in the past several years we have opted for more hot and spicy foods as evidenced by the popularity of Mexican restaurants. "The hotter, the better," many say. We are all familiar with the colorful variety of bell peppers, but which of the many other varieties, primarily green in color, are the hottest?
In 1912, an American pharmacologist, Wilbur Scoville, invented a way to measure the hotness in peppers. Known as Scoville Heat Units, the method has been used primarily by the pharmaceutical industry in measuring capsaicin, the chemical that causes the hotness in peppers.
This part of the pepper (the chemical) is used in food production, in salsas and sauces, and in cough drops, analgesic creams and pepper sprays. The prime use of red hot peppers is in food coloring. By using the Scoville system, consistent quality can be maintained.
The hottest part of any chili pepper is the white membrane that attaches the seeds to the inside of the pepper. It is not the seeds themselves.
Although the United States grows a great variety of chili peppers, we import almost 2 million pounds per year, primarily from India and Mexico. Most of these peppers are used in spice blends and salsas. They range in hotness from 15,000 to 25,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). For example, a bell pepper has 0 to 1,000 SHU, the poblano has 1,000 to 2,000 SHU and the Carolina Reaper can exceed 1.56 million SHU.
With the great varieties of chiles, many are mislabeled in the stores. Fresh Anaheims look almost like New Mexico green chiles, with the New Mexico being much hotter.
There is not only confusion about the types of chiles, but also about the spelling of the word.
In general, the proper usage of "chile" refers to the plant or pod, while "chili" refers to the traditional dish containing meat and chiles and often beans.
"Chilli" is the commercial spice powder that contains ground chiles, along with a number of other seasonings. Around the 15th century, the Nahuatl Indians of Mexico and Central America called the plant "chilli," and that is the way it should be spelled.
There is also another kind of confusion about the chile plant. When Columbus discovered the chile plant, he thought it produced black pepper. It has no relation to the pepper plant. However, that misnomer has persisted ever since, particularly in Europe.
The first chiles were tiny wild berries that grew on vines beneath the forest canopy of the Amazon jungle in South America thousands of years ago. The plants proliferated and gradually spread north to Central American, the Caribbean and into southwestern North America.
This migration was the result of both birds spreading the seeds and of cultural exchanges and trade between the peoples of the region.
Chiles were one of the earliest plants to be cultivated and domesticated in the New World. (Other early crops were beans, corn and squash.)
Archaeological findings say that chiles were used as a food ingredient at least 8,000 years ago — around 6200 B.C. Traces of chiles dating from that time have been found in burial sites in Peru.
Chiles were used in the pre-Columbian New World to give flavor and spiciness to food. They were common to the foods of the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs. The Mayans cultivated at least 30 varieties of chiles. However, it was the Aztecs who used chiles in almost every dish. With their mole sauces and tamales, the Aztecs are credited with the foundations of modern Mexican food.
It has also been proved that the Southwestern Pueblo Indians grew and used chiles some 1,000 years ago. Intertribal trade brought other types of chiles from regions to the south.
The Spanish colonization of the Southwest and the foundation of the Mission system, with its encouragement of agriculture, spread the cultivation of chiles.
At the time of Columbus' discovery of what he called black pepper, the true black pepper was as valuable as silver in the European marketplace. However, Columbus' mistake was a good one, as it brought chile seeds to Europe. Chiles, which were easy to grow, became a good substitute for black pepper and added the needed "bite" to many existing cuisines.
The Spanish and Portuguese explorers took chiles with them on their voyages. Thus, the plant was readily established along the trade routes of North and West Africa, Madagascar and India. The Indian population incorporated chiles into their diets, and chiles soon became part of the cuisine. By 1550, chiles had reached western China, Southeast Asia, and the East Indies.
Today, chiles are grown throughout the world, but the major portion of the world's crop is grown and eaten in Mexico. They are also widely grown in the southwestern United States and California, with New Mexico being the largest producer.
Some varieties of chiles are grown only in particular regions where there are favorable growing conditions. For example, habanero chiles will not grow in the northern mountains of New Mexico. However, they grow well 250 miles away at a lower altitude, where there is a longer growing season. Today, the town of Hatch in Southern New Mexico holds an annual chile festival in early September with colorful strings of red chiles hanging drying on almost every porch.
In general, chiles are easy to grow. They require little cultivation and minimal care. They like warm, humid climates and enjoy a long growing season. Most chiles are green in color while they are growing and are still unripe. When they reach full maturity, they turn either red, orange, yellow or brown. Many chiles are used both green and fully ripe. The New Mexico green and the New Mexico red are the same chile at different stages of ripeness.
The smaller the chile, the hotter it is. This is because smaller chiles have a larger amount of seeds and vein (internal rib). These veins are the parts that contain up to 80 percent of the capsaicin (heat) of the chile.
There is a controversy as to which is the most popular chile pepper — the jalapeno or the Anaheim. The jalapeno is the smaller of the two and has a more powerful "bite." It is usually chopped and added in small amounts to salads, pastas and salsas.
The Anaheim, a much larger chile, is named for the city in California where a pepper cannery was opened in 1900. In Mexico, the same chile is known as "chile verde" when green and "chile Colorado" when red. Generally mild, this chile is used in chili. It is also stuffed with cheese or meat and baked or roasted.
However, the poblano pepper, a chunky small pepper, resembles a flattened green bell pepper. It is usually very mild and is stuffed with a variety of meat, rice and cornmeal stuffings.
When buying fresh chiles, select hose that are mature and firm. The skin should be shiny and smooth, and the chile should have a fresh smell.
Before using, wash the chiles to remove any dirt, wrap them in paper towels and store them in the crisper section of the refrigerator. They will keep for two to three weeks. Do not store them in plastic bags, as moisture will accumulate on them and make them spoil quickly. Don't leave the chiles out in the open, as they will shrivel and lose flavor and texture.
Hilde G. Lee is a food writer and co-author of "Virginia Wine Country III" with her husband, Allan Lee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.