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Release date: 12/28/2004.
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Amizgo riddle: If you eat his mouth, he'll eat yours. What is it? A chili pepper

"It doesn't matter who you are, or what you've done, or what think you can do. There's a confrontation with destiny awaiting you.
...Somewhere, there is a chile you cannot eat."

--Daniel Pinkwater in A Hot Time in Nairobi

It should have remained green.
So why has it changed color,
this red pepper?

--Matsua Basho (1644-1694), from Haiku, on poetry written for popularity

"Give Miss Sharp some curry, my dear," said Mr. Sedley laughing.
Rebecca had never tasted the dish before.
"Do you find it as good as everything else from India?" said Mr. Sedley.
"Oh excellent," said Rebecca, who was suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper.
"Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp," said Joseph, really intersted.
"A chili!" said Rebecca gasping. "Oh, yes!" She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported, and was served some. "How fresh and green they look," she said, and put one into her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. "Water, for Heaven's sake, water!" she cried."

--from W.M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair

The man who does not eat chile could be a sorcerer
--Tarahuma Indian proverb (Mexico)

A piece of green pepper fell
off the wooden salad bowl:
so what?
--Richard Brautigan, 1968

You can keep your dear old Boston,
Home of bass and cods;
We've opted for New Meico and chile,
The food of the Gods!

--Miles Standish IV (1842)

After heavy winds--
this morning, once again,
the peppers are crimson

--Matsua Basho (1644-1694), from Haiku

Mulla Nasrudin, as everyone knows, comes from a country where fruit is fruit and mean is meat, and curry is never eaten. One week he was plodding along a dusty Indian road, having newly descended from the high mountains of Kafiristan, when a great thirst overtook him. "Soon," he said to himself, "I must come across somewhere that good fruit is to be had." No sooner were the words formed in his brain than he rounded a corner and saw sitting in the shade of a tree a benevolent-looking man with a basket of fruit in front of him. Piled high in the basket were huge, shiny red fruits. "This is what I need," said Nasrudin. Taking two tiny coppers from the knot at the end of his turban, he handed them to the fruit-seller. Without a word, the man handed him the whole basket, for this kind of fruit is cheap in India, and people usually buy it in smaller amounts. Nasrudin sat down in the place vacated by the fruiterer and started to much the fruits. Within a few seconds, his mouth was burning. Tears streamed down his cheeks; fire was in his throat. The Mulla went on eating. An hour or two passed, and then an Afghan hillman came past. Nasrudin hailed him, "Brother, these infidel fruits must come from the very mouth of Sheitan!" "Fool!" said the hillman. "Hast thou never heard of the chillis of Hindustan? Stop eating them at once, or death will surely claim a victim before the sun is down." "I cannot move from here," gasped the Mulla, "until I have finished the whole basketful." "Madman! those fruits belong in curry! Throw them away at once." "I am not eating fruit any more," croaked Nasrudin, "I am eating my money."
--Idries Shah's "The Pleasntries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin

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Remember how Columbus stepped onto American soil and confidently called Native Americans "Indians"--he was THAT sure he was in India?

Well, that's what he did with peppers too. Capsicum "peppers"--those fleshy hot/sweet fruits--have absolutely nothing to do with the woody Indian vine Piper nigrum and its black peppercorn seeds.

Capsicums are actually in the Solanaceae family, along with deadly nightshade, potatoes, and tobacco. They are native to the Americas--maybe around Bolivia or Brazil originally--and by the time Europeans arrived with their passion for recording history, they had long been scattered by birds and rain rivulets all over MesoAmerica and the Caribbean.

Friedrich von Humboldt, in his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain (1814) noted, "The fruit [of the chile] is as indispensable to the native Peruvians as salt to the whites." The Peruvians, by contrast, came to described the heat of their chiles as gringo huanuchi, or "hot enough to kill a caucasian."

