As Latinos, we’re used to the world’s almost ridiculous perception of what we eat: no matter what our heritage or ethnicity, there are fiery hot chiles in everything we consume.
Whether you call it chile or ají, we all love our peppers. But the palate-scorching aspect? Not necessarily so.
Latino cuisine, like our heritage, varies from country to country. Yet, peppers are the one key food ingredient that easily crosses all borders. The Incas were the first to cultivate ají in what is now Peru and Bolivia. These mild, almost sweet, peppers were actually regarded as holy. Gradually, peppers migrated north to Central America and Mexico, where the climate and fertile soil produced an abundance of new varieties, many of them spicy and pungent. Ultimately, peppers were carried to Europe, Asia and Africa. There are now more than 150 types of peppers in an extraordinary number of shapes, sizes, colors and degrees of spiciness.
Every country in Latin America has its own unique way of preparing peppers, which are classified as a vegetable, but are technically a berry fruit. Latinos often use peppers to impart a subtle flavor to a dish, as in a mole. But if blistering heat is what you’re after, there are chiles that will deliver the pain – some for several days!
HOT, HOTTER, HOTTEST
The Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) scale is the accepted standard for measuring heat in a chile. The scale is actually a measure of a chile’s capsaicin, the chemical responsible for the heat. The spiciness of chiles can vary considerably depending on the climate, soil and seed lineage.
70,000-300,000: Extremely Hot
Pepper Type/Heat Rating (in Scoville Heat Units)
Pure Capsaicin: 16,000,000
Habanero, Scotch Bonnet, Rocoto: 80,000 – 300,000
Ají, Piquin, Tepin, Macho, Caribe: 50,000 – 100,000
Tabasco, Cayenne, Ají Amarillo: 30,000 – 50,000
Ají Mirasol: 20,000 – 30,000
Árbol: 15,000 – 30,000
Chipotle, Morita: 10,000 – 50,000
Pulla, Guajillo, Serrano: 5,000 – 15,000
Jalapeño, New Mexico Anaheim: 2,500 – 8,000
Poblano, Cascabel: 2,500 – 3,000
Anaheim, Pasilla: 1,000 – 2,500
Ancho, Mulato, Cubanelle: 500 – 2,500
Bell, Pimento, Sweet Banana: 0 – 500
Source: The Chemistry Encyclopedia and New Mexico State University
Below is a mini-primer on some of the peppers of Latin America and the Caribbean and where they rank on the SHU scale:
- Ají: Sometimes called Ají Amarillo, this fruity, searing hot yellow-orange Peruvian fresh or dried pepper is cooked into potato and chicken dishes, as well as raw in salads and salsas. SHU: 30,000 – 50,000.
- Ancho: Sweet and mild, this dried chile, along with the mulato and pasilla, form the “holy trinity” of chiles used to make traditional Mexican mole sauces. SHU: 500 – 2,500.
- Cubanelle: These sweet peppers come from the Dominican Republic and are a staple in Puerto Rican cuisine. When fully ripe, Cubanelles turn from yellowish green to bright red. SHU: 500 – 2,500.
- Guajillo: A deep russet red with a strong piney taste, this is the most common Mexican chile after the ancho. Used in barbecue sauce, marinades and stews. SHU: 5,000 – 8,000.
- Habanero: One of the world’s hottest chiles can be found in a variety of colors including orange, red, white, brown and pink in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. The name originated in Havana, Cuba, where it was heavily traded. SHU: 100,000 – 300,000.
- Poblano: This is Mexico’s most popular fresh chile because of its versatility. Its dark-green skin is usually roasted and peeled before stuffing or using in soups and sauces. SHU: 1,000 – 2,000.
- Tepin: This is the original wild chile from which all other chiles have evolved. The small round scarlet berry is extremely hot and is used in salsas and fresh marinades. SHU: 50,000 – 100,000.
FRESH vs. DRIED
When chiles are dried, they often change names. Here is a list of fresh chiles and their dried alter egos:
Red Jalapeños: Morita
Anaheim: Chile Colorado
This article first appeared in Cafe Magazine.