Chiles, or chilis (or chilli peppers, paprika, peppers) are fruit from plants in the genus Capsicum. Like other solanaceae (including tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants) they come in a bewildering variety of colours, shapes, and flavours. There are hundreds of distinct, named varieties of chile, used in countries all around the world — most often for the sensation of heat provided by the capsaicins in them; but also for their variety of sweet, fruity flavours. They’re eaten fresh, or dried; infused, powdered, smoked, pureed, or fried in oil.
There are about five species of cultivated Capsicum — but the most common three species, Capsicum annuum (think jalapeños), C. frutescens (think Thai chiles), and C. chinense (habaneros) form a messy, hybridizing, species cluster. Most varieties of C. annuum and C. frutescense aren’t as spicy as habaneros, but they can be quite intense. You want to exercise caution with any spicy chile.
Fresh chiles are used as a spice, in salsas, sauces, or salads. They’re used as a vegetable — remember bell peppers are chilis — for their flavour, or their moderate heat.
Dried chiles are a staple of Mexican cuisine, where they are used as a sauce base. It should be no surprise that the greatest diversirty of chiles is found in Mexico (and by extension, the American Southwest).
Dried chiles — whole, crushed, or powdered — are also used as a seasoning throughout pretty much the rest of the world.
Sauces with chile are extremely diverse. They can be vinegar based, fermented, or purees of chile. They include tabasco, cholula, harissa, and sriracha. They can include beans, tofu, fish, or pretty much anything else. They can be condiments, soup bases, or fry sauces. They can be found in Vietnam, Thailand, China, India, Turkey, or Mexico.
Jalapeño might be the most familiar (relatively spicy) chile to North Americans. The name comes from the city Jalapa, where they originated. They taste a bit like green bell peppers — crisp, with a bite of fresh bitterness; and can range in heat from (usually) relatively mild to (occasionally) startlingly hot. Be careful.
They are oval, plump, and bright green (red when ripe). They’re used fresh, grilled, or pickled; in cooked food, or salsa. Americans (no surprise) like to stuff them with cream cheese and deep fry them; or wrap them in bacon.
Chipotle are just smoked ripe jalapeños. We get asked all the time for chipotle seeds … sorry, it doesn’t work like that. There are two main types of chipotle — the prettier, morita chipotle; and the ugly (but delicious) meco. They’re pretty much interchangeable, but the meco chipotles are smokier.
You can usually buy chipotles dry, or canned in escabeche. The canned ones are more convenient, because you can just plop them into whatever you’re cooking. The dried ones require soaking.
Note that there are a variety of other smoked chilis and paprikas — particularly from Spain. The Spanish smoked paprika is sweeter, and more delicate than chipotle. Smoked paprika can sometimes sell for $10 an ounce (because it’s so gourmet, or something), so we usually substitute a little chipotle, and some sweet paprika if a recipe calls for it.
Serrano chiles are similar to jalapeños in color and taste. They are longer and thinner, and usually spicier. They’re a common substitute for Thai chiles, for people who still can’t find Asian chiles at the market. Either serranos or jalapeños are the standard guacamole and pico de gallo chiles.
Ancho/poblano/pasilla chiles is sometimes called the workhorse of confusing, because they’re called so many different things, depending on where you live. Particularly in California, fresh and dried ancho chiles are called pasilla, whereas everywhere else, pasilla refers to dried chile negro. In Los Angeles, the fresh ancho (and dried poblano) are one of the most commonly available chile. These conical chilis are fleshy, and vividly coloured; they have a great flavour, and a pretty dependable but moderate heat. When they’re heaped in shiny, green piles they’re almost impossible to pass up — and they’re amazing flame roasted, in stews, or sauces, and even pasta bakes.
The dried pasillas make some of the best sauces, because they’re so fleshy, with a slightly bitter, sweet, and fruity flavour. They puree up nice and thick. Tugba has used them to make chocolate chili stout.
Chile negro are dark chilis, similar to anchos, but with an earthier flavour. Together with anchos and mulattos, they make the “holy trinity” of mole chilis.
