The chilli plant is an erect, branched, shrub-like herb with fruits used as garnishing and flavouring. Chillies are a common ingredient in many cuisines – Indian, Thai and Mexican to name a few. There are many different species, about 200 have been identified, all containing capsaicin, a biologically active ingredient beneficial to the respiratory system, blood pressure and heart. Capsaicin is the cause of the heat and has the effect of stimulating the palate and increasing blood circulation. This makes the body sweat, which in turn has a cooling effect. That is why chillies are so dominant in tropical areas.
The flavour and heat of chillies is quite addictive as endorphins are released to deal with the heat – no wonder chilli lovers are always looking for that chilli punch in their food. Some chillies produce rapid, sharp sensations at the back of the throat while others ignite a lingering, low-intensity burning on the tongue and middle palate. Heat ratings (with 10 the hottest) indicate the concentration of capsaicins and are a useful guide to judging heat levels. But each chilli will have its own flavour profile in addition to its heat level, and specific chillies are used to provide not only heat but additional flavours. And thus, combining chillies in a dish can increase its flavour complexity.
Green chillies are the unripe chillies which darken to red. Chillies of some varieties can be different colours – purple, yellow and orange for example. Ripe chillies are the sweetest but unripe chillies have a lovely grassy note to them. Dried ripe chillies have concentrated sugars and thus less of the sharp vegetable flavours, but more depth and complexity.
Chillies really do have health giving properties. Other therapeutic uses include being a stomachic, carminative and anti-flatulence agent, and a digestant. Chillies are also a very rich source of iron and vitamins A and C.
Are you looking for more information?
- About Chillies and Chilli Types (this post)
- What is the difference between Cayenne Pepper, Chilli Powder and Papikra?
- Green and Red, Fresh and Dried – How to Use Chillies in Indian Food
- The Dried Curd Chillies of Kerala (India)
- The Stuffed Dried Chillies of India
- How to Make Chilli Paste
- How to Dry Chillies and How to Make Chilli Powder
- When and How to Use Chillies in Indian Cooking
Origin of Chillies
Chillies belong to the same family as tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. They came originally from the West Indies and quickly spread to India and Asia, then to North Africa and Spain.
The challenge with chillies is to balance the heat, fragrance and flavour. Often the last two are overlooked. Chillies stimulate the appetite by increasing the flow of saliva and gastric secretions, aiding digestion. The flavour they provide can be mild, smoky, bitter, nutty, intense with overtones of liquorice, citrus, tropical, toast, sweet fruit or berries.
Green chillies, or unripe ones of any colour, and are used for their texture, colour, acidity and grassy raw flavour. Green chillies are always fresh and not dried.
Ripe fruits can be red, orange, yellow or purple (such as the Purple Cayenne), but generally all will turn red when dried. Not all ripe/red chillies dry well – some produce tough skins as they dry. Red chillies can be used fresh or dried and are used for heat most of all and some flavour, rather than texture.
The seeds and the membranes contain the most heat and many prefer to remove these before using.
Capsaicins and Sensitive Skin
The capsaicins contained in Chillies are peppery compounds and they can damage your eyes. Capsaicins are produced by the ripening chillies to ward off insects that attack its fruit and bush. It is amazing how Capsaicins get around, so it is a good idea to prepare chillies wearing disposable gloves (to avoid skin irritation, take great care when seeding or chopping chillies) and thoroughly wash all knives, cutting boards and anything else that has come into contact with a cut chilli. Above all, make sure you never rub your eyes if you have been preparing any kind of chilli. Do not allow chilli to come in contact with a cut or graze, or those more “sensitive” parts of your body, as it can burn the skin – don’t touch your face, eyes or any tender part of the body and always wash your hands thoroughly. Note that the seeds are particularly damaging to the eyes, so discard them carefully if you are not eating them.
Having said that, I have been using large numbers of chillies for years without major incident.
Varieties are Numerous, Heat Levels Vary
There are some 300 varieties of chillies. Chillies come in a great variety of sizes, shapes and colours, and are available fresh and dried, as flakes and powder, on their own and mixed with other spices. They can be red, green, orange or almost the colour of chocolate. They can be pointy, round, small, club like, long, thin, globular, tapered, or bell shaped. Their skin may be shiny, smooth or wrinkled and their walls may be thick or thin.
