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Being a Chillie-Head is a serious business. It means expressing a devotion to all things chillie pepper related; not just 'how hot?', but the length of the 'burn', the after-taste, the growing, harvesting and cooking of chillies.

But why is there such a deep love of chillies?

The reason is that during the eating of chillies, a chemical in the chillie pepper called Capsaicin, irritates the trigeminal cells. These are pain receptor cells located throughout the mouth, the nose and the throat. When your body's nerves feel the pain induced by the chemical on these cells, they immediately start to transmit pain messages to your brain. Your brain receives these signals and responds by automatically releasing endorphins (the body's natural painkiller). These endorphins kick in and act as a painkiller and at the same time, create a temporary feeling of euphoria, giving the chillie pepper eater, a natural high.

The body's other responses include increasing the heart rate to increase the metabolism, increasing salivation in order to try and refresh the mouth and by increasing the rate of sweating by the body. Your nose also starts to run and the gastrointestinal tract slips into high speed. Hot & spicy food lovers soon begin to crave these feelings and are soon hooked.

The problem of chillie pepper 'hotness' is not helped by the fact that some chillie peppers are a lot hotter than others and if you happen to take a bite out of the wrong one, you could be in for a big shock.

It therefore pays to know your Habanero's from your Poblano's and your Guajillo's from your Jalapeno's. The heat rating of chillie peppers is related to its Scoville number. This is obtained through chemical extraction of the Capsaicin from the pepper, and then subjecting it to High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). The higher the number of Scoville Heat Units (SHU's) assigned to a chillie pepper, the greater will be its burn.

In order to survive, plants need to produce metabolites in to ward off animal predators. Dr. Michael Need of the New York Botanical Society, thinks capsaicin in chillies serves that purpose. Capsaicin prevents animals from eating the chillies so that they can be eaten by birds which are a better vector (distributor) for seeds. Mammals get a burning sensation from capsaicin but birds do not. Seeds pass through the bird's gut intact and get spread in new areas.

Chillie peppers where unknown to world outside of the American continent until Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492. This island forms part of the Greater Antilles, which lie across the Caribbean Sea from Venezuela and Colombia. The chillie peppers that Columbus had found on the island had been bought there by the islands first settlers, the Arawaks and Caribs, who migrated there from the original homelands on the Upper Orinoco river in Venezuela. They referred to peppers as Aji. Chillies that were originally found only in South America are now found growing wild on the border between Mexico and Texas.

How do you spell the word?

What are Capsicum peppers called? Is it CHILE or CHILI, or even CHILLI or CHILLIE ? It depends of where you are in the world. Nowadays, the Capsicum pepper is referred to by most English-speaking people as the CHILE, where as the meal made from meat and chillie peppers is referred to as a CHILI. Even so, CHILLIE PEPPER can appear in the local dialects as something else. The table shows some of the names for Capsicum annumm, Cayenne, etc:

Afrikaans Brand rissie
Amharic Mit'mita Berbere
Arabic Fulful ahmar
Assami Jolokia
Bengali Morich
Brazilian (Portuguese) Dedo de Moca, Pimento vermelho
Burmese Nga yut thee, Nil thee
Chinese Chao tian jiao, Chang bing jiao
Croatian Paprika ljuta
Danish Spansk peber
Dutch Spaanse peper, Cayennepeper
English Cayenne pepper, Red pepper, Chillie
Finnish Chilipippuri
French Poivre rouge, Piment fort, Poivre de cayenne
German Cayen, Beissbeere Pfeffer, Chili pfeffer
Greek Piperies
Gujrati Mirchi
Hebrew Pilpelet hagina, Pilpel matok
Hindi Lal mirch, Achar
Hungarian Paprika
Indonesian Cabai
Italian Peperone, Peperoncino, Pimento
Japanese Togarashi
Kannada Manasina kayi
Laotian Mak phe kunsi
Macedonian Piperka
Malaysian Lada mira
Malayalam Mulagu
Marathi Mirchi
Mexican Cola de rata
Nahuatl Chilcozli, Chiltecpin
Nepalese Rato khursani
Peruvian Aji cereza
Polish Papryka
Portuguese Piri-piri, Pimento
Punjabi Lal-mircha
Romanian Ardei Iute
Russian Perec
Slovenian Sladka paprika
Spanish Pimenta de Cayena, Guindilla
Swahili Piri piri
Swedish Chilipeppar
Tagalog Sili berde
Tamil Mulagu
Telugu Mirapakaya
Thai Pisi hui
Turkish Biber
Urdu Lalmarach
Vietnamese Ot

Indian chillies

India is the largest producer of chillies in the world contributing 25% of the total world production. Chillies is also known as Capsicum, Red Pepper, Paprika depending upon the species and variety and also the manner in which it is prepared and used. Chillie is used as an essential condiment in foods for its pungency and red colour. Besides these properties chillie is a rich source of Vitamin A,C,E and P and has certain medicinal properties. It is used in homeopathy. A non-conventional use of chillie is in the self-defence sprays which is gaining popularity in USA. The spray consists of capsicum oleoresin at ultra high emission rate which temporarily immobilizes the attacker.