Guajillo are very common Mexican chilis, used in chili rojo con carne, and mole. They aren’t very fleshy, but impart a red color, moderate heat, and are more brightly flavoured than anchos.
Piri-piri, Cayenne, Thai chilis, chile de arbol are lumped togethre as C. frutescens. They are very common chiles throughout Asia, in particular. They’re typically small, extremely spicy, and pretty much completely interchangeable in cooking. They’re used for heat, and not for flavour. The Portuguese variety is piri-piri (pretty much the same as cayenne) — small and relatively roundish. Thai chilis are longer and skinny, and a little wrinkled, as are chiles de arbol (which are indistinguishable from Japanese chilis).
You can use all of these chiles dried, or fresh, or frozen. There are also a number of primarily ornamental varieties of C. frustecens, that are multicolored (sometimes white, purple, red, and yellow all on the same plant). These are perfectly fine to cook with.
Paprika is any one of a number of sweet-to-hot, primarily European chiles. These tend to be used dried (as paprika), or roasted in paste (like the Eastern European, and Turkish, ajvar). They’re sometimes smoked. This is the major component of many common “chili powder” spice blends.
Gochugaru is ubiquitous in Korean food. Koreans like to imagine that their food is spicy (if you’re a white boy, ordering dukbokki in Seoul, everyone will be astonished), but really, this is only a moderately hot, slightly fruity, and mildly sweet, paprika.
Chili powder is a waste of cupboard space. Don’t bother with it — it’s pretty much just a combination of 2:1 paprika:cayenne (piri-piri), with a variable amount of salt, cumin, and garlic powder. And maybe dried oregano. It’s not even a convenience — it’s just a crappy combination of ingredients, most of which you should already have, anyway.
Oils made of infused chilis are very common, throughout the world. This includes the Portuguese, and Afro-Portuguese, piri-piri,
as well as the very common Chinese ruby oil, or Japanese raayu
Few fruits have integrated themselves so firmly in the world’s cuisine, so quickly.
Chiles are so common, all around the world, that it’s astonishing that they were introduced to the Old World only in the early 16th century. Columbus brough them back (and in fine form called them “pepper” — which by the way they’re not, in the same way that Native Americans are not Indians). Chiles quickly spread throughout the new world, and by now it’s almost impossible to imagine Indian, Thai, or Szechuan cuisine without them. They now season food throughout Africa and the Mediterrannean.
Without a doubt, the centre of chile diversity is still the Americas. While they’re primarily used for heat, not flavour, in the Old World, they are a fundamental basis of Mexican food flavour, texture and aroma. In Latin Americam, there are commonly used a wide variety of chilis, with subtle variations in color, sweetness, fleshiness, and heat, each with its own purpose. Every town, it seems, has their own local chile, to which all other chiles are inferior. The mild chiles in Eliseo‘s town, for instance, are only found in l’Estancia, and are roasted, then dried, and used for everything from chile rojo con carne to chiles rellenos. Only if it’s been a bad crop do people resign themselves to anchos.
But even in the old world, Hungarian and Korean food use their own strains of paprika to make rich sauces. Turkish chile pastes are used to top flat bread. Western Asian dips of roasted chiles can be found, with walnuts and pomegranate. Roasted sweet bell-peppers are common salads in Romania and Italy.
Capsaicin is a blanket term for a family of chemical alkaloids that stimulate the heat receptors (that is, chiles literally taste hot) in mammals. Birds can eat them without feeling pain. Weirdly, humans are the only mammals that seek this sensation out (rats reportedly can be trained to ignore the feeling of heat, but not enjoy it — I can’t find an original citation for this, BRF). There may be associations between liking spicy foods and bitter foods, There are also associations between people’s sex, as well as personality, and their reported appreciation for spice. Some people find it intolerable, some people love it.
It’s not entirely clear why “spicy” evolved, but it seems to correlate, not with mammalian predation, but with humidity and fungal prevelance.
Chiles grow pretty easily, in a lot of climates (they can’t handle freezing). Capsicum annuum is usually an annual, typically herbaceous, and short. But in our garden, we have some chilis that have survived for up to five years, and have grown as tall as 3m. They aren’t desiccation tolerant, and mostly prefer warm, humid, rich conditions.