In fact, by the time Europeans arrived in the New World, the 4 or 5 species that are cultivated today--out of a total of some 25 different species--well, they were already cultivated. The ají (see below) were cultivated in Peru as early as 2500 BCE--and it was so important to the descendants of the Incas that the Indian artist who painted the Last Supper for the Caqthedral of Cuzco painted a dish of ajiís on the table for Christ and his disciples.

Not one wild species has since been domesticated, though many are harvested. ALL wild capsicums are pungent. ALL mild and sweet capsicums are that way only because they've been domesticated. But give them one wild summer--or even a boring but hot and dry summer in a city garden--and you've got the pungency back in a New York minute.

What are the 4-5 species? As follows:

  • Capsicum frutescens (tabasco chiles)
  • Capsicum chinense (originating in Amazonia, the habanero, datil, and scotch bonnet.)
  • Capsicum baccatum vas. pendulum (from Peru or Bolivia, ají amarillo)
  • Capsicum pubescens (from the Andes regions, rocoto)
  • Capiscum annuum car. annuum (domesticated in Mexico, these constitute the whopping majority--cayenne, bell, poblano, serrano, jalapeno, New Mexican/Anaheim, etc.)

Why are they pungent? It's their amide-type alkaloids (capsaicinoids) with small vanilloid structual components (3 of them) that meet your lips, your tongue, your throat, and plant one hell of a kiss on their pain receptors.

In 1722, Dominican priest Francisco Ximenez commented on a particularly hot habenero, "[This chili is so strong that a single pod would] make a bull unable to eat."

If you have the presence of mind to "feel their pain," you'll realize it's a fast, hard bite in the back of your mouth (that's just one of those "structural components")--then a low burn that builds to an eyeblinking, hair-raising throb (that's the 2 other "structural components").

Different cultivars are rated here for pungency according to Jean Andrews informal "0 to 10+" scale--but beware the occasional "sweet" throwbacks that, for one reason or another, break out of their domesticated genes and go positively feral on your lips. And while I'm on the subject, let me give great thanks and praise and appreciation to Jean Andrews and her book, Red Hot Peppers, both for her fastidious research and for her infectious exuberance for a humdinger of a food.

A couple of notes:

IF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH ULCERS OR WITH STOMACH ACIDS: 1) don't mix your peppers with liquor, caffeine, nicotine, aspirin, or emotion, and 2) eat fat beforehand--cheese or cream especially.


IF YOUR MOUTH IS ON FIRE! Some things help. Lipoproteins such as the casein in milk and yoghurt (NOT cheese or butter, since it's casein and not fat that helps) give relief. In one tangle with a habanero (it won) I was okay as long as I held yoghurt to the nuclear bomb site on my lips--but back to pain plus the minute I swallowed. Another remedy is to swish and gargle with vodka, since capsaicin is soluble in alcohol. Be careful not to swallow, though, cause you'll end up burning holes in your stomach lining. Maybe the best was suggested to me by Ray, in Seattle: Swish your mouth with straight hydrogen peroxide, holding it without swallowing until it fizzles, then spitting it out. Then do it again. After the second application, the fire is under control. You can also hold a peroxide soaked paper towel to burning lips for relief.

IF YOU'RE TOO STUBBORN TO WEAR RUBBER GLOVES WHEN YOU'RE CUTTING CHILES AND THEN JUSTIFIABLY WORRY ABOUT RUBBING YOUR EYES OR PERFORMING OTHER BODILY FUNCTIONS. And this goes double for people who wear contact lenses and have to take them out at some point. WELL, there really IS a bonafide solution here--and I do mean solution. Just get yourself a little bowl of clorox (bleach), diluted 5 parts water to 1 part bleach, and so long as you dip your fingers in from time to time you've got the problem licked. Why? Capsaicin compound is not soluble in water, but chlorine or ammonia turns it into a salt, which IS soluble in water. Please be advised, though, you should never soak your hands in this solution--that will compound the problem and cause burns. Just dip the fingers quickly. Alternatively, one reader advises that you can also protect your hands by coating them lightly with vegetable oil as a barrier--not as good as rubber gloves, but the same principle.