Generally, but not always, the larger the chilli the milder the flavour, the very tiny red chillies can be very hot. Not all chillies are hot but do not be deceived – with only a few exceptions, most of the several hundred varieties of these little pods have some degree of pungency for the palate. Be assured that only a few of them are as mild as capsicums.
The colour of chillies is no guide to the intensity of their flavour. Nor is the size, really, although as a rule of thumb and as we mentioned before, the smaller the chilli or thinner the skin, the more memorable it will be. Yet these fiery little vegetables are utterly delicious and an essential part of the cuisine so many parts of the world. Some people even believe there are mildly addicted in a nice and harmless way.
Red Chillies are just ripe green chillies. However, their flavour is somewhat different, although their heat intensity can be exactly the same.
Ways to Temper or Reduce the Heat
If you like a hot curry, leave the seeds in, but if you prefer a milder flavour, the seeds can be removed to lessen the beat.
The hottest part of the chilli is the membrane and the seeds attached to it. You can also remove these to reduce the ‘heat’. If it’s too late for that and your mouth is burning, don’t be tempted to drink water as this can intensify the effect in the short term. Instead, breathe through your nose, not your mouth, as this tends to “irritate” the “hot spots” and have one of the following: Salt, common table salt, Milk, Yoghurt, Cucumber, A couple of mint leaves, or use Yoghurt with chopped mint.
Whole chillies freeze well in plastic bags and can be chopped frozen. Whole chillies freeze well in plastic bags and can be chopped frozen. They also dry very well. Making chilli pastes is a great way to prolong their usefulness, and they can also be stored in oil with spices or pickled.
Red chillies are available dried and can be soaked in water, to soften, before use. Indian recipes use dried red chillies and fresh green ones. Both, but particularly the dried red chillies, are often tempered in some oil before adding to the main dish.
Both fresh and dried chillies can be roasted to create a smoky, more complex flavour. Roasting fresh chillies allows the skin to be removed easily, seeded and sliced into fine strips which are useful in soups, sauces and salads. The roasted strips are called Rajas in Latin American/Mexican food, and the Anaheim chilli is particularly good for this treatment.
Roast the chillies in a dry skillet, on or under a grill, or over a gas flame. Think about the difference in flavour between fresh red peppers and roasted red peppers and you quickly appreciate the difference that roasting a chilli makes. The chilli becomes sweeter-tasting and the flesh becomes meatier, and cooking rounds out the heat, making it mellower and dispersing it more evenly.
Dried chillies are used extensively in Indian cooking, where they are fried whole in ghee or other oil (with other spices)before being added, whole, to a dish. The oil is saturated with the flavours of the chilli but the heat is moderated.
Dried chillies can be roasted in a pan or the ove. One of the best uses of these is to chop into chilli flakes for scattering over completed dishes. They can also be reconstituted with hot (not boiling) water, and then pureed for sauces or pounded for pastes. They can also be ground into a powder which can be used as-is for Indian recipes, or mixed with other spices for Mexican/US style chilli powder.
Stand back when you toast or grind chillies, and place the range hood fan on, as chillies release volatile oils that will make you cough ( a lot).
A Few Common Types of Chillies
Balinese Chillies (tabia lombok (long), tabia bali (short), tabia kerinyi (birdseye))
Three types of chillies are used in Bali, with the amount of heat increasing as the size decreases. Mildest is the Tabia Lombok, the finger length red chillies from the island of Lombok in Indonesia. The most commonly used are the short and fat Tabia Bali, about 2.5 cm long and ranging in colour from red to yellow. I have been told reliably by my Balinese driver that Balinese men are like the Tabia Bali – short, fat and VERY hot! Hahaha!
Hottest of all are the tiny fiery birdseye chilli, Tabia Kerinyi. The Balinese often mix green Tabia Kerinyi with red ones, as the flavour is less important than the intense heat they provide.
In Balinese cooking, use only fresh chillies.
