A firestorm of flavor

Chili peppers can lend a spicy delight to the senses

Chili peppers can lend a spicy delight to the senses

May 12, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Some like 'em hot, like jalepeo. And some like 'em hotter, like habanero. It's easy to turn on the heat with a little chili pepper.

Chilis add pungency, distinctive flavor and color to foods ranging from salsas to spreads. Dried chili ristras make one-of-a-kind adornments, and capsaicin - the alkaloid responsible for the heat in chilies - has been credited with numerous healing properties.

"There's really not much to not love about chilies," said Dave DeWitt, who has written more than 30 books about chili peppers. "I think chilies are sort of like Garfield. They're a big, warm fuzzy. People love the color; they love the shape; they love the food qualities."


Chili peppers, which fall under the genus "Capsicum," also are good for you, said DeWitt, publisher of Fiery Foods & Barbecue Business magazine at on the Web. In addition to pepper-related merchandise and chili growing and cooking tips, the Web site boasts hundreds of recipes that use chili peppers. Users can search the massive recipe database by food category, pepper type, heat level and other options. Some recipes are attributed to individuals who participated recently in DeWitt's 17th annual National Fiery-Foods and Barbeque Show in Albuquerque, N.M.

In his "The Chili Pepper Encyclopedia" (William Morrow & Co., 1998), DeWitt wrote that chili peppers temporarily speed up the body's metabolism, and have no cholesterol and nearly no fat or sodium. Green chilies have twice the amount of vitamin C by weight than citrus, and dried red chilies contain more vitamin A than carrots, DeWitt wrote.

The peppers' pungency is commonly expressed in Scoville Heat Units. In the Scoville method for testing pungency, human subjects taste a chili sample and record the heat level. The samples are diluted in the laboratory until heat can no longer be detected by the tasters. This dilution is called the Scoville Heat Unit, according to information from the nonprofit Chili Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

Capsaicinoids, the compounds that cause the burning sensation when eaten, are found on the chili's membranes or in the placental tissue that holds the seeds. The seeds themselves do not produce any capsaicin, according to information from the institute.

As a pepper matures, its sugar content increases. That's why red peppers are generally sweeter than green ones, said DeWitt, who moved to New Mexico in 1974 to get a fresh start as a freelance travel and food writer.

"Once you start writing about New Mexico's foods, the path will lead you to chilies," he said. "It's part of a legacy from Mexico."

The origin of chili peppers dates back thousands of years to the area now known as Bolivia in South America, DeWitt said. The wild chilies that still grow throughout South America and Mexico are relatives of the original small, berry-like chilies, which New Mexico's influx of Mexican immigrants brought with them, DeWitt said.

In the late 1800s, Fabian Garcia - a horticulturist at New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts - started fiddling around with the hot peppers in hopes of creating a milder, elongated variety that would appeal more to non-Hispanics, said Paul Bosland, director of the Chili Pepper Institute and professor at the NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics.

Voil! The first New Mexican pod-type chili pepper was born. A few years later, Californian Emilio Ortega returned home from a visit to southern New Mexico with some of the New Mexican chili seeds. They adapted well to the soil and climate near Anaheim, Calif., and this New Mexican pod-type pepper eventually became known as the Anaheim, Bosland said.

He said chili peppers are now New Mexico's No. 1 agricultural crop - with the processed pods worth about a quarter of a million bucks a year.

Because chilies are easily crossbred, there are thousands of varieties of pod types and shapes, DeWitt said.

"My analogy is that chilies are like dogs," he said. "If you take a jalapeo and breed it to a serrano, you get like a mutt chili."

While novice chili pepper cooks likely will stick with such familiar and versatile pod-type peppers as the Anaheim, more experienced pepper preparers tend to choose chilies based upon the particular flavor and heat level best suited to specific recipes, Bosland said.

"There are literally dozens of different chili pepper types developed for different uses," he said. "It's very much like wine. We talk about chili connoisseurs like we talk about wine connoisseurs."

Different types of chilies bring fire to different parts of the mouth, Bosland said. Jalapeo peppers affect the lips and tip of tongue; Anaheim peppers heat the mid-palate; and super-hot habanero peppers burn the back of the throat, he said.

"When you're eating salsa, you can actually tell what kind of chili is in it," Bosland said.

Hardy chili pepper plants - a wide variety of seeds for which are available on the Chili Pepper Institute's Web site - will grow just about anywhere.

"There are actually chilies grown in Siberia," Bosland said. "There's even a scientist in Antarctica who's growing chilies in his windowsill."

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