There are as many pepper types as can grow wild and thrive wild in different parts of the world. Here's an assortment of the most commonly available in American markets:

  • Anaheim: see New Mexican chile.

  • Ancho: see Poblano.

  • Banana pepper (0 to 5): Pale yellow-green to yellow (maturing to bright red); it's about 6 inches long, a fat finger, that tapers to a point. Aka, Hungarian wax, when it's hot.

  • Bell pepper (0): A big chambered sweet "box" that comes in green (unripe), yellow, red, orange, brown, and purple...but mostly green in the stores.

  • Cascabel (hot, 4): A cherry- or mushroom-looking thing, 1 x 1 inch, that's mostly used in dried, ground form. When it's dry, the seeds rattle around, making it "cascabel" or "jingle bell."

  • Cayenne (plenty hot, 7-8): A dark green or red--and bony, skinny witch's-finger looking thing with a pointed end. Usually about 5 inches long, 1/2 inch in diameter.

  • Cherry (sweet to hot, 0-4, 7-8): Medium green to red, thick fleshed, and shaped like a big cherry (running from 3/4 inch to an inch and a half).

  • Chilaca : see Pasilla.

  • Chiltpin or Chiltecpin or Pequin or Thai bird peppers (very hot, 8-9): These 1/4 x 3/4-inch oval peppers are glossy and range from red to green to nearly black. They make a good kitchen plant: you can mash these little guys into soups and salad dressings--or you can pickle them in vinegar in a little kitchen counter bottle and spritz the vinegar into the soups and sauces.

  • Chipotle: These can be any pepper, but dried by smoking. Jalapenos are commonly made into chipotles.

  • Cubanelle (sweet, 0): Pale yellow-green to orange to red, sometimes a mix of all three. They're glossy, long cylinders with defined seams and a sunken, inverted end point. They are thick fleshed and more flavorful than bells--a classic wax type.

  • Datil (very, very hot, 10): One of the capsicum chinense peppers that will blow the top of your head off. They're wax types, shaped like baby fingers (2 x 3/4 inch)--a little wrinkled and pointed at the end. Generally yellow green to golden yellow.

  • De Arbol (hot, 7): green to red colored, 3 x 3/4 inches, shaped like skinny fingers with a very pointy end. Usually found dried and whole in packages.

  • Fresno (hot, 5-7): Yellow-green to red, these glossy cones are about 3 inches long, an inch and a half at the base. A thick wax type that's only used fresh because its too fleshy to dry properly.

  • Guajillo (dried) / Mirasol (fresh) (hot, 4-5): Truly variable--it can be little or big, smooth or wrinkled. Generally, it's green to red (red brown, dried), peapod shaped with pointed ends. Its thin skin makes it excellent dried--as which it both flavors and colors dishes beautifully and in small quantities.

  • Habanero (whew--10+): Beautifully colored (green, yellow, orange, and orange red) and shaped like lanterns, with points at the end, they have completely distinctive aromas and flavors. They're smallish, 1-2 x 1-2 inches, but pack a huge punch. Originally from Yucatan, they're associated with Cuba--"from Havana." They're in the capsicum chinense family.

  • Jalapeno (hot, 1-5+): Bright green to black green, maturing to red, this is found in most supermarkets. It's smooth, thickfleshed, sometimes blistered. When marketers found out people picked blistered-looking jalapenos over smooth ones, they cultivated ones with blisters. No taste difference whatsoever. Jalapenos are generally shaped like big Christmas tree lights, including their blunted pointy end. They're named for the Mexican city of Jalapa in the state of Veracruz.
    NOTE: When smoked, jalapenos are called chipotles.

  • Mirasol: see Guajillo.

  • Mulato: see Poblano.

  • New Mexican Chile, AKA Anaheim (mild to hot, 1-4): Bright green to red when fresh; brownish red when dried. This long (7-10 inches), thin-skinned flat tube tapers to a blunt point. It's probably best known as the chile of choice for stuffed rellenos. It traveled from Mexico to New Mexico in the late 16th century--then moved made a historic move 300 years later with Emelio Ortega to his California ranch. Ortega made such a commercial go of it that it became known as an Anaheim, despite New Mexico's steady cultivation and improvement of the pepper. When scientists of the National Pepper Conference recently called for a new name designation for the type, New Mexicans girded their loins and did not stop crusading until it was recognized in the Congressional Record as the "New Mexican chile type."

  • Pasilla (dried)/Chilaca, fresh (medium to hot, 3-4): "Pasilla," meaning "little raisin," looks just like that--warm black and wrinkled--but long (6-12 inches) and skinny with a pointed end. In its fresh form, "chilaca," or "old-looking," also fits, as it's also wrinkled and bent--but it's chocolate colored from the green chlorophyll sustaining itself into the mature stage when red pigments are produced. Don't confuse these with mislabeled anchos and mulatos--and enjoy the mellow flavor.

  • Pequin, see above under Chilpin.

  • Pepperoncini (sweet to mild, 0-1): Most often found green, pickled, and in salads, this 2- to 5-inch-long pointy tube is wrinkled, thin-fleshed, and can be grown in a home garden to a red color.

  • Pimento (sweet, 0): Heart-shaped and thick-fleshed, this glossy chile ripens from green to red and grows to about 4 inches long. It's got a nice mellow flavor and is great for adding color.

  • Poblano (fresh); Ancho and Mulato, dried ( both are mild to hot, 3): The fresh Poblano is a 4-inch-long dark green (ripening to dark red or brown) cone that tapers to a blunt end. It's flesh is undulating and nicely thick. It gets its name from the city of Pueblo, Mexico, where it is a chile of choice--and often used as a relleno shell. It has two dried forms. The "Ancho" is dark brown, which turns brick red after soaking (don't soak it more than an hour...and save the juice to spice soups). The "Mulato" is dark brown that stays brown after soaking--and it has a sweeter, richer, and hotter finish that has also been described as chocolatey.

  • Rocoto (worse than habanero, 10++): This capsicum pubescens is a fireball of unbelievable proportions. Generally not available outside of Latin America, since its fragile fruit is grown only in high altitude, cool climates, it comes in green, yellow, and red globes, about 2 x 2 inches, and has a hairy stem.

  • Sante Fe Grande (medium to very hot, 6): This glossy wax-type pepper comes in pale greenish yellow, orange, and red and looks like big Christmas tree lights--with smooth, thick flesh, about 3 inches long. Very similar to the Fresno pepper.

  • Scotch Bonnet (habanero hot, 10+): A lot of people think this capsicum chinense IS the habanero, but it's not. The big difference between the two is the tip: the Mexican habanero is pointed; the scotch bonnet (from the West Indies) is deeply inverted with a distinctly round bottom--thus making it look like a tam o'shanter with a great big pompom. It comes in green, yellow-orange, and orange.

  • Serrano (hot to very hot, 6-8): These glossy green/red tubes are about 2 inches long and blunted at the end. Their name comes from serranias, meaning "foothills," because they're believed to have originated in the foothills north of Pueblo. They don't have to be seeded or peeled--and they have a fresh, crisp finish.

  • Tabasco (very hot, 8-9): These little pointy tubes are about 1-inch-long and come in pale yellow-green to yellow to orange to red. A capsicum frutescens pepper, it was commercially developed into a hot pepper sauce by the McIlhenny family in Louisiana--and soon took on the name of the sauce itself. To this day, the McIlhenny family fiercely protects its rights to that name.

  • Thai bird peppers, see above under Chiltpin.

  • Tomato pepper (sweet, 0-1): This 3-inch pepper is shaped like its name and is thought to be the precursor of the bell pepper. It's thick-fleshed, comes in green and red, and is best known red as a primary source of the spice paprika, in its powdered form.