World scenario

Until recently, international trade in chillies was dominated by India. However, during the last few years, there has been a change in the situation. The export from the country has come down considerably. Further, the export is not steady and is subject to wide fluctuations. The total export of chillies from India is on an average only 4% of total production. This is mainly because of the high domestic consumption.

India is exporting chillies to a large number of coutries spread all over the world. In the past, Sri Lanka was the principal importer of chillies in the world and India accounted for the major portion of chillies imported by that country. Proximity and old links were the main reasons for dominance of Indian Chillies in Sri Lanka.

China has emerged as a principal exporter of chillies and is serious competitor in international market. China has success fully penetrated the large Malaysian Market, mainly at the expense of Indonesia. The United States of America has also been purchasing larger quantities of chillies from China. Japan is producing special type of chillies like Bird's Eye, Santaka and Hontaka types of chillies. These chillies have a market, but export from Japan is decreasing mainly on accout of local demand, which has not been matched by local production. Japan is increasingly becoming importer of chillies and capsicum. Another significant producer and exporter of the Bird's eye chillies is Papua New Guinea, although it is not one of the important sources of capsicum products. Ugandan chillies, known as "Mombasa", exported through the port of Mombasam, are the most pungent of all and well established in the international trade for their pungency.

The bulk of imports of paprika chillies in western countries is consumed in the food processing industry, where it is used as a colourant and for flavouring. In countries like the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden, considerable quantities of these spices are used in the manufacture of oleoresins and extracts.

Indian scenario

Chillies exports from India are mostly to Sri Lanka, USA, Nepal, Mexico and Bangladesh. Among these countries, USA, Sri Lanka and Mexico are the major buyers for Indian Chillies. India today faces stiff competition form China and Pakistan who offer their produce in International market at very competitive price. Export of chillies during 1990-91 was around 24,534 tonnes valued at Rs. 27.55 crores and in 1991- 92 it shot up to 33,398 tonnes valued at Rs. 97.90 crores. During 1992 - 93 India exported around 16,850 tonnes valued around Rs. 67.86 crores and in 1993 - 94 the exports were 33,450 tonnes valued Rs. 75.26 crores from an export of 26,279 tonnes. The reason for low export is that the prices of our chillies are too high for international markets on account of strong domestic demand. Sannam variety of Chillies is in demand in the importing countries of Europe and United States of America.

Export of Chillies

Chillies or capsicum is grown as an important spice crop in Andhra Pradesh, maharashtra, Maharashtra, Karnataka,Tamilnadu and Orissa, spread over about nine lakh hectres of land. India produces about six to nine lakh tonnes of dried chillies annually. Chillies form an indispensable condiment in every household. Besides imparting pungency and red colour to the dishes it is a rich source of vitamins and has medicinal properties. (The pungency of chillies is due to the presence of carotenoid and the red color due to carotenoid pigments .Such as Capasanthin and capsorubin) As the demand for natural pigments is growing the demand for chillies in world market is bound to increase steadily. However, the internal consumption of chillies is also increasing day by the resulting in reduced exportable surplus.

This situation could be improved by increasing production and improving productivity. Cultivation of high yielding variants and also those with high content of capsanthin and/or pungent principle depending upon the endues in the importing countries should form part of the strategy to increase exports.

The quantum of chillies exported from India exported from India shows wide fluctuation. In 1991-92 export went up to 32603 metric tonnes while during 1992-93 year the quantity was 17038 metric tonnes. In 1993-94 it went up again to 28619 tonnes.

The World Market for Chillies

Chillies of red pepper belongs to the genus capsicum which is a native of Tropical America. It was introduced into India by the Portuguese during the 16th century. India has emerged today as the foremost producer and exporter of chillies contributing to almost one fourth of the world production. Besides India, other major producers and exporters of chillies are China, Pakistan, Morocco, Mexico and Turkey.