The fresh green chilli used in Indian cooking is of the cayenne type, about 7.5 cm long and slender. Its heat can vary from mild to fiery. The only way to judge the heat is by tasting a tiny piece of skin from the middle section. The top part of the chilli with more seeds is always the hottest, the bottom tip, the mildest. The hot seeds of the chilli are never removed in India.
Whole dried red chillies are added to Indian food through quick contact with very hot oil which enhances and intensifies the flavour of their skins. Then often the chillies are included with the food being cooked. If you do want to remove the seeds from dried chillies, break off the stem end and shake the seeds out.
This is probably the most commonly used chilli in India, but there are a range of chillies both commonly available and regionally available throughout India. Tamil Nadu: Sambar (Mundu) Chilli. Marwar district of Rajasthan: Mathaniya Chilli.
Banana chillies are larger than a green chilli but smaller than a capsicum. They are milder and sweeter than the green chilli. In India and Sri Lanka they are used in curries or stuffed and fried as a savoury snack.
Also, see this list of 8 Indian Chillies.
Grown in Tamil Nadu and Andhra, they are small & round with a thin skin. It has a very unique flavour. They are reasonably hot and have a unique flavour which enhances the taste of many dishes such as Sambar and Dal. Fat and roundish in shape, the physical appearance of the Mundi Chilli differs quite significantly from other Indian chillies earning it its nickname, Gundu Molzuka, which means fat chilli in Tamil.
Bhut Jolokia, North East India
Also known as ‘ghost pepper’, Bhut Jolokia is certified as the hottest chilly in the world in the Guinness Book in 2007. It is an interspecific hybrid (of Capsicum Chinese and Capsicum frutescens) chilli pepper cultivated in North Eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. Bhut jolokia is used as a food and a spice, popularly in combination with pork or dried or fermented fish.
Kashmiri Chillies, Kashmir
As the name suggests, this chilli is found in Kashmir and is the most sought after red chilli in India for its colour. An Indian kitchen is incomplete without Kashmiri mirch powder as this adds the colour to the mouth-watering dishes every household cooks. This chilly is less hotter or pungent, as compared to the other variants found in India.
Guntur Chilli, Andhra Pradesh
Andhra Pradesh is known for its spicy dishes and the credit goes to Guntur chillies, from Guntur district of the state. Guntur is the main producer and exporter of most varieties of chillies and chilli powder from India to countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Middle East, South Korea, UK, USA and Latin America. Guntur Sannam, one of the types of Guntur chilly, is also cultivated in Madhya Pradesh.
Jwala Chilli, Gujarat
This chilli, also known as finger hot pepper, is primarily grown in Kheda, Mehsana and southern parts of Gujarat. Although its green initially, once it matures it turns red in colour. They can even be grown at home. This chilli is easily available in market throughout the year and very pungent in flavour.
Kanthari Chilli, Kerala
This chilli is grown in Kerala and some parts of Tamil Nadu. It is also known as bird eye chilli of Kerala and becomes white when matures. It adds heat and lends good flavour to dishes.
Byadagi Chilli, Karnataka
It is a famous variety of chilli, mainly grown in Karnataka. It is named after the town of Bydagi, which is located in the Haveri district of Karnataka. Known for its colour and pungency, byadagi chilli is similar to paprika.
Ramnad Mundu/Gundu, Tamil Nadu
Almost spherical in shape, this chilli has a very shiny skin and is orange red in colour, grown in the Ramnad district of Tamil Nadu. This chilly is particularly used to add flavour to the Chettinad cuisine.
This chilli is grown in Manipur and is easily available in Kolkata. Known for its strong pungent smell and heat, it is blood red in colour.
(information on Indian chillies from NDTV.com)
Mexican Chillies (Jalapeno, Mexican Hot Chilli, Habanerno)
The Jalapeno is one of the popular chillies in Mexican Cuisine. It is thicker skinned and hotter than the Indian chilli. Mexicans roast their chillies to intensify the flavour.
The fiery hot Jalapeno chilli is the one by which all other chillies are judged. Ripened, they can be dark green or red. They have a very thick fleshy skin and are sausage shaped with a blunt end.
