What Columbus and his explorations discovered in the New World was not the gold and silver of their dreams, but a treasure destined to save the world from starvation, or at the very least, a terribly boring diet. Along with the potato, tomato, the turkey, chocolate, vanilla and a dozen new vegetables and fruits, they took back to Europe a combination which had served the native people of this continent for uncounted generations as their “holy trinity” of core foods: corn, beans and squash. These three wonder-foods are nutritionally rich, life-sustaining and can be preserved from season to season. Of course all by themselves they can be rather bland and unexciting in the flavor department. But the native people of Mexico and our own southwest had come up with a wonderful solution: enter the chili pepper, members of the capsicum family endowed with a depth of flavor, sweetness and heat which would tickle the world’s pallet forever after. all by themselves
It was probably a physician named Diego Alvarez Chanca, on Columbus’ 2nd visit in 1493 who was responsible for seeing the potential for medical value in this new plant and who took it back to Spain. It soon found its way to Spanish colonies in India and Portugal (where it was known as pimenta), and quickly became an essential ingredient in indigenous diets as well as a major trade item.
With a history dating back at least 6,000 years, the very word chili has its origin in the ancient nahuatl language and is a reflection of the Mayan culture and their agriculture. As I traveled the back roads of Central America some years ago, I reveled in the almost endless variety of beans and peppers on display at open-air street markets, with each area or district giving its name to a particular favorite: thus the jalapeno from Jalapa, the poblano from Puebla, etc.. I also found that nearly every family and household had its own culinary specialty and distinct notions of what was just the right variety of pepper or peppers for that dish. While staying for stretches of several days at a time with the Mejilla family in Puebla, I would come to appreciate the individual argument for each of numerous chili choices, with the wonderful memory of a delicious mole containing seven different kinds of chili pepper (along with raisins, ground peanuts, freshly-made chocolate, and chunks of turkey meat).
For the modern-day home chef deliberating over the question of if and which chili pepper to use, it is important to understand something of the hotness and flavor peculiarities of each variety, and some of the preparation options worth considering. The “heat” found in a chili is most intense in the seeds and internal ribs – both easy to scrape or wash out if desired. (Keep your fingers away from your eyes when working with really hot specimens.) A pharmaceutical chemist named Wilbur Scoville, experimenting with the chemical capsacin in 1912, developed a scale for measuring the comparative level of hotness of each member of the capsicum family with the hotter examples assigned a higher number. Today the “Scoville scale” is well-known to serious cooks and remains invaluable in making culinary decisions. My favorite flavor-enhancer, the Poblano is a relatively-mild 1,000 to 2,000 Scoville units, while the serano which I approach with much greater caution can run as high as 23,000. The habanero – the small, somewhat wrinkled orange chili you will see on most grocery shelves – can score anywhere from 100,000 to 350,000 on Dr. Scoville’s measuring stick, and commands great respect!
By the way, the naga-bih jolokia – or “ghost pepper” – from the Assam region of India rings the heat bell at more than one million Scoville units: explorers beware!
Shopping for chili peppers can be somewhat confusing inasmuch as many - maybe even most – supermarkets persist in mislabeling their displays; even those who by their very ethnicity should know better. For example, my much-cherished Poblano is frequently labeled “Pasilla”, which it is NOT.( And that same Poblano becomes an “Ancho” when it is dried.) What’s more, the real Pasilla is actually a “Chilaca” before it is dried. The much-favored “Chipotle” is in reality, a “Jalapeno” which has been dried and smoked, and sauces made from it have become immensely popular in the kitchens of great chefs.
I regularly make a Cuban-style black bean soup for which I fire-roast, sweat and peel one fresh Poblano for its rich pepper flavor, and a single fresh jalapeno for its well-balanced heat. Roasting chili peppers over grill flames (along with a handful of freshly-picked Roma tomatoes if you wish), not only brings out an entirely new level of flavors, but adds just the right touch of “smokiness” to the other ingredients in one of the simplest but most ancient of soup combinations. With a dollop of sour cream on top, this time-honored “marriage” is an inexpensive, yet elegant family pleaser.
From left to right: Habanero – very hot; Serano – medium hot; Jalapeno – light heat.
Highly adaptable, the fresh Poblano – perfect for stuffing in “Relanos” (above), becomes the Ancho when dried (below).
Often mislabeled, the true Pasilla, long and narrow is shown with the much blockier shaped Ancho/Poblano. One can be substituted for the other in recipes.