Export of Chillies from India during the last four years has been showing an encouraging trend though fluctuation occur very often. Indian chillies are exported mainly to Srilanka, USA, Canada, UK, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia and Germany. It is exported in different forms: fresh chillies, stalk less chillies, green chillies, chilli powder and also as oleoresin.

Aflatoxin and pesticide residues are the two important problems which act as constraints in increasing our exports to Europe, Japan and USA. Buyers expect a high degree of hygiene and sanitation in processing and preparing chillies for export.

The potential for increasing exports of whole chillies, chilli powder and crushed chillies in consumer packs is very high, provided we meet the stringent quality requirements of importing countries. The consumers in importing countries insist on ‘clean spices’ and to meet this challenge we have to make every effort to prevent contamination from external sources during harvesting, post harvest handling, processing and storage. This can be achieved only through an integrated approach with the collective efforts of farmers, processors and traders. Improved quality and productivity of Indian chillies will enable us to increase exports us to increase exports of chillies and chilli products from India effectively meeting the competition from other producing and exporting countries.

Country wise Percentage of worldwide chillies exports (capsicum)

*India 25% *China 24% *Spain 17% *Mexico 8% * Pakistan 7.2% *Morocco 7% * Turkey 4.5%


With permission from Graeme Caselton for some of the above content.

Permission pending from Indian Cardamom Trading Network for some of the above content.

Related Links

The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University.

Links to Chile-Heads websites.

Ring of Fire webring.

Chileplants.com chillie photo database.

Craig Dremman's Copyrighted Pepper Picture Gallery.


Chillie science!

Almost innumerable names exist for different chillie cultivars in Latin America, especially México. Most of these cultivars belong to the species C. annuum, but infraspecific relations are subject to discussion.

Used plant part

Fruits (berries but usually called "pods"). They may be harvested ripe or unripe. Removals of seeds and veins results in a less pungent spice. Usage of the leaves to flavour drinks is reported from India.

Plant family

Solanaceae (nightshade family).

Sensoric quality

Chillies may be expected to be hot and pungent. Once accustomed to their fiery pungency, one is surprised how many subtle flavours they may show: Fruity, earthy, smoky, fresh, sweet and flowery are just some of them. The greatest variety of chillie tastes is, not surprisingly, found in México.

Chillie hotness is measured in Scoville units, which is originally a subjective measure based on dilution of chillie extracts and organoleptic evaluation by human testers; today, chillie hotness is more frequently determined by HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography), whose results can loosely be correlated to traditional Scoville ratings; the conversion generally accepted is that 15 Scoville units equal 1 ppm capsaicin plus capsaicinoids. The very hottest cultivars (Capsicum chinense) range around 200000 to 300000 Scoville units; the extremely fiery Thai chillies barely reach 100000; more common varieties like the jalapeño (the default hot chillie for US citizens) or the Italian peperoncino generally lie below 5000 Scoville units.

Whenever considering tabulated chillie hotness data, it must be made clear that chillies tend to be extremely variable in their pungency and that even fruits harvested at the same time and from the same plant may differ drastically in their hotness.

Main constituents

Chillies show more or less the same aroma components as paprika, but their content in capsaicin (the amide of 3-hydroxy-2-methoxy-benzylamine with 8-methyl-6-noneneoic acid) and related compounds (collectively called capsaicinoids) is much higher (up to 1%, which equals 150000 scoville heat units).

Capsaicin chemical structure

Only true capsaicin is responsible for the pungent and fiery taste of chillies; conventional analytic methods, however, do not yield the capsaicin content, but the sum of capsaicin and capsaicinoids; therefore, "capsaicin content" does not automatically relate to pungency.
Dihydrocapsaicin, the most important capsaicinoid, makes up about one third of the total capsaicin & capsaicinoids fraction. Other capsicinoids (nor-dihydrocapsaicin, homo-dihydrocapsaicin, homo-capsaicin) are only found in traces. It is not clear whether they are organoleptically inert or whether they might modify the pungency and taste of the chillie.

The Central American species Capsicum chinense is characterized by very high content of capsaicin, typically 2% (equals 300000 scoville heat units). A proprietarian cultivar, red savina habanero, was long considered the hottest chillie on earth: It was measured to breathtaking 3.7% (560000 scoville heat units). This pod really is extremely hot!

Hottest chillie on earth?

In August 2000, Indian scientists reported on a new chillie cultivar grown in the hills near the Central Assamese town of Tezpur (Capsicum frutescens cv. Nagahari). This chillie variety has beed dubbed Tezpur chili, naga jolokia "chillie of the Nagas" (the Nagas are a people inhabiting the border region between India and Burma, east of Tezpur) and is also sometimes referred to as Indian PC-1.

