When it comes to adding character to our meals, chilies are a global favorite. Not only do they provide a tantalizing heat, but they also come with a variety of health benefits and can lend a unique depth of flavor to dishes. If you are a spice novice looking to venture into the world of chilies, this article aims to provide a guide to incorporating these fiery delights into your kitchen.
Benefits of Eating Chilies
Aside from being yummy, chilies come with several health advantages too. Capsaicin, the active compound in chilies, is known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It can also aid in digestion and potentially help in weight management by boosting metabolism. Moreover, the vitamin C content in chilies is significantly high, promoting a healthy immune system. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, chilies are considered a warming food that can rid your body of dampness and increase energy levels.
Five Popular Chilies
Carolina Reaper: Currently holding the title of the world’s hottest chili, the Carolina Reaper reaches an average of 1,500,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), with some peppers exceeding 2,200,000 SHU. Because of its intense heat, it is most used in hot sauces and spice rubs. For those brave enough to cook with it, it can be used sparingly in chili con carne or marinated into dried meats like Carolina Reaper beef jerky.
Jalapeño: A popular choice for those new to the chili world, the jalapeño hails from Mexico. It is famous for its mild to moderate heat, which ranges from 2,500 to 8,000 SHU. Jalapeños are often used in Mexican cuisine and can be found in dishes like chiles rellenos (stuffed peppers), jalapeño poppers (cheese-stuffed and breaded jalapeños), and pico de gallo (fresh salsa), as well as atop nachos, tacos, and pizza.
Habanero: With a Scoville rating between 100,000 and 350,000 SHU, the habanero is significantly hotter than the jalapeño. Native to the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, habaneros have a fruity, citrus-like flavor that makes them a great addition to salsas, hot sauces, and Caribbean dishes like jerk chicken. Habaneros are also used to add heat and flavor to chocolate desserts, as the combination is said to be irresistible.
Bird’s Eye Chili: Also known as Thai chili, the bird’s eye chili is a staple in Southeast Asian cooking. With a rating between 50,000 and 100,000 SHU, these small, thin chilies punch way above their weight. They are commonly used in Thai dishes such as pad krapow (basil chicken); Vietnamese dishes such as the condiment nuoc cham; Malaysian dishes such as ayam masak lemak cili padi (chicken curry in coconut and chili).
Bhut Jolokia: One of the hottest chilies in the world, the bhut jolokia hails from India and boasts a rating exceeding a million SHU. It is said that these peppers are smeared on fences to keep wild elephants at bay. Despite its intense heat, the bhut jolokia is celebrated for its fruity and smoky flavor. it is often used (sparingly!) in Indian curries and chutneys, as well as in the spicy pickled condiment bhut jolokia achar.
Starting Your Chili Journey
If you are new to the world of chilies, starting to cook with them may seem a bit intimidating. The key is to start slow and steady. Begin with milder varieties like jalapeños, which offer a subtle heat and are easy to incorporate into many dishes. From garnishing your morning scrambled eggs to adding a little kick to your guacamole, mild chilies will get you used to having more spice in your food so you can gradually turn up the heat. Remember to avoid touching your eyes or face while handling chilies, and always wash your hands thoroughly after working with them.
Try to Experiment
As you become comfortable with the milder varieties, it is time to experiment with hotter chilies and different cuisines. Try incorporating bird’s eye chili into a curry or using habanero peppers in a homemade barbecue marinade. One way to make a very spicy chili less spicy is to remove the seeds and ribs before use. Since the heat level of chilies can vary widely, add them sparingly at first and adjust to your taste. Alongside heat, each chili variety brings a unique flavor profile. Explore these flavors to see how they can transform your dishes and find out which chilies pair well with your favorite foods.
Mastering the Balance
Cooking with chilies is not just about enduring heat; it is also about balancing flavors. If a dish becomes too spicy, it is not beyond repair. Dairy products like milk, starches like bread, and sweet ingredients like sugar can all help add depth and temper the heat. Similarly, cooking methods like grilling or roasting can mellow the spiciness and bring out the sweeter notes of chilies. A great way to practice achieving the perfect balance is to make a chili paste or sauce from scratch. This allows you to adjust the level of spiciness and learn to blend flavors according to your preference.
Chilies add a depth of flavor and heat that can transform your dishes from ordinary to mind-blowing. With a sense of adventure and some experimentation, you can begin your chili journey and create dishes that will leave your taste buds wanting more. So, why not go in hot and try cooking with chilies today?
Jen Lin-Liu is the founder of Black Sesame Kitchen. A Chinese-American writer and a nationally certified Chinese chef in Beijing. Jen is the author of two memoirs, Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China and On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta.