Chillies

Chillies

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
7 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

When it comes to eating, we humans exhibit a sense of adventure in our willingness to try new and different foods and in our persistence with foods that are initially unpalatable. Think of chillies, black pepper, coffee, even alcohol – some of the most widely consumed foods in the world. On a first encounter, however, they are all either horribly bitter, or cruelly pungent, and can irritate or even burn the mouth’s delicate lining.

We persist in consuming all these foodstuffs – in huge quantities too – because of their strange addictive power. With chillies, the thrill is all in the burn. They contain a chemical alkaloid known as ‘capsaicin’, which acts as both an irritant (the burn factor) and a stimulant. Capsaicin has no taste itself, but it does increase and intensify other flavours. This ability to enliven a limited range of bland ingredients is what makes chilli such an attractive food in impoverished countries around the world. More cunningly, capsaicin stimulates the brain to secrete endorphins, the body’s natural opiates, which lift and exhilarate us. Chilli is said to be eaten daily by at least a quarter of the world’s population.

This popularity has occurred only over the last 500 years, however. Chillies were unknown in Asia, Africa or indeed Europe until Christopher Columbus landed in the New World in 1492. Native to Central America, archaeological sites suggest that chillies were consumed in Mexico at least 9000 years ago and have long been cultivated there by native Incas, Mayans and Aztecs.

With the arrival of the spice-seeking Spanish and Portuguese, it was not long before chillies were being shipped back to Europe and thence to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Africa, India and South-East Asia. In Spain itself, chillies were eagerly received as a new kind of ‘pepper’. Over time, they have been gradually cultivated to be larger and sweeter, although spiciness still remains in products such as chorizo sausages.

From Spain, chillies spread over the sea to Morocco, and the other countries of the Maghreb. People in these hot, desert-hugging regions loved the fiery heat of chilli and swiftly incorporated it into local spice mixes, such as the Tunisian tabil, and used it as a condiment in the form of chilli pastes and sauces. The best known of these is harissa, which is served all across North Africa, but is particularly popular in Tunisia and Algeria, where it is always served as an accompaniment to couscous. Moroccans tend to enjoy a gentler bite, and usually favour the sweeter heat of paprika. However, they are particularly fond of chermoula, a spicy marinade used for fish and seafood. Inhabitants of the Arabic Gulf States also enjoy the boldness of really hot chillies. The Yemeni relish zhoug, for instance, is hot enough to bring tears to the eyes.

In an interesting reversal of previous trends, the Spanish introduced chillies to the Arabs, who carried them eastwards again along well-established trade routes. Chillies tend to be too brash for Persian and Middle Eastern palates. They prefer other more complex and delicate spices which seduce the palate softly. However the use of chilli is spreading not only throughout western countries, but also through Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon and Syria where it is being increasingly used, but often as a condiment. Dried chilli flakes, for example, are nearly always offered for sprinkling on minced lamb pizzas, or pickled chillies may be served as part of a mezze selection.

Selecting and storing chillies

All chillies and peppers (peppercorns apart) belong to the Capsicum family. There are many hundreds of varieties of chilli grown around the world, of all different shapes, sizes, colours and with varying degrees of heat. To the neophyte, chillies are merely hot, very hot or unbelievably hot, but to the true chilli aficionado each chilli has a particular aroma and flavour. Better known varieties include the jalapeño, commonly used in Mexican cooking; the Jamaican Scotch bonnet, which is popular all around the Caribbean; the habanero, widely used in South America; and the bird’s eye or bullet chilli, both red and green, which are common throughout South-East Asia.

Red chillies are merely riper than green chillies, and the colour is no real indication of heat. When buying chillies, select only those which are plump and firm, have no black spots on their skin and are not wrinkled or soft, especially close to the stem. Fresh chillies should be stored in the refrigerator, where they will last for several weeks. Remove any which seem to be getting soft, as they will quickly rot and spoil the rest.

Whole dried chillies have often been roasted to intensify their smoky, nutty quality. They tend to be very hot and are sometimes simply sizzled in hot oil to add chilli flavour without too much heat, and then removed before other ingredients are added.

Chilli powders also come in varying degrees of heat and intensity. The most commonly available are cayenne pepper (which is what most chilli powders are), and hot or sweet paprika. Cayenne is made from grinding several different types of chillies, and it is pretty hot. It should be added to dishes according to your personal taste. Paprikas will be labelled hot or sweet (mild). They vary in colour from bright orange to deep ox-blood red, and come from South America, Spain and Hungary. The Hungarian variety, widely used in Hungary as a mainstay ingredient, is generally considered to be the best.

As with other spices, dried chillies and chilli powders should be purchased in small quantities and stored in a cool, dark cupboard.

Using chillies

When preparing chillies, it is best to err on the side of caution. Some people suggest rubbing the cut surface of a chilli on the back of your hand to give you an idea of its ferocity. It may cause your skin merely to tingle, or it could actually raise a blister – of course this won’t tell you what it tastes like, but it will give you some idea of the likely effect on your mouth. You can also test the heat by cutting off a small piece from the centre of the chilli and cautiously licking it.

It is often recommended that you wear rubber gloves when preparing fresh chillies. At the very least, be careful not to touch the seeds or the whitish inner membranes. Wash your hands afterwards very thoroughly, and avoid touching your face, particularly your eyes.

Recipes often suggest removing the seeds and the inner white fibres, as these have the highest concentrations of capsaicin (this is rarely done in Asia or South America, of course, where they really believe in going for the burn). To do this, split the chilli lengthways and carefully scrape the seeds and fibres away with the point of a small kitchen knife. You should also use this method to remove the seeds from dried chillies.

Recipes in this Chapter

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