Chillies have been used as food for more than 7000 years. They are native to Mexico and were introduced to Europe after Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World in 1492. They were subsequently spread to Asia and Africa by the Spaniards and Portuguese.

Despite their name, chillies are not cool but hot in varying degrees – they vary in intensity from a barely discernible prickle to a mouth searing pain that can render the courageous diner speechless and virtually incapacitated. I’ve seen grown men who pride themselves in being macho, struggle to conceal their extreme discomfort with eyes bulging as they cough and splutter.

But don’t let this discourage you for experimenting, nothing adds zing to your food more than a scrap of jalapeno or a sprinkling of serrano chilli. At first even a little chilli seems very hot but quite quickly you’ll be craving more and your palate will begin to differentiate between the different varieties. An Anaheim chilli is quite different to a Hungarian wax or a Harbanero. The latter, one of the hottest of all chillies is sometimes called Scotch bonnet or Congo pepper. Shaped like little Chinese lanterns, they vary in colour, depending on ripeness from white, to yellow, orange, and finally a fiery red.

Use it sparingly, infusing it in a liquid until it is pleasantly spicy. Chillies possess magical properties for the cook. For novices, its good to be aware that as a general rule, the smaller the chilli, eg the tiny birdeye chilli, the hotter it is likely to be.

Chillies belong to the capsicum family and there are well over 200 varieties all of which vary in size, shape, colour and flavour.

The heat which can vary even between chillies on the same plant, comes from capsaicin, an irritant alkaloid which heightens our sense of taste and when eaten in moderation actually aids digestion. Scientists measure the heat in chilli in Scoville heat units – a sophisticated analytical system based on dilution levels. Bell pepper range from 0-600 while Harbaneros range from 80,000 to 150,000 Scoville heat units.      Back to Top

Red chilli are riper than green so tend to be hotter, though its impossible to generalise. Removing the seeds and white membrane can reduce the heat considerably.

If you are sensitive to capsaicin it would be prudent to wear rubber gloves when handling hot chillies. Even with mild chilli, be aware of washing your hands and beware of rubbing your eyes or any other sensitive part of your body, so easy to do unconsciously. Grilling or roasting intensifies sweetness.

Anaheim Chilli range from very mild to slightly hot so they are great for salads and stews, eg Chilli con carne. Green when under-ripe, red when ripe, widely used in the canning industry. We also use them in Piperonata or Tomato Fondue or raw on pizzas or in salsas.

Serrano and Jalapeno pack a fiery punch – great for roasting, salsas, stews and salads.

Thai Chillies vary in size from the tiny ‘mouse droppings’ to the long thin elongated chillies and can vary 30,000 to 100,000 on the ’Richter scale’ of chilli. Use for Thai and Vietnamese recipes, soups, noodle dishes, Thai beef salads and dipping sauces.

Cayenne Peppers – The several varieties are also fiery hot as the name implies and range from 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units. They are usually dried and sold as chilli flakes or chilli powder. Add a pinch to liven up all manner of foods from scrambled eggs to bean stews.

Harbanero, Scotch Bonnet, Congo Pepper – These pretty harmless looking chilli peppers are among the hottest chillies. Used cautiously they will reveal their wonderfully fruity aroma. Experiment carefully – use in tropical fruit salads, fish, salsa, bean stews and seviche.

Some chillies become identified with the cuisines of a particular country, the fiery jalapeno and serranos are widely used in Mexico and the US. Scotch bonnets are associated with Caribbean cookery, while Cayenne types are best loved in India and the Pacific Rim nations of Asia.

