The Hot and Flavorful World of Chiles

January 21, 2010

9 Min Read
The Hot and Flavorful World of Chiles

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 Americas 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.

Chile details

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.

Global flavors

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.

Another example of a versatile chile is the poblano, or pasilla (as it is called in some areas, such as California). In its fresh state it is often used in making chiles rellenos; when dried, the same chile is called ancho and has an earthy, raisin-like flavor that complements many meat and poultry dishes. One of the more well-known sauces using the ancho is the mole poblano from the Puebla region of Mexico. Mole poblano not only frequently incorporates the ancho chile, but others as well, including pasilla and mulato chiles. These chiles collectively add earthiness, smokiness and fruitiness to the sauce, creating a very complex, yet well balanced, chile flavor profile.

In Asia, fresh chiles are used in making curries. In Thailand, they use birds eye chiles for many curries, and in India, they use jwala chiles. Mixed with other spices, the chile peppers provide heat and complement the other ingredients to round out the flavors.

Chiles can also be roasted, toasted and fried to extract many flavors that give authenticity to a sauce. Hatch chiles (green Anaheim) are typically roasted on an open flame from fresh and used in green sauces in the Southwest. Chile de arbol, a dried chile, can be toasted on top of a comal, or flat-top grill, to give a nutty flavor to a tomatillo de arbol salsa.

Discriminating palates want Asian masalas, curries and sambals that remain true to their native flavors. South Asian masalas (aka, spice mixtures) often include ground, dried red chiles with spices like coriander, cardamom, cumin and cinnamon. Currieseither wet or drycan incorporate fresh or dried chiles, often Thai (or bird) chiles. Spicy sambals, used as dipping sauces or condiments, often feature a variety of fresh chiles, including habanero, naga jolokia and cayenne.

Jamaican jerkoften applied as a rub to meats before grillingis another popular ethnic option. The rubs feature fresh Scotch bonnet peppers, along with spices and herbs like allspice, cloves, cinnamon, garlic and thyme.

As the trade routes meandered through Europe, the chile found its way to various places. Hungarian goulash comes to mind when speaking of how chiles found use in Europe. This soup or stew uses paprika, a dried spice often made from various bell peppers and chiles to create versions that range from mild to spicy. In Eastern Europe, paprika is also the name for the fresh bell peppers that go into the dried spice. Spain follows suit, calling fresh bell peppers pimientos (or pimentos), and drying various varieties, often using oak, to create a smoky spice.

In Africa, the peri-peri (African birds eye) chile forms the basis of the famous peri-peri hot sauce. Although its probably of Portuguese origin, it has become a staple condiment in East African cuisine. Doro wat, an Ethiopian chicken dish, gets its flavor from berebere paste, which has a spicy red chile component.

New chile directions

Chefs are creating dishes that truly represent the flavors of the world, and then taking them into new directions by using chiles in them. Cuisines from Latin American and Asian countries are fusing together using common ingredients. As an example, we have a sauce called a Thai-rribean that features Thai, habanero and cayenne chiles and incorporates tie-in flavors of coconut, ginger, lime and garlic.

Not only are chiles used in savory dishes, they are also being utilized in dessert applications. We are seeing chipotle in cookies, and ancho in ice creams and other sweet treats. Although these desserts have not yet hit the mainstream, awareness of the chiles versatility is being generated by incorporating them into these products.

Many developers and chefs ask me, What is the next chile, what is the next chipotle? I hear the buzz about the ghost chile being a contender. Because of the heat level of the chile, I think it is still far from hitting mainstream as of yet. It will continue to stay in the realm of the novelty hot sauce arena. Other chiles, such as the pasilla (in its many forms), are starting to gain ground in the culinary arena. Because of the mild to medium heat and complex earthy tones of pasilla chiles, it sees use as a background for building flavor. There is the pasilla de Oaxaca chile, which is a smoked pasilla. Also, the pasilla negro (chilaca in the fresh form) and ancho (dried pasilla, or poblano). Asado de boda is a dish in northern Mexico that utilizes pasilla negro and guajillo chiles. And mole poblano is only one of many moles in Mexico. Depending on the region, different chiles are used, such as mulato, pasilla, guajillo, chipotle, etc.

But, I think more than anything, it is not one or two specific chiles that are going to be the next blockbuster. It will be the combination of chiles that will give the complexities and flavor nuances that people are looking for (think mole with its many chile peppers). The balance of four to six or even eightoften roasted or toastedtogether in a sauce or salsa can have a big impact.

In the quest for more-authentic flavors, developers have asked for products that traditional cooks use in their kitchens. For example, when making an authentic salsa, the cook would roast the fresh tomatoes and tomatillos on an open-flame grill to bring out more flavors. They would then toast the dried chiles on the hot comal to bring about the nutty hints of flavor from the chile pods. The cumin would also be toasted, and the garlic roasted, as well. They would then blend all these ingredients together and create a flavor explosion that typically cannot be accomplished in a large production scale. Such authentic products would be relegated to smaller, individual, in-house operations.

However, industrial ingredient suppliers are catching up with the times. Many ingredient suppliers, such as Haliburton, carry an array of chile peppers, ranging from bell peppers (C. annuum) to the fiery habanero (C. chinense). Roasting fresh peppers can lend to a more-genuine flavor for a formulator or chef seeking to create true regional flavors.

Chile purées made from dry, reconstituted pods is another ingredient option. When dealing with dry chiles, the challenge is getting the true flavor of the chiles without the offending, often bitter, taste of the stems and seeds. To provide an unadulterated chile flavor profile, we have developed a proprietary process to de-seed and de-stem pods, similar to the cook removing the stems and seeds by hand in the kitchen. We have also developed a proprietary technology that enables us to dry-toast a variety of chile peppers on a large scale, releasing their subtle flavors and aromas.

With the rising demand for true and authentic flavors, there has to be a way to give the consumer what they crave, and be able to do it in an economical way. By giving them a variety of chile peppers, in different formslike roasted and toastedfood manufacturers can, and will, become an integral part in shaping food culture for years to come.

Joseph Antonio is corporate R&D chef for Haliburton International Corporation, Ontario, CA. After receiving his B.A. in Asian American Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, he earned his A.O.S. Culinary Arts degree and Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Certificate from the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, CA. Antonio worked at PMO-Wildwood/Soga Soyfoods Center, Koi Restaurant, ZaZen Restaurant and the New School of Cooking before joining Haliburton. He is a member of the Research Chefs Association.

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