This new chillie type is much hotter than the Red Savina Habanero: Its heat was measured to incredible 855000 Scoville units, corresponding to 5.7% of capsaicin in the dried material (4.3% Capsaicin und 1.4% Dihydrocapsaicin; remarkably, other capsaicinoids are missing). There are plans to use this plant in the production of weapons ("pepper spray") for private (anti-mugger defense) and for military (riot control) purposes. It is, however, not stated whether the value cited is typical for the variety, or just a rare exception. (Current Science, 79, 287, 2000; online [PDF])

In the meantime, the hype around this "Assamese mystery chillie" has faded; in contrast, the work has attracted considerable criticism. The main problem is the lack of proper calibration of their HPLC apparatus; calibration is necessary for getting any absolute values. At the same time, however, the authors used a literature value for the Red Savina that can hardly compared with their relative figures that might easily be off by a factor of two or three. The authors probably had no access to Red Savina chillies, and it is almost impossible to tell what capsaicine content their apparatur would have reported for ed Savinas. As far as I know, authentic naga jolokia material seems never to have appeared outside of India, and thus there are no independent results for it.

Furthermore, there is a constant nationalistic tone in this paper that destroys the appearance of scientific objectivity (the work was financially supported by the Indian Defence Department). From my personal view, I'd like to add that in this work one paragraph of this very web page appears almost verbatim, without any attribution.


The genus Capsicum stems from South America. See paprika for details.
Unlike most other tropical spices, chillies are easy to cultivate; therefore, their cultivation and usage has spread all over the world, especially to regions with tropic climate. Main producer today is India, albeit mostly for domestic trade.

Capsicum chacoense,
a wild species from Argentina


In many European languages, the name of chillies derives from or is identical to the name of pepper, sometimes with attributes indicating red colour, extreme spiciness or the American origin (or transmittance by the Spanish): For example, Italian peperoncino, French poivre rouge, Spanish pimienta picante or Dutch spaanse peper, respectively.
The Italian name diavoletto is a diminutive form of diavolo "devil", indicating the satanic piquancy of this spice.

Cayenne, found in many European names of chillie, was loaned from a Native American language: Originally spelt cayan, it goes back to a member of the Tupi language family in which the spice was termed kyinha. Today, Cayenne is also the name of the Capital of French Guiana.

When Columbus found chillies on some caribbean island, he reported the local name aji (or axi), which is still in use in México. The English names chillie or chilli (the latter form seems to die out in the US, but is preferred in the UK and Australia) are borrowed from Nahuatl (native Mexican), where the plant's name chilli allegedly derived from a root meaning "red".

For the botanical genus name Capsicum, see paprika; the species name frutescens is the present participle of a synthetic formation frutescere "to become shrubby": Latin frutex "shrub, bush" and the verb fruticari "sprout"; see savory for etymologically related words. Note the inchoative suffix -sc- "getting in a state of". Pubescens "hairy" very well describes the characteristic attribute of this species (hairy leaves), but baccatum "berry-shaped" (see also bay) is not so well chosen, as only some cultivars of this species feature globular, berry-like fruits, but others bear the usual long and finger-shaped pods. Lastly, chinense is a complete misnomer, as this chillie variety has absolutely nothing to do with China. By the way, also the species name of paprika, annuum, has no factual justification.

Flower of Capsicum praetermissum (Brazil)

The name bird's eye is often used to denote any small-sized, pointed chillie of high pungency, because of the similarity to an avian pupil. There is also the name bird pepper or bird chillie for wild forms of chillies, whose small, very punget fruits separate easily from the calyx and are dispersed by birds.


When chillies were first brought to Europe by one of Columbus' expeditions, they did not meet much interest, because black pepper (at this time first available in large quantities) seemed much more promising culinarily. Chillies were, however, welcomed by the locals in Portuguese and Spanish colonies and, within a few decades, chillie became a fixed part in the daily diet of nearly all peoples in South and South East Asia. This was because other pungent spices were so much more difficult to cultivate (and therefore rather expensive, even in their countries of origin). Chillies, however, grow easily in the hot and humid climate in tropical Thailand, in the glowing hot desert of Northern India and also in the extreme cold and dryness of the Himalayas in Tibet. For a comparision of different pungent spices, see sichuan pepper.

