Updated: Mar 23
First a brief history of Chilis.....
Chili peppers have a long history, over 6000 years, and it all started in Central/South America. Birds are generally given credit for seed dispersement of chilis because they lack the sensory ability to feel the heat generated by the capsaicin in the peppers. Additionally, Birds can’t digest the seeds and therefore are perfect for spreading the love, so to speak.
While avians may be responsible for a good bit of disbursement they can only fly so far. How did the fiery fruit, yes fruit, find s way all around the world?
There are a few different theories but there was at least a minor spread into North America via Mexico early on. Then, in 1492, when Colombus made his way to the western hemisphere, the cat was out of the bag. Columbus brought the chilis back to Spain and all of Europe but it was really the Portuguese who are credited with it’s spread to Africa and Asia. The circuitous route was completed when, despite use in smaller pockets prior, the chili took a firm root in the United States when slaves from both the West Indies and West Africa, who were already cooking with chilies brought over on prior trade routes, started growing them in the Southern United States.
One could certainly go into more depth about the history of the chili. I will reference some books at the end of this article should you wish to do so. For now, let’s talk about a few of the modern day countries that adopted chilis as part of their culture all those years ago and some ways in which they have helped define their cuisines.
There are dozens of varieties of chilis in Mexico. Whether they’re sweet, fruity, smoky or earthy, Mexican hot peppers form the base of every meal there, and have become part of the national identity.
Habaneros, not Habañeros
As with so many chilis there is sometimes debate about where Habaneros originated. It is believed that they came from Cuba and were named upon arrival in Mexico, habanero translates as “from Havana”. Habaneros are a favorite among pepper lovers world wide.
True chili heads often find them to be too mild, though at one time they were rated as the hottest in the world. Enterprising chili enthusiasts have developed ever hotter varieties and the pallets of the aforementioned lovers of the “super hots” have moved on to bigger and better things. Habaneros are still pretty high on the scoville scale for the average joe who likes a bit of spice or a splash of hot sauce on their pizza. Habaneros play heavily in The Pepper Endeavor’s line of sauces.
Scoville rating: 100,000 to 350,000
The Jalapeño is virtually synonymous with Mexico, accounting for around 30 percent of the countries chili production and is an undisputed favorite in the country and beyond. This is probably due to its low heat level as well as it’s versatility: Jalapeños can be pickled, stuffed, fried, smoked and even jellied. You’ll most commonly see them either pickled and diced over nachos, or served whole and lightly charred on the grill as a tasty street taco side.
The Chipotle, also an extremely popular chili is actually just a red, fully ripened and smoked Jalapeño.
Scoville rating: Jalapeño… 2,500-8,000 Chipotle… 5,000 to 10,000
Originating in the state of Puebla, the Poblano is a large green chili most commonly used for chile rellenos (peppers stuffed with meat and cheese) which is sometimes served with a spicy
tomato-based sauce. The fun (or deadly) thing about poblano chilies is that you never know what you’re going to get. Most tend to be pretty mild, but every now and again you can get some real eye-waterers, so approach with caution!
Scoville rating: 500-2,000
You wouldn’t think it, but the Ancho Chili is actually a dried Poblano Pepper. What was once a large, bright green chili, if left to ripen and then dried for several days, shrivels up and turns a dark red-brown (sometimes almost black). The late harvest and drying-out process allows this Mexican pepper to develop a deliciously sweet, fruity flavor. These are perfect for grinding and making into a delicious mole (a sweet-spicy sauce or marinade often made from fruit, chocolate, nuts and spices) or an enchilada salsa
Scoville rating: 1500-4000
Okay, I know that the Caribbean is not a country but I’m going to lump the region together. Used in Jerk dishes as well as stew meats, sauces and soups, chilis, like in Mexico, have become synonymous with the collective cuisines of the area. The Bird Pepper, which is becoming increasingly more rare, is even recognized in the French Caribbean islands as a symbol of mischief in Voodoo practices. Hot sauce is also a favorite way for the islanders to spread the spicy goodness of their favorite chilis.
What a pleasant sounding name, right? Don’t let that name fool you. This, by far the most used chili in the Caribbean, is no walk in the park. You can find this pepper relatively easily in the states in areas that have a large Caribbean population. As mentioned above, the Scotch Bonnet, named for it’s resemblance to a Scottish hat called a Tam O’ Shanter, is quite often used in hot sauce but also in whole form. The Habanero is a close cousin and as such, they share a similar Scoville heat range.
Scoville rating: 100,000 - 400,000
There are many varieties of 7 pots, so named because it is said that one pod will season 7 pots of stew… that’s some serious heat. Hailing originally from Trinidad, these chilis are so hot that they are not normally eaten straight up but rather used in sauces and stews or dried and added to various other recipes. In fact, 7 pots can be used to make strong capsaicin extracts that can be used in other ways. There is research ongoing that uses the extracts as an ingredient in anti fouling paints that can help reduce barnacles from the bottom of boats. How is that for an alternative use of chilis?