Chipotle pepper is a dried smoked version of red jalapenos. They look like a shrivelled brazil nut.
Mexican Hot Chilli One of the hottest chillies. It has a bright green skin, is 6 – 8 cm long and is pointed at one end.
The Habanerno Chilli, also called Scotch Bonnet. The hottest of chillies, with a fiery and acidic, tropical fruit flavour.
Mexican cuisine uses a large variety of chillies, and some of the most common include Anaheim, Amatista, Ancho, Cascabel, Chilaca, de Agila, Dutch Red, Guajillo, Inferno, Jamaican Hot Chilli, Morita, New Mexico Read, Pasilla, Poblano, Puya, Serrano, and Tabasco.
Thai Chillies (prik chii faa (long), prik kii nuu suan (birdseye), prik kii nuu sun yaew (dragon’s eye), prik yuak (banana), prik leuang (orange), prik haeng (dried))
The most commonly used fresh chillies in Thai cuisine are birdseye chillies; small, thin, green, or sometimes red, chillies with clean flavour and intense heat.
Thai birdseye chillies, or bird peppers (prik khee noo suan), are especially fiery tiny Thai chillies, quite memorable, used both fresh and dried. They are about 1 cm long, red or green (even lime yellow or orange), form the basis of green curries, but do not keep well. The green chillies are unripe and have a sharper flavour. Deliciously addictive, they are viciously hot, yet have a wonderful floral aftertaste. Some cooks prefer to nip off their stalks but leave the buds believing that this increases their fragrance.
Their name derives from the belief that they were harvested originally by birds who were said to enjoy them. They are used cooked and raw in sauces, and as they are hot, they should be used with care. Most people will find these very hot even without the seeds. Dried birdseyes should not be used in place of the fresh ones – substitute some other fresh chilli (although it wont be as hot).
Small red or green chillies (prik khee noo) are about 2.5 cm long and are not quite as hot as birdseye chillies.
Larger Red and Green Chillies, Long Chillies, Cayenne peppers (prik chii faa): The Green Chilli is a long slender green chilli, 5-10 cm long, pointed at one end. It has a medium herbaceous flavour – some say that it is easily eaten by most people who are not use to chilli, others that they are hotter than the red. Red Chilli is similar in size and shape to the green chilli, but with a richer, fuller flavour and more sting. Good idea to mix the red and green chillies together in any Thai dish. The Red chillies can be grilled to give a smoky hot yet suggestively sweet flavour and a slightly reduced fieriness.
Large chillies, Bababa Chillies, Corn Peppers (prik yuak) are light yellow-green to red pointed at one end, and are similar to the sweet pepper, although thinner. They are used as a stuffed or fried vegetable, in salads and stir fries. A chilli that is so mild you can even give it to children.
Orange Chillies (prik leuang) are orange and slightly sour tasting, 3cm, 1.25″ in length, thin fleshed and of extraordinary heat.
Dragon’s Eye Chillies (prik kii nuu sun yaew) are larger than birdseye and not as hot. They are thing and crooked about 4 cms, 1.5″ long and have the most wonderful slightly sour flavour.
Dried red chillies (prik haeng), There are two types of dried chillies – long and birdseye. Dried long red chillies are sundried, deep maroon and about 10 cm in length, forming the basis of red curries. Dried birdseye chillies are used in Southern Thai dishes and for roasted chilli powder. If a recipe calls for soaked dried chillies, soak them in cold salted water for 10 – 15 minutes (or, in a rush, in warm water for 3 – 4 minutes). Dried long red chillies are often deseeded before soaking; dried birdseye chillies are rarely seeded before soaking, ensuring they are unforgettable. Then rinse the chillies under running water.
Bell Chilli Red/Green This chilli is shaped like a bell. The red ones are hot the green variety can be medium to hot and are excellent for pickling.
The wonderful climate of the Mediterranean produces very flavoursome chillies although it is a boutique industry at the moment. Look for Maras Pepper, Pul Biber (Turkish pepper flakes), Calabria peperoncini, and Piment d’Espellette from France.