Only five species of genus Capsicum are cultivated, all of them stem from South America. The most important species economically is Capsicum annuum, which is commonly known the world over as paprika.

The hardy Capsicum pubescens from the South American Andes is probably of least importance; only few different cultivars are known. This chillie is generally known as rocoto and locoto in Peru and Bolivia, and as chillie manzano in México; a cultivar with yellow fruits is termed chillie canario). This species has been put to cultivation in the highlands of Peru and Bolivia, and even today, cultivation outside that region is rare. It has been introduced to the tropical mountains in Central America (México, Honduras), and very recently cultivation started in Jawa/Indonesia as a pilot project (cabe gondol, cabe bendot, cabe Dieng); to my knowledge, it is not cultivated anywhere else except by hobbyists.

The C. pubescens cultivars can easily be identified by their purple flowers, hairy (pubescent) leaves and quite large apple-, pear- or egg-shaped pods with dark, almost black, seeds. Among the other cultivated chillies, purple flowers are extremely rare and essentially restricted to a few ornamental breeds of C. annuum. Black seeds are a unique feature of C. pubescens, not shared by any other wild or cultivated species.

Rocoto flower

Botanically, C. pubescens differs much from the other domesticated Capsicum species. Its small distribution, lack of different pod types and the missing wild form provide a puzzeling challenge to botanists; yet, links to Bolivian wild species (C. eximium und C. cardenasii). have been established.

For the cook, the rocoto is characterized by thick-fleshed pods unsuited for drying, a specific flavour, and widely variyng hotness. The rocoto is probably the hottest chillie still large enough for stuffing with meat or cheese; an example are rocotos bellenos from the Peruvian Andes. By removing or retaining seeds and veins, the pungency can be controlled.

Fresh rocoto pods.

There is considerable disagreement about the the actual hotness of the rocoto. In addition to the usual variations due to climate and soil, there are probably also individual differences: Because of its unusual spectrum of capsaicinoids, some humans find rocotos extremely hot, even hotter than habaneros, while the majority would rate them only moderately hot.

In parts of South America, especially in the coast area of Peru, numerous varieties of Capsicum baccatum are grown and often collectively termed ají in Spanish. The most common cultivar is the yellow ají amarillo, called kellu-uchu in Quechua and referred to as cusqueño in dried form. This species displays a large variability of pod sizes, shapes and colours; a common feature are yellow or green spots on the petals. Only few cultivars are today grown outside of South America; yet from time to time, one sees cultivars with characteristically bell-shaped fruits in the countries of the Old World, e.g. the peri peri in Portugal and some of its former East African colonies.

A European cultivar of C. baccatum.

C. baccatum has been cultivated for several millennia; the oldest archeological evidence is 4500 years old. Consequently, human breeding has resulted in a large number of different cultivars, most of which have characteristically shaped pods. The most frequent types include spherical, lantern-shaped and broad finger-shaped ajís. Pungency varies between medium and hot, but does not reach extreme hotness. After drying, many types of ají develop a complex aroma similar to dried fruits.

The Peruvian ají amarillo chillie (fresh)

The species Capsicum chinense was long known for the most pungent, yet also aromatic, chillies; most of its cultivars are grown in the Caribbean (habanero in Cuba and Yucatán, Jamaican hot and Scotch bonnet in Jamaica, rocotillo on the Cayman Islands, Congo pepper on Trinidad), although the species appears to have been domesticated in Peru, where today only few cultivars are grown (e.g., the red and very hot chinchi-ucho). Several chinense cultivars have been introduced to Africa by repatriated slaves (fatalii in the Central African Republic, gambia and safi in West Africa, ose utoro in Nigeria). The species is not suitable for cultivation in the temperate climate of Europe; in Asia, there are only few scattered cultivars, most of which appear on the Philippines. The Pakistani dundicut chillie, which figures prominently in Balti cooking, is often reported to to be a chinense, but it is in truth a C. annuum.

Ripening Habaneros

Many C. chinense species are considerably hotter than chillies from any other species — or so it was thought until September 2000, when first reports about an extra-hot Indian chillie (C. frutescens) became known. Many people still doubt the results of the Indian scientists. With the possible exception of the Indian "mystery chillie", so far only C. chinense have tested better than 150000 Scoville; a typical value is about 300000 Scoville, but there are also mild varieties, e.g., ají panca.

