The chili pepper, a hotly pungent variety of Capsicum was first cultivated by the people of Central and South America in around 3000 BC. Columbus brought seeds back to Europe in 1493, and from there it has spread to the cuisines of the entire world. The pre-Hispanic Americans believed the chili to contain medicinal qualities and modern science has confirmed the nutritional values, containing high levels of vitamins A and C, along with vitamins E and B1, B2 and B3. (spelling of chili can be with one or two letter “l”s.)
Natural diversification and biotechnology have produced hundreds of varieties, differing greatly in hotness, size shape, and ranging in colours from orange to red to yellow to green. They can be eaten fresh, pickled, or preserved by drying in the sun. Perhaps the world’s most famous chilli is the Jalapeño, the stubby green variety from the city of Jalapa, on Mexico’s gulf coast.
The Chilpotle chili is a dried and smoked Jalapeño that is spicier than the green version and usually available in a pickled form. Other famous varieties of chili include the extremely hot Habenero (or scotch bonnet), the birds-eye, the Thai, and the tiny Pequin, which is the fiery base for Tabasco sauce. More recently the American varieties have been joined by some coming back from Asia, especially from India; including the ‘Naga’, perhaps the words hottest.
What is the hottest chili? According to the Guinness Book of Records it is the Bhut Jolokia. These super hot chillies are Naga varieties originating from the North West of India. They seem to be Capsicum Chinense, which is also the species that produced the Habanero. The foothills of the Himalayas also produces a smallish pumpkin shaped, orange variety that is reported to be as hot or hotter than the Nagas. Some of the local peoples refer to it as the Sikkimese Cherry Chili. A small green chili from Assam; the Tezpur chili held the record for a year or two.
Tips for cooking
As a rule red fresh fruit are two or three times hotter than green fruit, and dried pods are up to ten times hotter than fresh pods.
The seeds and white pith of a chili are the hottest part, so remove them if you don’t want your dish to be too fiery.
Chilies contain a pungent oil that can cause an unpleasant burning sensation to eyes and skin. Try to avoid handling them too much, wear gloves if possible, and be sure not to touch your face or eyes during preparation.
As a general guide the smaller the chili the hotter it will be.
Soaking a chili in vinegar has the effect of distributing the hot chili flavour through the dish. Discarding the vinegar and soaking again has the effect of further reducing the heat.
Warning: Gloves and eye protection and a mask are essential when chopping, peeling or processing the very hot varieties. No permanent damage normally results to a healthy person, but the shock to someone with a weak heart could be fatal!
Some of the varieties of hot chilies:
Aci Sivri, Aji Brown, Aji, Almapaprika, Anaheim, Ancho, Asain, Azr, Bahamian, BigJim, Birds Eye, Cabai Burong, Carolina Cayenne, Cascabel, Cayenne, Cheiro, Cherry, Chile de Arbol, Chiltecpin, Chiltepin Cherry, Chiltepin, Chimayo, Chipolte, Chipotle, Cobanero Mayan Love, Cobra, Coronado, Dagger pod, Demre, El Paso, Espanola, Guajillo, Habanero, Haimen, Hidalgo, Hot Wax, Hungarian Hot Wax, Hungarian, Jalapeno, Jaloro, Jamaican Hot, Japones, Jolokia, Kumataka, Lavingya, Manzano, Merah, Mexican Naga, Negro, Mirasol, Mulato, New Mexican, Naga, Nu Mex BigJim, Pasilla, Pepperoncini, Pequin, Piquin, Poblano, Pulla, Punjab, Pusa Jwalla, Putario, Puya, Red Savina Habanero, Rocoto, Rocotillo, Rocoto, Rojo, Sandia, Santa Fe Grande, Santaka, Santo Domingo Pueblo, Scotch Bonnet, Serrano, Serrano, Shipkas, Sikkimese Cherry Chili, Super Chile, Tabasco, Tabiche, Tepin, Tepîn, Tezpur, Thai, Trupti, Yatsafusa, Yellow, Yellow Wax, Zimbabwe Bird
The following can sometimes be mildly hot; Sweet Banana, Sweet Bells
How is hotness measured? The unit of hotness is the SHU or Scoville Hotness Scale. Wilbur Scoville was an eminent American chemist. He devised a test based on repetitively diluting an extract of the pepper with sugar water until the heat is no longer detected. Testing is now more usually performed using accurate laboratory equipment, namely a chromatograph, and equating 15 parts per million (PPM) of capsiacin with an increase of 1 on the Scoville scale.