December 1, 1998

3 Min Read
Hot Stuff

Hot Stuff
December 1998 -- World Fare

By: Susheela Uhl
Contributing Editor

  Born in the Andes Mountains, the chile pepper has proven an intrepid traveler, playing a dominant role in spice blends worldwide. Chile blends provide flavor, color and heat in many cuisines, including Indian, Thai, Jamaican and Mexican. Spice blends, such as harissa, sambals, chilmole, chimichurri, nam prik, bajan sauce, kochujang and jhoug all possess one predominating spice - chile pepper.  While these diverse spice blends all share chile pepper as a common ingredient, each region's inhabitants prefer a particular pepper. Thais and Malaysians favor cayennes and bird peppers; Caribbeans enjoy habaneros; Mexicans use poblanos, jalapeños and serranos; and Peruvians prefer ajis and rocotos.  Chile peppers can be used fresh or dried. They can be puréed, chopped or ground. Since chile blends are prized not only for heat, but also for their delicate flavors, the peppers are roasted and used seeded or deseeded to enhance many other flavors. Chile blends also often incorporate more than one type of chile pepper, creating diverse flavors.  Many ingredients are combined with chiles to create unique flavor releases, tone down the heat or add color to a finished product. Chile blends can be a simple mixture of chiles, salt, vinegar and/or sugar - such as cili boh, sambal olek and Louisiana/Tabasco-type hot sauce - or a complex mixture with other added ingredients.  Garlic, shallots, lemongrass, coriander, cilantro, tomato, green mango, tamarind, brown sugar and lime juice are well-suited to chile blends. Depending on ethnic preferences, many other spices and herbs also contribute to flavorful combinations, including nuts, seeds, chocolate, vegetables, fruits, fermented shrimp or fish, and coconut. Chile blends come in dry, liquid or paste forms, and provide heat, flavor or simply perk up a dish. They can be added during cooking to provide zest to sauces, soups or stews; used as marinades; served as a dip; or utilized as a freshly made side condiment. As side condiments, chile blends add zest to grilled, steamed or roasted meats, chicken, fish or vegetables. They're also good for pickling or preserving in brine or vinegar, with other seasonings and even sometimes with fruits or vegetables.  Certain chile-blend flavor profiles appeal to different ethnic groups: tartness for North Americans (Louisiana hot sauce); fishy pungency for Vietnamese (nuoc cham); sweet/sour for Chinese; pungent and slightly bitter for Oaxacans (moles); and pickly, spicy green notes for Indians (achars).  Not only savory foods contain chile blends. Desserts and drinks - such as Mexican atole, tepache or chilote - also use them. Atole, a corn, chile and chocolate-based drink enjoyed by the Aztecs, continues as a favorite Mexican breakfast item. Nowadays, chile is used with chocolate desserts and in such "hot" nouvelle drinks as New Mexico's chile-infused beers.  Today, we can meet consumers' tastes for hot and spicier profiles by creating numerous great-tasting chile blends using various chile peppers, and skillfully combining them with spices, fruits, vegetables and nuts.  Susheela Uhl is president of Horizons, a Mamaroneck, NY-based food consulting firm. She develops products (ethnic and fusion), provides information on spices and other flavorings, and gives presentations exploring culinary trends and the factors contributing to their emergence.Back to top

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