Also C. chinense is a long-cultivated species (archeologists have found a 6500 years old pod in Peru); consequently, human breeding has resulted in many different fruit colours (orange, red, brown) and shapes (more or less isometric lantern and squash shapes are most common, but there are also elongated and pointed cultivars). The flowers are small, greenish or white with purple or blue anthers; a single node regularily bears several flowers and even fruits, which is rare with other chillies (except C. frutescens, which is very difficult to separate by morphologic means only). A feature suited to identify C. chinense is an annular constriction on the calyx near the base, which almost all chinense cultivars have in common, but which is rarely found with C. annuum or C. frutescens.

Ripe habaneros

Of the Caribean varieties, several (especially the habanero from Yucatán) are traded in the US in fresh form; they are, however, hardly ever available in Europe. This is quite a pity, because apart from being incredibly hot, the exhibit a delicious, flower-like scent that make eating them a unique experience. They can, however, often be bought in the form of cooked sauces or raw mashes.

The extreme heat of the chinense cultivars is of importance in Caribbean cookery; it is commonly associated with the cuisine of Jamaica, where local chillies bear names like seven pot pepper - probably to indicate that one pod is enough to flavour seven pots of food. Jerk paste, a famous spice mixture from Jamaica, makes use of these powerful chillies (see allspice). Another dish that needs habaneros or their relatives is the Mexican-Caribbean speciality ceviche, raw fish marinated in lime juice.

Last but not least, Capsicum frutescens is the species that includes the tabasco chillie, one of the most famous of all hot chillies. A Brazilian variety, called melagueta or malagueta, is believed to be the wild form of this species. The melagueta chillie must not be confused with the so-called melegueta pepper, which is just another name for grains of paradise.

Tabasco plant (C. frutescens): ripe pods, flower

Similar to the closely related species C. chinense and C. annuum, the cultivation site for C. frutescens is probably Southern Mesoamerica. Yet, the species still shows many attributes of a wild form: Its fruits are small and not fleshy, there is no variation in pod shape, and lastly the fruits drop off easily, to allow dispersal by birds. Common features of all frutescens cultivars are their green flowers and their steeply upwards directed pedicles; also the fruits keep their upright position until maturity (the latter feature is also found with the so-called piquin types of C. annuum). All frutescens cultivars are very hot, ranging typically from 100000 to 150000 Scoville units.

A new frutescens cultivar which has earned much fame since August 2000 is the Tezpur chillie or naga jolokia from Assam/India, currently the hottest chillie in the world. It is, however, doubtful whether this breed will replace the well-established habaneros as sources for high-quality hot sauces: Contrasting the aromatic habaneros and their relatives, the few cultivars of C. frutescens have never played an important rôle in the kitchen, as they are pungent but have hardly any flavour. The tabasco chillie may seem an exception to this rule, but remember that the unique aroma of tabasco sauce mainly stems from the long ripening period, not from the underlying chillie material.

Dried Tabasco chillies

According to botanical research, many or even most of all hot chillies belong to the species Capsicum annuum. Culinarily, however, it does not make much sense to discuss mild and hot species together, as their applications are wildly disticst. Moreover, for most countries there is a clear-cut distinction between "mild" or "slightly hot" on one side and "medium hot" to "very hot" types on the other side (México is as exception to this, as there are also intermediate types; Hungary is another). Thus, I reserve the term paprika for the milder types, up to the level of jalapeños (ca. 4000 Scoville heat units), even if they are commonly called chillies in other literature. This group comprises only cultivars from Capsicum annuum.

The term chillies, then, will be used only for fruits of significant pungency, above jalapeño level. This term may mean any of the five cultivated species; outside America, it will mostly also boil down to C. annuum. The other domesticated species are, as explained above, still mostly confined to Latin America; they will hardly ever produce fruits that have less than 20000 Scoville heat units.

Culinary applications around the world

Chillies may be used fresh or dried, ripe or unripe, cooked or raw; any way (that is my personal belief), they tend to make everything better. People who do not agree on this point simply suffer lack of experience and training. Some claim that chillies' pungency hides more subtle flavours and that the fiery hotness suppresses all other tastes. I do not doubt that novices really feel this way, and that chillies really spoil a dish for them, but the argument is not directed against chillie use, but against untrained taste buds. After some experience with fiery but tasteful food, most people develop the ability to discern subtle flavours behind the chillies' heat, and actually I feel that chillies enhance and amplify the taste of other food ingredients.

