The Hebrew month of Tammuz, which began a few days ago, is not known for its holidays (it has just one meager fast day), but rather mostly for coinciding with the searing heat of peak summer (at least in this hemisphere!). In the culinary realm, that heat manifests itself in the fascinating, diverse and nuanced world of chilies.
It is tempting to hypothesize that the hotter the climate, the more prevalent the use of hot peppers in the local cuisine. Consider the fiery curries of India, Thai noodle dishes that make you cry and the ubiquitous salsas of Central America, not to mention Israel’s beloved Yemenite s’hug. The cultural predilections really stand out when taken in juxtaposition with, say, a traditional British boiled stew, salted Scandinavian fish or even the fatty, cruciferous splendor of my own Ashkenazic culinary traditions.
Of course, it could always be the climate at play; chilies occur naturally in places with long, hot summers, and in general the members of the Solanaceae family don’t often survive a frost. So it would make sense for the majority of nuance and diversity in the chili world to occur mostly in the tropics.
But why this obsession with an ingredient that actually hurts your mouth? While I can’t answer for many of the world’s cultures, I do remember in my own childhood how my father, who enjoys spicy foods, was referred to as “metal mouth” around the dinner table and how I, as a five year old, would try to push my limits to measure up to his tolerance. As an adult, I can’t really get excited about a meal unless there is come component of spice to it, and my eyes light up at a new hot sauce.
A chili’s spiciness is measured using the Scoville test, developed by Ed Scoville in 1912. At the very bottom of the list, with a Scoville rating of zero, is the familiar red bell pepper. A few hundred iterations to the north of that bell, at the very top of the list, is the current hottest pepper in the world: the Carolina Reaper with a Scoville rating of up to 2.2 million.
In between, the peppers of the world array themselves along an incredibly diverse continuum—from the aji amarillo (30,000 to 50,000), which appeared in Incan cooking and still informs Peruvian cuisine today, to the notorious habanero (150,000 to 350,000), which originated in the Amazon.
Moving around the equator, the spectrum continues from the ubiquitous jalapeño of Mexico (2,500 to 10,000) through the bird’s eye (50,000 to 100,000) or Thai chili to bhut jolokia, or the ghost pepper of India (800,000 to 1 million).
While the Scoville test is a good estimate of how hot a pepper will be, spiciness is different on the tongue depending on if the pepper is fresh, dried and ground, cooked or pickled.
One of my favorites both to grow and eat is the fish pepper (12,000), a local Mid-Atlantic heirloom pepper. The fish is a variation of the cayenne and registers similarly on the Scoville test. The fish pepper has a distinctive look, starting out striped yellow and green and ripening to a beautiful streaked bright orange and red.
It was cultivated in Baltimore African-American culture for making a white cayenne powder used in seafood dishes. Fish peppers have seen a renaissance today culinarily because they have such a nice mellow heat, but also because they grow on a variegated plant with lovely yellow and green leaves that does well in containers. If you are looking for a chili that is easy to grow, accessible to cook with and comes with a great story, consider the fish pepper.
Top photo courtesy of flickr user mlevisay