By Joseph Antonio, Contributing Editor
Wherever I go, whether at a supply show, trade show or a culinary event, as people come upon the array of chile products and salsas that my company offers, they inevitably ask me, “What is the hottest chile pepper that you have?” This question speaks not only of the ever-growing popularity of fiery peppers, but the need for authenticity in products that feature chile peppers. Chiles are gaining momentum as a part of America’s culinary repertoire. People are seeking the bolder flavors chile peppers can provide.
With the ever-changing demographic makeup in this country, many people are bringing with them culinary traditions from their native cultures that include the chile pepper. Not only are they bringing in Hispanic salsas and sauces, but also Asian sambals, curries, and masalas, and Caribbean jerks, as well as other flavorful concoctions. Although the chile pepper has been used in regional American cuisines for quite some time, as in Tex-Mex (jalapeño and serrano) and in Southern cooking (cayenne), there is a growing trend for dishes with authentic flavors from different and diverse places from all over the world.
The chile pepper has been a fixture for thousands of years in the Americas, specifically in Central and South America, where it originated. It has been used as medicine, in rituals for protection and in foods. It was later brought to Spain and the rest of Europe via the explorations of Christopher Columbus, who called the little fruits “peppers” due to the similarities in taste to the black pepper of the Old World. They eventually spread throughout the globe via trade routes. Today, chile peppers are a regular part of many cultures’ cuisines, including Asian, African, Caribbean, European and the Americas.
Chile peppers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and generally, the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is (although not always). Heat levels are measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), with each unit representing the number of times the extract of chile has to be diluted in water to remove the perception of heat. Bell peppers (Capsicum annuum), for example, measure zero on the Scoville heat scale, while the scorching habanero measures around 300,000 SHU. More recently, there is a chile coming out of northeastern India touted as the hottest chile pepper in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Known as naga jolokia, or ghost chile, it measures an astounding 1,000,000 SHU.
Rather than asking which chile is the hottest, the real question is: Which chile or combination of chiles give a sauce or salsa an authentic flavor?
Aside from heat, chile peppers have many different flavor nuances, depending on how they are processed. In its fresh state, a chile can have “green” vegetal notes. Jalapeños and serranos are typically used fresh in salsas and other sauces. As the chiles are dried, the flavors intensify. When green jalapeños are dried and smoked, you get the chipotle chile pepper (alternately known as chile meco or tipico in different parts of Mexico). In the state of Chihuahua in Northern Mexico, when jalapeños are ripened to a red stage, then dried and smoked, you get the morita. What we typically call the chipotle chile in the United States is actually the morita. There are slight differences in flavor, heat and color between the two chiles. The morita is a deep-reddish to purple color, while the chipotle is brownish to grey. The morita is slightly hotter than the chipotle, and not as sweet.