Whole books have been written about chillies, however we wanted to share some basic chilli essentials, as these tasty and potentially fiery little critters are becoming more and more popular. So much so that chilli now outsells peppercorns, which 10 years ago were the no 1 spice traded in the world.
How do you spell Chilli? It depends on where you are. In the USA, chilli is a spiced meat and bean dish, so they call these chile. In India they are often called chilly or chili. In Australia and the UK we use chilli. Whichever way it is spelled, we all tend to know what we mean. And is the US, Chili Powder is a spice blend that may contain chilli, cumin, garlic, oregano and salt. whereas in Australia we simply call ground chillies with no other ingredients, Chilli Powder.
What is Red Pepper then? This is where some of the confusion begins. When Columbus and his crew bumped into the Americas sailing west to the Indonesian spice islands, they discovered among other previously unknown foods, chillies. As the chillies they encountered were hot like peppercorns they named them pimento, which is Spanish for pepper. Peppercorns (Piper nigrum – Family Piperacea) of course come from a tropical climbing vine native to India and unrelated to chilli. Therefore we find that all members of the capsicum family are called peppers in many countries. When you see a recipe asking for red pepper, or red pepper flakes, they mean dried, ripe, red chillies, not pepper from the vine.
And the other Peppers? There are now many hot spices that bear the pepper name. Sichuan pepper, and Australian native pepperberry are examples of peppers unrelated to either Capsicum or Piperacea. Other vine peppers are cubeb and long pepper. Cayenne pepper is made by grinding hot chillies, generally the Bird’s Eye Variety, and although said to be named after the city of Cayenne in French Guiana it does not come from there.
What makes Chillies hot? Chillies contain a crystalline substance called capsaicin, which is found in the highest concentration in the seeds and the seed-bearing placenta. Capsaicin is also found in the flesh. The level of heat will generally be determined by the variety. For example, Bird’s Eye Chilli is one of the most popular ones to use for an agreeable heat hit. As a very general rule of thumb, the smaller chillies tend to be the hottest, as the ratio of seeds and seed-bearing placenta to flesh is greater in a small chilli than a large one with lots of flesh.
The levels of capsaicin in chillies are measured in Scoville units, and these may vary from 30,000 units for a medium heat chilli to 80,000 for a hot chilli and up to a million for a blistering, and in my opinion inedible, bhut jolokia chilli.
As the Scoville scale is not that user-friendly, we rate our chillies on a heat scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being our hottest which is a Habanero at around 120,000 Scoville units. A milder chilli like Mulato has a rating of 3/10 yet has a wonderful fruity, raisin-like flavour.
What is the Difference Between a Fresh and a Dried Chilli? A fresh chilli has a clean, light, capsicum-style flavour and the heat level will be determined by the type. When a chilli is dried you get a caramelisation of the sugars that chillies develop on ripening. During drying a deeper more robust flavour develops. Therefore think of the difference between a fresh tomato and a sun-dried tomato and you get the idea.
We use fresh chillies in dishes that are not cooked (salads) and in dishes that are only cooked for a short time (stir-frys, omelets and Asian soups). Dried chillies we use in dishes that are cooked for a longer time (curries, tagines, casseroles) and with foods that have stronger flavours (pizza, pasta sauces, Mexican recipes). Either way, it all depends on your taste preferences.
What About all the Different Varieties of Chillies? There are many different varieties of chillies, and the majority of these are explained in The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition. The main point to keep in mind is that we use these different chillies for their variety of flavours and the varying heat levels.
What About Paprika? Paprika is also a member of the chilli family. However the main difference is that Paprika generally contains less or no capsaicin, and more capsanthin (the compound that gives colour). A true Hungarian Sweet Paprika will have no heat at all. A Spanish Mild Paprika will have a slight background bitterness and a Hot Paprika is basically the same as a Mild Chilli Powder.
When I am making a dish for guests who have a low chilli tolerance, I substitute the chilli powder with sweet paprika. That way the flavour is not compromised while the heat is reduced!