Find the Right Chile Pepper for You
Bring on the sweet heat and find the chile pepper that's perfect for you.
Extremely hot, Thai chiles like this one can make you wish you chose “mild.” Habaneros and serranos fill in the background.
Sweet or heat? If you’re like most folks, your choice would be sweet. Sweet peppers traditionally have been America’s preference, and bell peppers top the list. In colors of green, red, purple and yellow, they are the most common pepper found in grocery store produce departments, farmers’ markets and backyard gardens. Each day, 24 percent of Americans consume foods containing either fresh, frozen, dried or canned bell peppers.
But the bell pepper isn’t the only player on the field. Hot peppers feature prominently in ethnic cuisines such as Indian, Thai, Hungarian, Italian, South American, Mexican and Mediterranean. They can be eaten fresh, roasted, pickled, stuffed, or used dried. They add flavor to chutneys, curries, stir-fries, soups, stews, salsas and salads. Once just thought of as “spicy hot,” chiles are now much more appreciated for their subtle nuances of flavor.
Technically, all peppers are chiles (from the Mexican-Spanish chile), but it is typically hot peppers that are associated with the name. Peppers are in the Capsicum genus, and it is the chemical capsaicin that gives them their heat. Capsaicin doesn’t bother birds, but it does discourage most mammals, including humans. But we are a tenacious lot. A little – or in some cases, a lot of – heat couldn’t deter folks for long. Humans, it was discovered long ago, enjoyed having spice in their diet.
Just when did humans begin to play with fire? Archaeologists haven’t pinpointed a specific time when chiles were first cultivated, but by 5,000 B.C., depictions of chile pods adorned ancient pottery and textiles. In Central and South America, chiles were a dietary staple, and each region cultivated different varieties. From the five domesticated species of peppers, thousands of varieties have been developed in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes and in a kaleidoscope of color, ranging in heat from mild to firecracker hot.
Christopher Columbus brought chiles to Europe from the New World in the late 15th century. He mistakenly called them “peppers,” thinking they were related to our familiar table condiment, black pepper (Piper nigrum). The two species are not related, but the name stuck.
Europeans, however, were slow to catch on. Peppers, along with potatoes, eggplant and tomatoes, are part of the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family. Also included in the family are deadly nightshade, mandrake and henbane – all well-known to the early Europeans as poisons. This family link gave peppers a stigma, and they were regarded with deep suspicion.
Additionally, they were considered just plain too hot to eat. “When we break but the skin, it sends out such a vapor into our lungs, as we fall all a coughing,” wrote Richard Ligon in 1657, about the chile in his history of Barbados. Well into the 17th century, peppers were largely used as just a garden ornamental curiosity. The Hungarians are thought to be some of the first Europeans to wholeheartedly incorporate peppers into their cuisine; paprika became an integral flavoring in their traditional goulash dish.
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