Grown worldwide, chillies are by general definition the more petite varieties of the genus Capsicum. Green chillies are the unripened, immature fruit; when left to ripen further they turn a vibrant red. Through natural selection the “heat” of a chilli has developed to defend its seed pods against invaders. Capsaicin is the alkaloid found in the soft tissue of a chilli. It contains the irritant that gives chilli its distinctive heat. This alkaloid is measured in different ways around the world, with the most common method the Scoville Heat Units system developed in the United States. This system measures how long it takes for the capsaicin to dissipate after ingestion.
In Asian countries where chillies are common in everyday cuisine, the Bird pepper or Bird’s eye is the hottest, while American variety the Carolina Reaper was measured at more than one million times hotter than a jalapeno chilli.A chilli will not lose heat once it is picked, so frozen or dried chillies are a valuable asset to any kitchen.
Chilli plants are annuals and easily grown in warm areas. A glasshouse is ideal to get the best out of the growing season. For gardeners, many different seeds are available including Anaheim or Ancho St Luis, milder Mexican varieties; Hungarian Yellow Wax or banana chillies, usually some of the mildest chillies and generally eaten raw; Asian fire crackers such as Bhut Jolokia, Bird’s Eye or Thai hot; through to the hotter Cayenne, Habanero, Padron and Serrano.
Alternatively, fresh chillies can be bought from a good grocer. Such varieties include Dutch red, or versions of the Jalapeno and the very mild Hungarian Wax are commonly found.
Dried Ancho chillies, Cascabel, Guajillo mulato, Pasilla (dark brown), Habaneros, and jalapeno pods are usually available through specialised Mexican or Asian food stores. For a subtle chilli flavour, smoked paprika powder, chipotle powder and even chilli pastes will give the base flavour and heat a dish may need.
Always handle chillies with respect. As capsaicin is not very soluble in water it won’t wash away easily, lingering on your skin to cause havoc. Some people may be more sensitive than others. Wearing gloves is the best defence against getting the alkaloid on fingers and self-inflicting pain elsewhere. The best tip for soothing the stinging heat in your mouth when eating a chilli is to balance it with sweet – caramel, fruit or even a sugar syrup are better than water, milk or lager.
If you have grown a large amount of chillies and wish to dry them out for later use, follow these simple steps: Sort through and discard the chillies that have mould or soft squishy bits. Wash and dry the remaining fruits with a clean towel. Place in a 50°C oven for 24 hours or a use dehydrator and follow the instructions.
Ample chillies can be threaded together using cotton and left hanging to dry, or leave them in the sun for a few days of constant sunshine. Air-drying will only work in climates that have dry air and no humidity. These chillies are just as gorgeous in a floral display as they are hanging in the kitchen.