The chilli pepper has been cultivated in South America for nearly 10,000 years so it has had plenty of time to evolve. As a result there are almost as many types of chilli pepper as there are days in the year. These are just some of the chillis regularly grown in Mexico alone: ancho, mulatto, pasilla, serrano, huasteco, jalapeño, guajillo, cascabel, pequin, chiltepin, carrecillo or tornachilli, habanero, cora, guajon, bola, gordo, arribeno, guero, costeno, arotonilco, huachinango, puya, cristalino, trompa, bolita, catalina, ornamental, chilli de ague, chilli de arbol, liso, panlteco, zacapeno, San Luis, loco, chircozle, pimiento, poblano, chilaco, chiguacle, chiclateco, miguateco, chilli mirasol rojo.
Although chilli peppers are by their very nature hot, some are hotter than others! A good rule of thumb is that the smaller the pepper, the darker the colour, the more pointed the top and the narrower the shoulders, the hotter it will be.
Despite this emphasis on their heat and fiery nature, the different varieties of chilli pepper do have a very specific flavours of their own. Should you find yourself with a selection of chillis in front of you, this is what some of them may be:
|Ancho||One of the most widely used peppers, especially in Mexico and the United States. It is about 4 inches long and 3 inches wide, and a fresh ancho looks like a bell pepper. When ripe, it darkens to a very deep, almost black, red. It is rich, full and relatively mild in flavour.|
|Mulato||Similar in shape and size to an ancho, but longer, more tapering and almost brown in colour. Mulato is wrinkled and more pungent than ancho.|
|Pasilla||This pepper is 6 to 7 inches long and only 1 inch wide. It is a very dark red, very richly flavoured and very hot. It is sometimes called chilli negro because of its dark colour|
|Serano, jalapeño, pequin, cascabel and tepin peppers||These are all small, dark green tapering and between 1 ½ and 2 inches long. They are all very hot indeed, although the heat resides in the ribs and seeds rather than the flesh. They are difficult to find fresh, but most gourmet shops store pickled and canned varieties.|
|Malagueta||These come from Brazil and are sometimes called cayenne chillis. They are small and hot. The ripe pepper is bright red and rich in flavour, and is sold fresh.|
|Habanero||From Mexico, they also grow in tropical Brazil, and in Jamaica where they are called Scotch bonnets! Their flavour is much prized and they are often bottled for long keeping.|
Chilli peppers from the East Indies and from Africa fall into approximately the same categories, but care should be taken to avoid a small Japanese pepper called Hortoka. This is pure liquid fire – indeed, an eighth of a teaspoon of hortoka is the equivalent of one whole pequin pepper, one of the hottest of the Mexican breeds…
Chilli, Cayenne, Paprika and Tabasco
Many people will have only met chilli peppers in the form of ground cayenne, chilli or paprika pepper, or as Tabasco. These powders are made by crushing the dried peppers, usually complete with ribs and seeds; the variation comes in the fruit that is crushed. The sweet Hungarian paprika, which is very mild in comparison with its fiery cousins, is made form several different varieties of the Capsicum annuum grossum.
What we buy in the shops as chilli powder comes mainly from India and is usually derived from the Capsicum annuum Fingerh. Cayenne pepper can be made both from the Capsicum annuum acuminatum and the Capsicum annuum frutescens. The chief growing area is French Guiana, and the capital city of French Guiana is Cayenne!
Tabasco (which is a trade name rather than a botanical one) is the only one of these spices to come in liquid form. Powdered Capsicum annuum concords is mixed with spirits of vinegar and salt to create a lethal liquid which is contained in little glass bottles.
All these peppers are excellent for seasoning dishes, but they are, with the exception of paprika, extremely hot and should be used with discretion.