Chilli Con Carne

Serves 6
Buy stewing meat for this dish, beef, veal, mutton or pork, rather than the finest cuts. Underdone left-overs can be used as well. Avoid minced beef. You can use tinned red kidney beans but it is far cheaper to buy them loose and uncooked at a good grocery or delicatessen. Another alternative is to omit the kidney beans from the stew and serve them separately in a salad, or as part of three bean salad.
1-12 lbs (500-725g) meat, cut into 2-: inch (1-2cm) cubes
Olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small green pepper, seeded, sliced
Colorado sauce, see below
1 tablespoon tomato concentrate (optional)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
4-8 ozs (125-250g) red kidney beans, cooked
Salt and brown sugar
Sour cream
Cheddar cheese
Fresh coriander
Tacos (optional) 
Avocado sauce (optional) 
Tomato Salsa

Trim the meat where necessary and brown it in olive oil. Transfer to a casserole. Brown the onion and garlic lightly in the same oil, and scrape on to the meat. Add the pepper, sauce and just enough water to cover the ingredients. Cover tightly and leave to stew until cooked, keeping the heat low. Check the liquid occasionally. By the end of the cooking time it should have reduced to a brownish red thick sauce. If it reduces too soon 

because the lid of the pan is not a tight fit, or you had the heat too high, top it up with water.

Last of all add the tomato if used, the cumin, the kidney beans if you are not serving them separately as a salad, with salt and brown sugar to taste. Simmer for a further 15 minutes, put a blob of sour cream on top of the chilli con carne, sprinkle with grated cheese. Garnish with fresh coriander, and serve with Tacos and optional Avocado and Tomato Salsa.

Colorado Sauce

A delicious sauce to use when making chilli con carne, rather than the chilli powder sold in small bottles. It can also be used as a marinading mixture.
4-5 large fresh chillies (or 6-7 small dried chillies)
1 large red pepper
1 large onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic

If the chillies are dried, soak them in a little cold water for an hour, then slit them and wash out the seeds. Discard the stalks, do the same with the large pepper. Puree with the other ingredients, using the soaking water if necessary to moisten the vegetables. If you use fresh chillis, you might need a tablespoon or two of cold water. Season with salt. You can keep this sauce in a covered container in the fridge for two days, or you can freeze it.

Tomato and Avocado Salsa

Serves 4 approx.
Now that Tomato Salsa is becoming more familiar one can occasionally stray away from the Classic Mexican version.

1 avocado, peeled and chopped
2 ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 tablespoon spring onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1-2 chilli peppers, chopped
3-2 teaspoon lightly roasted cumin seeds, crushed
1-2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh coriander
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Freshly squeezed lime juice - about 2 lime
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl, taste and correct the seasoning.

Spiced Chilli Fruit Salad

Serves 8
The mixture of fruit can be varied, depending on season and availability
1-2 ripe mangoes
1 small pineapple
8 lychees
8 physalis, optional
2 bananas
2 passion fruit
1 pint sugar
1 pint (600ml) cold water
1 vanilla pod
1 harbanero chilli
3 star anise
zest and juice of 2 limes
Cold water

Put the sugar, cold water, vanilla pod, chilli and star anise in a stainless steel saucepan. Bring slowly to the boil.
Allow to cool and add the finely grated lime zest and freshly squeezed juice.
Meanwhile, peel and slice the mango into a bowl. 
Peel the pineapple, cut into ¼ inch (5mm) thick slices, remove the core and cut into chunks, add to the mango.
Peel and stone the lychees if available.
Peel and slice the bananas into the bowl also.
Cut the passion fruit in half, scoop out the seeds and add to the fruit.
Peel the papery husk from the physalis if available. 
Pour over the spicy syrup and allow to macerate. Remove the chilli if spicy enough.
Taste and add more lime juice if necessary.

Thai Beef Salad

Serves 6
400g (14oz) sirloin steak. Cut into 2 steaks if more convenient
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
assorted lettuce leaves and salad leaves
½ cup fresh mint leaves
½ cup fresh basil leaves
½ cup fresh coriander leaves
½-1 cucumber, sliced

2 red chillies, chopped
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice 
2 teaspoons palm sugar or soft brown sugar
2 kaffir lime leaves, finely shredded

Preheat a char grill. Cook the steak (or steaks) for 2-3 minutes on each side or until cooked to your liking. They shouldn’t be cooked more then medium rare. Cover the steak and leave to rest on a plate. 