Nevertheless, to the novice, a brutal burning in the mouth is certainly discouraging, and therefore, many people never try enough chillies to pass the initial barrier. Now, if if you happen to get too much chillies, what is the best remedy against the fiery pain in your mouth, that reminds more to burning gasoline than anything edible? Drinks, especially when hot, sour or carbonated, must be avoided (that's why I prefer hot tea to spicy food: It stimulates the taste buds even more). Some suggest bread against the burn, but my experience (well, my experience with my guests :-), to be precise) is best with dairy products, especially yoghurt or cream.

When cooking with chillies, one must realise that green and red, fresh and dried or fried and cooked make a great difference. Of the chillie cultivars in Asia, I found most being rather equivalent, and local cooks use whatever available, contrasting the habits in México (see paprika). Since I am no expert in Latin American cuisine, I shall now concentrate on the use of chillies in Asia.

In tropical climate, chillies are available ripe in any time of the year. Therefore, in the cuisines of tropical South East Asia, they are much preferred fresh. In Thailand, "curry pastes" (prik kaeng or prik gaeng) are ground mixtures of chillies with other fresh spices; see coconut for details. Chillie-based table condiments are almost ubiquitous in Thailand: nam pla prik (fish sauce with finely choppen green chillies), prik dong (chopped red chillies in vinegar) and prik phom (red chillie powder) allow each diner to adjust spiciness (Europeans, however, rarely use the option). The mentioned three chillie condiments, plus white sugar and ground toasted peanuts, make up the standard set of "fiver flavours" which is offered even in very cheap restaurants and at family tables.

Fresh unripe Thai chillies

Since Indonesian cooking is very heterogeneous, in some regions chillies are used liberally: Western Sumatra (nasi padang, see also greater galangale), Bali (see Indonesian bay leaf and lesser galangale for an example of an Indonesian spice paste containing chillies) and North Sulawesi (cooking traditions of the minahasa people) are especially worth noting; see also lemon grass for a general discussion of Indonesian spice pastes. Anywhere in Indonesia, sambal, a red hot chillie sauce, is provided at the table to adjust hotness level to one's personal taste. Sambal may consist simply of mashed, salted chillies sambal ulek, but may also be fried or enhanced with trassi, the ubiquitous shrimp paste, or nuts or other spices; a popular recipe is sambal bajak. An everlasting impression from Indonesia is rujak, a fruit salad with sweet palm sugar and pungent chillies (see mango).

Most Chinese cooking styles, as a rule of thumb, avoid to much spicyness; especially Southern Chinese (Cantonese) recipes, which are most frequently found in Chinese restaurants outside China, seem to abhor chillies at all.

In Central China (Sichuan and the more Eastern Hu-nan province), however, chillies and garlic are very popular and used in astonishing amounts. Dried red chillies are often fried in hot oil until dark brown, the oil then being used to prepare stir-fries (see ginger for an example). The local tien tsin chillie is particularily suited for this high-temperature procedure. The best qualities of tien tsin have a pretty high staining capability and can be used to prepare a deep red chillie oil, either based on bland vegetable oil or on dark Chinese sesame oil. In either case, the crushed chillie is mixed with warm, not hot, oil and macerated for a few weeks. This chillie oil is a perfect last-minute condiment; it is applied dropwise before serving or individually at the table.

Chinese tien tsin chillie.

Another method of applying chillies is the usage of doubanjiang (hot bean paste), a fiery paste prepared from chillies, garlic and soy beans by fermentation; it is most typical for Sichuan cookery. Doubanjiang is meant to be eaten after boiling of frying only and must therfore not be confused with soy-free chillie pastes in the manner of Indonesian sambal, which may be enjoyed both raw and cooked.

A well-known example of Sichuan cookery is mapo tofu, spicy minced pork with bean cheese. For this dish, the pork is stir-fried together with doubanjiang and garlic and then combined with mild, soft bean cheese. Toasted sichuan pepper capsules and a hint of sesame oil provide additional flavour.

Although Vietnamese food is only moderately spiced, chillies are always available as optional additives at the table, either fresh or in fish sauce (nuoc mam), similar to Thai custom. This applies mostly to the South; in North Vietnam, garlic replaces chillies as condiment.

In Japan, chillie plays only a minor rôle; it is less used than in probably any other Asian country. It is almost never employed for cooking, but table condiments containing chillies are served to specific kinds of food. For example, dried chillies, either alone or in mixture with other spices (shichimi togarashi, see sichuan pepper), are popular for spicing up soups. Another table condiment is momiji-oroshi, a mixture of radish (daikon) and and small amounts of red chillies, which are grated together to a fine paste. This preparation is canonical for a few dishes, for example sashimi made from the infamous fugu fish, which contains the deadly poison tetrodotoxine (see wasabi for other, less exotic, types of sashimi). On the bottom of the line, it appears that chillie hotness is more or less incompatible with the subtle flavours on which Japanese cuisine in general depends (see also perilla).

In neighbouring Korea, though, chillies are much loved. They are either used fully ripe and dried (a red powder of bright colour and full heat), or in form of a chillie-flavoured hot bean paste (gochu jang). Containing glutinous rice besides chillies and beans, gochu jang has a smother texture and more subtle flavour than its Chinese counterpart, doubanjiang; but in the worst case, one may substitute the other. Besides chillies, sesame (both in form of sesame seeds and in form of dark sesame oil), garlic and ginger are the most prominent flavours. Korean cookery is, unfortunately, not much known in Europe.

The Korean term kim chi refers to pickled vegetables, which form an important part of Korean diet. Westeners most often think of kim chi as a cabbage pickle (which, indeed, is the national dish of Korea), but there are numerous other types. Recipes vary from household to household: Most popular is fermented kim chi (a spicy Eastern variation of German Sauerkraut, see juniper), but other varieties derive their acidity from vinegar or are not sour at all. Second to cabbage, radish (of the type called daikon in Japan) is a popular vegetable for kim chi. Most types of kim chi are fairly hot due to generous use of hot dried chillies, fresh garlic and fresh ginger; sugar, soy sauce and, optionally, herbs or dried fish products provide additional flavour. Kim chi is often served sprinkled with dark sesame oil.

South Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine uses fresh green chillies, which are taken in mind-boggling amounts for stir-fries and deep-fried lentil snacks. For curries, dried red chillies are usually preferred; three large tablespoons for one liter of curry is not unreasonable. Traveler, be forewarned (or attracted) by the colour! I have found no other place in Asia where tourists that constantly refused to eat local food than in Sri Lanka.

In Northern India, as well as in Central Asia, chillies are nearly always used dried. They are sold whole or ground at the market and are intensively fiery, intensively coloured and intensively aromatic; for most applications, they are fried in fat (see ajwain), whereby the pungency gets extracted and distributes uniformly in the food. In India, chillies from Kashmir (in the Northwest of India) have best reputation. I have not found a similar quality in Europe. The deep red colour (not orange as the stuff available here in the West) is comparable to the best quality of Hungarian sweet paprika, as is the fragrance; but the pungency is strong and pleasant. A mixture of high-quality sweet and very hot but less aromatic products will probably do best.

The dundicut chillie is the traditional
hot chillie of Northern Pakistan.

Not surprisingly, chillies appear in many spice mixtures: Indian garam masala and sambaar podi, curry powder, their Ethiopian pendent berebere and Arabic mixtures. Far Eastern examples include Japanese shichimi togarashi and the former mentioned Thai curry pastes.

Other spice preparations are made entirely or at least dominantly of chillies, like the hot pepper sauces of the Southern US and México (containing mostly vinegar or lemon juice, garlic, salt and chillies; see long coriander about salsa) or Tunisian harissa, a fiery paste of dried red chillies, garlic, cumin (or caraway), coriander, olive oil and sometimes a hint of peppermint.

There seems to be a positive correlation between environment temperature and chillie consumption - chillies are more popular in hot climates. There is, though, a remarkable exception to the "climate rule": Tibet (much of an exception in many respects, I guess). Tibetan food is mildly seasoned, but fiery chillie condiments are always found on the tables; a most typical recipe is churu sibeh, chillies mixed with pungent mold-ripened blue cheese. Since it is difficult to grow ripe chillies at altitudes above 3500m, Tibetans often use unripe green chillies, which lack aroma, but not fiery hotness. The same combination of cheese and chillies is found in neighbouring Bhutan: The national dish, ema datshe or hemadatsi, is a thick soup of fresh green chillies and aged yak cheese.

Most European countries do not use chillies for their traditional dishes; only the Mediterranean states and Hungary have much of a chillie tradition, though food is rarely really fiery even in these countries. Consequently, there are only few partcular chillie cultivars in Europe: A good example is the fiery piri-piri, a Portuguese variety sold almost exclusively in pickled form. Other hot chillies are mostly used dried, e.g., the piment d'espelette from Pays Basque in France, or the South Italian peperoncino. One should also mention the so-called Hungarian "cherry pepper", a remarkable compromise between nice pungency and very good flavour.

In Central and North Europe, chillies are generally regarded as food spoilers, and people do not spend their time by growing or using them.


Permission pending from Gernot Katzer for most of the content in "Chillie Science!"