Scoville rating: 1,000,000 - 1.2,000,000
Trinidad Moruga Scorpions
If you thought the 7 pots sounded hot get this, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion comes in at number 2 on the scoville scale at 1.2 to 2 million! Columbus is thought to have first made landfall in Trinidad at Moruga, a small village located on the Southern coast of the Island. As with the 7 pots, these things are so hot that they are usually used to make hot sauce or powders that can then be used judiciously in various recipes. They look a lot like the 7 Pots but with an elongated "stinger". Just be sure not to confuse them, only the truly maniacal pepper heads will eat this thing whole to prove how tough they are but even that is difficult as their distribution outside of the islands is minimal.
Scoville Rating: 1,500,000 - 2,000,000
India, of course, is well known for it’s spicy food… one of my favorite movies is The 100 Foot Journey. Some of the essentials used are Kashmiris, Gunturs, Jwalas and more but the most famous is the…
Never heard of it? I bet you have by another name! If you were to ask passers by if they have ever heard of Carolina Reapers or Moruga Scorpions they would probably think you were talking about an 80's rock band but ask them if they’ve heard of Ghost Peppers and you will probably get a resounding YES! Ghost peppers held the world record for hottest chili for a
couple years in the late 2000’s. It has been toppled many times since by peppers that are twice as high on the Scoville Scale but somehow they hold a special place in people's hearts. Ghost Peppers originated in India but are grown the world over and remain a perennial favorite probably because they are pretty damn hot, at the threshold of acceptability for most people, but still well below the flame throwers mentioned above. Most Indian cuisines use a lot of flavorful spices that beg to be left on their own without the extra heat of Buht Jolokias but some dishes, like Phaal prefer the super hot pod.
Scoville Rating: 800,000 - 1,000,000
Thailand is often associated with hot, spicy foods and , indeed, they have a large variety of “Thai Peppers”. Most of these peppers are not commonly know to we westerners with names like Prik Yuak (milder, sweet), Prik Chee Fah (milder, green and red varieties), Prik Leuang (with milder heat, great for pickling), Prik Jinda (hot peppers), and Prik Kee Noo (very hot, similar to bird's eye chilies).
The Kashmir Pepper of India is also grown in Thailand and is known as the Sriracha, a name associated with the famous sauce originally made from these peppers in the Thai seaside town of the same name. Thai peppers are typically ground to add heat to curry pastes, and to add both spiciness and alluring color to Thai food. Discerning chefs and cooks love them for garnishing hot and spicy dishes, and cooking them into all manner of foods. Most thai chilis are in the 50,000 to 100,000 scoville unit range but not Sriracha.
Scoville rating 1000 - 2500
The United States
The U.S is not necessarily known for it’s hot and spicy food but as you surely know, the Sates are known for the wide variety of cuisines that are enjoyed here, not only by immigrants form around the world living in ethnic communities but throughout the entirety of the U.S. The most common varieties of chilis consumed in the states are the Mexican peppers discussed earlier but by no means are they the only ones. In fact, the U.S. is the third largest consumer of hot chilis in the world. I myself have grown everything from Ghosts to cayenne to Jalapeños and especially Habaneros, right here in GA. Those fiery fruits have gone into many an ethnic dish as well as turned into The Pepper Endeavor hot sauces.
The Carolina Reaper
The Carolina Reaper is the current world record holder for hottest chili pepper. Produced by Smokin Ed Curry, Purveyor at Puckerbutt Pepper Co. in South Carolina, The Reaper packs as much as 2 million Scovilles!!! That is just crazy high. In fact there is a new challenge to the reaper called Dragons Breath but it is considered by many to be too hot to consume as it is reaching military grade heat levels at 2.5 million scovilles and in fact was developed in part for use as a topical anesthetic.
Smokin Ed also has another pepper that is being tested by the folks at Guiness, Pepper X… 3.1 million scoville’s WHAAAT???, to see if he has broken his own record but so far they have not responded positively.
No matter what type of peppers you eat or from where they originated they can add a great kick to virtually any dish that is not only realized by the taste and smell but also by the boost you get physically and emotionally from the capsaicin. In fact, the capsaicin also has many purported health benefits in addition to an anesthetic as mentioned above.
Go get your self some mild peppers to start and try them out, you can graduate to hotter ones if you wish... or not. You can improve your health, diversify your pallet and gain an appreciation for more ethnic foods. Who knows? Maybe one day you will be eating raw reapers and have bragging rights around the water cooler.
Books to consider;
Chilis to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World
Chili Peppers: A Global History