000,000 to 16,000,000 Scoville heat units while the sweet bell peppers have a 0 rating. In 1994, the red savina, a selectively bred habañero chile was recognized by the Guiness World Records as the world's hottest pepper, with a range of 350,000 to 577,000. In 2000 India reported that the naga jolokia pepper was tested at 855,000 and in 2004 a second test showed a rating of 1,041,427. Another pepper battling for the top spot is the dorset naga pepper, developed in Dorset, England which recorded from 876,000 to 970,000 Scoville heat units. A regular jalapeño pepper ranges from 2,500 to 8,000 while the extremely hot habañero chile ranges from 100,000 to 300,000

Serrano chile: small, 1.5 inches long and slightly pointed chile. Has very hot, savory flavor. As it matures, it turns from smooth, bright green skin turns to scarlet red, then yellow. Available in the forms of canned, fresh, pickled or packed in oil with other vegetables. Used in dishes and sauces like guacamole and salsa. Chile seco is the dried version and comes whole or powdered.

Sweet peppers: in US, it is applied to a variety of mild peppers that belong to the Capsicum family. Range fromo pale to dark green, from yellow to orange to red, and from purple to brown to black. Can be solid or variegated in color. Have juicy flesh, either thick or thin, and range from bland to sweet to bittersweet in flavors. Bell peppers are more commonly found and used. Named after their bell-like shape. Have mild, sweet flavor and crisp and juicy flesh. The red bell peppers are vine-ripened green bell peppers and sweeter. Sizes range from 3.5 to 5.5 inches long and from 2.5 to 4 inches wide. Green bell peppers are most commonly found, followed by the sporadically available yellow, red, purple and brown ones. Used in a variety of dishes, stuffed, etc. Pimiento is a popular sweet pepper. Fresh ones are available in specialty supermarkets. Usually come in canned or bottled. Commonly found stuffed in green olives. Other sweet peppers varieties are the thin, curved, green bull's horn; the long, tapered Cubanelle, which range from yellow to red in color; and the long, yellow and banana-shaped sweet banana pepper. These peppers are available year-round with a peak during the summer months

Sweet piquanté pepper: see Peppadew pepper

Szechuan pepper, Szechwan: native to Szechuan province in China. Mildly hot spice comes from the prickly ash tree. Not related to the peppercorn family, the Szechuan berries resemble black peppercorns but contain a tiny seed. Has distinctive flavor and fragrance. Found in Asian markets and specialty stores. Sold in whole or powdered form. Whole berries are often heated before being ground to excrete their aroma and flavor. Also known as anise pepper, Chinese pepper, fagara, flower pepper, sansho and Sichuan pepper

Tepín: see pequín chile

Thai chile: 1 to 1.5 inches long and 0.25 inch in diameter. Fiery that doesn't dissipate with cooking. From green to red in color when fully ripen. Popular in Southeast Asian cooking. Dried version is called bird chile because it looks like a bird's- beak shape

Togarashi: small, hot, red Japanese chile. Available fresh and dried forms, rounds, flakes and powdert. Also known as ichimi

Travieso chile: see guajillo chile

Tuscan peppers: see pepperoncini

Check out fiery images of the most common chiles and peppers, with their Scoville numbers.

Date: 7/22/10


The Deluxe Food Lover's Companion

Choose peppers that are firm, have a richly colored, shiny skin and that are heavy for their sizes. Avoid limped, shriveled or soft, bruised ones. Store fresh peppers in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a week. Peppers are excellent source of vitamin C and some amounts of vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus, iron, thamine, riboflavin and niacin.

Being able to consume hot foods, to me, is like being able to consume alcohol. You need to eat them often to build your tolerance. And once you reach it, you can't stop eating it.

Contrary to popular belief, an icy cold alcoholic beverage is not the best remedy to cool a chile-scorched mouth. Alcohol increases the absorption of capsaicin. The best fire quenchers are starches like bread, rice or potatoes and something fatty like butter, milk or ice cream. Isn't it amazing how our ancestors figure things like these? No wonder fiery foods are typically paired with rice or bread, or cooked in coconut milk and butter.