By Debra Knapke
Mouth-filling flavor, sizzle, pizzazz, sweat-inducing, eye-popping—if you are a chile fancier then all these sensations are familiar to you.
A New World native from Central and South America, chiles were unknown to the Old World until Columbus landed in the West Indies in 1492. His ships carried our spicy condiment back to the tables of Europe, Africa, India and East Asia. Chiles became such an integral part of these cuisines that many are amazed to learn that they are a relatively recent addition. It is difficult to imagine Indian curry or Thai Tom Yum without the addition of chiles.
We’re all familiar with the chile’s importance as a spice, but it also has a medicinal role. In past times it was used to treat a long list of ailments, and recent research has shown that capsicum is very effective in relieving pain. It has been prescribed to treat cluster headaches, shingles and arthritis.
Chiles are in the genus Capsicum, derived from the Latin word capsa, meaning “box” for the shape of the fruit. The common name chile comes from the Nahuatl language, which is still spoken in Central Mexico. “Pepper” and “chile pepper” are Old World names that connect the flavor and effect of chiles to pepper. However, they are not closely related: Chiles are in the Solanaceae, or tomato, family, while pepper is in the Piperaceae, or pepper, family.
As with so many plants, the botanical classification of chiles has changed greatly over the years. They were first organized into species by grouping similar fruit forms. Today we use molecular techniques such as chromosome counts to determine the relationships among the various types. The upshot: At last count in 2013, the genus Capsicum contained 40 species with four species contributing most of the chile varieties we eat today.
As ornamentals in the garden, chile plants look like Christmas trees in summer. The chiles themselves often run through a variety of colors as they mature from green to yellow to red to purple. Depending on the cultivar, you can have plants that range from diminutive 12–-by-12-inch mounds to 4-by-3-foot-wide shrubs, if our season is long enough. Some species can grow to 30-foot trees in their native range.
Chiles love the sun and some moisture in the soil, but once they are established in the garden they are quite drought-tolerant. If you grow different chiles together in a garden, be forewarned: Chile types readily interbreed. The bees do not care that you wish to have a no-heat bell pepper, a medium jalapeño and a hot habanero, and may cross-pollinate your chiles as they gather the nectar. One year our “mild” Wonder Bell peppers were quite spicy. We had planted them among the jalapeños, anchos and Serranos, and the result was a hybrid surprise.
One of the true culinary slow food wonders of chiles is mole; in Nahuatl, mole means “sauce.” Mole is not a single recipe, but a kaleidoscope of recipes that are influenced by regional identity and family tradition. My teacher was Wavi, who came to this country from Mexico more than 40 years ago. My Spanish is virtually non-existent and her English was minimal, so this was a watch-and-do lesson. We filled a pot with dried NuMex, Anaheim (or California) and pasilla chiles and covered them with water. This was brought to a boil and then simmered until the dried chiles became tender and started to fall apart. Next we hand-strained the mixture with a wooden spoon through a tight sieve, making sure to extract every last bit of chile flavor. We did not add any chocolate or other spices, yet the result was full of complex flavors: think essence of chile and sunshine with hints of tomato and toasted cocoa. I have made mole many times since, and while I try to stay true to the technique Wavi taught me, I must admit to trying new chile combinations.