Mix the soy sauce, crushed garlic and freshly squeezed lime juice in a bowl and add the steak, marinate for 10 minutes. Toss lettuce, mint, basil, coriander and cucumber slices in a bowl. Arrange on serving plates.

To making dressing 
Combine the chillies, soy sauce, lime juice, palm sugar and shredded lime leaves. Taste and balance if necessary. 
Just before serving sprinkle some dressing over the salad leaves and toss.
Slice the beef thinly and place on top of salad, serve at once.
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Chorizo, New Potato and Roasted Pepper Salad
This lovely lunch dish is from Sybil Kapoor’s new book ‘Taste- a new way to cook’ – a winner in this year’s Glenfiddich Awards (Published by Mitchell Beazley)
Serves 4

2 large Anaheim Chillies
2 red or yellow peppers, quartered and seeded
600g (1lb 5oz) new potatoes, scrubbed clean
6 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon smooth Dijon mustard
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
3 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh parsley
9 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper 
340g (12oz) raw picante chorizo sausage, sliced
4 generous handfuls of rocket

Preheat the grill to its highest setting.
Place the chillies and pepper quarters, skin-side-up, under the grill until they begin to blister and blacken. Turn the chillies regularly. Transfer to a covered bowl. Once cool, peel all the peppers and peel, de-stalk and deseed the chillies. Cut both into broad strips and place in a large bowl.

Drop the potatoes into a pan of boiling water. Cook for 15 minutes, or until tender, drain. Once cool, slice and mix with the onions. Whisk together the vinegar, mustard, garlic, parsley, 8 tablespoons of oil and seasoning. Divide between the peppers and potatoes.

Briskly fry the chorizo in the remaining tablespoon of oil until crisp and lightly coloured on both sides. Drain on kitchen paper and mix into the potato salad. Toss the rocket into the peppers, mix into the potatoes and serve warm or at room temperature.

Chilli Garlic Spaghetti

Also from Sybil Kapoor
Serves 2

170g (60z) spaghetti
6 tablesp. extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 teasp. chilli flakes
large handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
freshly grated Parmesan cheese and lemon wedges (optional)
Drop the spaghetti into a saucepan of boiling salted water. Cook the pasta until al dente, according to the packet instructions.

Shortly before the spaghetti is ready, measure the olive oil into a small frying pan. Add the garlic and place over a low heat so that the garlic infuses rather than cooks in the warm (not hot) oil. As soon as the spaghetti is al dente, briefly drain into a colander and return to its saucepan. Immediately increase the heat under the frying pan, add the chilli flakes and fry briskly for a couple of minutes. Take care not to burn the garlic or chilli, otherwise they will taste bitter. Add the parsley and mix into the spaghetti. Add more oil, if necessary.

Serve with freshly grated Parmesan and lemon wedges if wished.

Foolproof Food

Swede Turnips with Caramelised Onions

The humble swede is wonderfully perked up by being served with soft sweet onions.
Serves 6 approx.

900g (2lb) swede turnips
salt and lots of freshly ground pepper
50-110g (2-4 oz) butter

finely chopped parsley

Peel the turnip thickly in order to remove the thick outside skin. Cut into 2cm (:inch) cubes approx. Cover with water. Add a good pinch of salt, bring to the boil and cook until soft. Strain off the excess water, mash the turnips well and beat in the butter. Taste and season with lots of freshly ground pepper and more salt if necessary. Garnish with parsley and serve piping hot.

Caramelised Onions
450g (1lb) onions, thinly sliced
2-3 tablespoons olive oil

Heat the olive oil in a heavy saucepan. Toss in the onions and cook over a low heat for whatever length of time it takes for them to soften and caramelize to a golden brown, 30-45 minutes approx.

Top Tips:
It worth knowing that capsaicin is not water soluble, so gulping water, beer or wine won’t help if your food is too fiery. Milk or yoghurt have a soothing effect and eat lots of rice or bread.

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About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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