Interestingly, chilli peppers are not actually peppers. They belong to the capsicum branch of the plant family, which includes the potato, the aubergine and the tomato. Their cultivation stretches back as far as 9000 years to Mexico where the first wild varieties were used. The Spaniards and Portuguese introduced the chilli to the rest of the world in the mid-15th century.
Chillies proved easy to grow in most climates and were readily assimilated into the varied regional cooking styles. Since then chillies have become an essential part of the culinary landscape throughout Latin America, Indonesia, South East Asia, China, Japan, India, the Middle East and all parts of Africa.
Chillies are easy to grow. All they need is a sunny, sheltered spot, rich, well-drained soil and lots of water. Watering is critical because if chillies wilt they tend to drop their flowers and that means no fruit.
Feed monthly with any pot plant food or fertiliser, and harvest the chillies when they turn red or yellow. If planted in pots use the normal commercially available potting soil. Pots should not be smaller than 20cm in diameter and bigger is better. Water daily, especially those in pots, and when it is very hot this can be increased to twice a day.
Have you ever wondered why “heat” is such an important factor in chillies? The white fibrous membranes contain capsaicin, which gives the chilli its ‘bite’ and also helps to clear the lungs, improves circulation, acts as a painkiller for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, has anti-inflammatory properties, relieves constipation and acts as an antioxidant.
When the capsaicin is eaten it stimulates the brain to release endorphins into the bloodstream, creating a natural high similar to that which athletes experience. The hotter the chilli the “higher’ you feel.
That makes it both addictive and a powerful anti-depressant. Fresh chillies are also rich in vitamin C, vitamin A and calcium. The red chillies contain lycopene, an effective anti-oxidant while the yellow chillies are full of beta-carotene, also an anti-oxidant that neutralises harmful free radicals.
Not all chillies are suicidally hot and beginners should start with milder varieties, like Anaheim or Fresno, that produce a tangy, glowing sensation in the mouth. The general rule is that the smaller, narrower and darker the chilli, the greater its pungency. But that’s not always so because growing conditions can affect a chilli’s hotness. Even chillies from the same bush can vary in intensity. The tip of the chilli is its mildest point so if you want to test a chilli for hotness, cut the tip and taste it cautiously.
Reduce the burn by removing the seeds and membrane and just use the chopped flesh. Alternatively add a whole chilli during cooking and remove it when ready to serve.
Never touch your eyes or mouth if you have handled hot chillies. Wear gloves and if possible have a separate chopping board for chillies because the juices stay in the board and can affect other foods.
Here’s a rough heat guide (1 = very mild; 10 = atomic)
2 – 4: Anaheim and Fresno:
4 – 5: Hungarian Wax:
5 – 6: Jalapeno, Long Red Cayenne, Serenade,
7 – 8: Thai Chilli, Fiesta, Aquille, Rajah, Doomsday
9 – 10:Tabasco, Habanero
Although chillies are a summer crop there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy the firepower of chillies all year round.
Use longer, less fleshy varieties like cayenne, serenade, fiesta, etc. String the peppers by running a needle and thread through the thickest part of the stem. Hang them outdoors or in a sunny window to dry.
Drying takes about three weeks and the fruit should be brittle. Store the dried chillies whole in a container in a cool dark place. Crush them as you need them, using a rolling pin, or whiz them in a blender for a finer powder.
Red chilli relish
Take a handful of freshly harvested red chillies, cut each one lengthwise and remove the seeds (if you want a milder relish. Leave them in if you like it hot!). Mix the chillies with about 3-5 teaspoons of salt and lay them in a colander for about 1 hour. The salt will draw water out of the chillies and will also remove some of the spiciness. Meanwhile, take 2 tablespoons each of yellow mustard seeds and fennel seeds, and grind them together with a pestle and mortar. Warm 1 cup of vegetable oil to a moderate temperature, stir in the fennel and mustard seeds, and then add the drained chillies. Make sure the chillies are completely covered in oil, and then bottle them in sterilised preserving jars. The relish will keep for about 1 month if refrigerated.