Published: 03/12/2015 - Updated: 01/25/2017
The vegetable genus Capsicum has created some of the most interesting culinary experiences around the world throughout the history of gastronomy. It was a well-kept secret for several years on the American continent until the Europeans arrived. As soon as Columbus arrived at America he named them peppers, unable to compare them to any other species more similar to their peppers. Some natives in America called them chilies, and today in Mexico, they are known as chili peppers (known as cayenne, capsicum, etc. in other parts of the world). Chilies had barely crossed the ocean when they were adopted by Europe, Africa and Asia (the Portuguese were responsible for introducing them to Africa and Asia). These last continents searched for varieties that created a burning on the palate. In peppers this is caused by a unique substance in this vegetable genus, known as capsaicin. As soon as it comes into contact with the mucosas in the mouth, it releases very complex sensations, including pain, a sense of increased temperature, an increase in energy consumption within the body, it releases refreshing mechanisms, such as sweating, it satiates, and has a long list of etceteras. It is different from pepper to pepper, and from one dinner guest to another.
Ironically, capsaicin is a substance that repels mammals, which is why herbivores tend to avoid this type of vegetable. It’s actually quite surprising, and a bit masochist, that as a species we’ve become so stuck on this experience to the point of taking it from loving spicy things, to it becoming a world obsession. It’s not all for nothing, because the effects and flavors that chilies have are amazing and plentiful. And they are wonderful for all tastes. In America there is a wider variety of flavors (sweet and spicy peppers) and preparations (brined, smoked, dried, etc.) but the rest of the continents have chosen and modified these vegetables to get the famous paprika, the infernal piri piri in Africa, etc. Even though a lot of peppers comes from the same genus, or sometimes the same species, this wide diversity in chilies is due to the fact that the taste and spice that comes from the fruit of capsicum plants not only depends on genetics, but also on factors that affect its development, like altitude in which it was produced, moisture conditions, and minerals available in the ground. All of this contributes to the swooping belt of options that we have to choose from today.
But chilies are also good for several things. Studies show that chili peppers help lose weight because they accelerate the metabolism. However, this should also be accompanied with a balanced diet and exercise. You can then take advantage of this small push that the spice has to give. It is also an important vasodilator, which is why it is attributed calming properties for migraines or strong headaches.
So now, I’m going to briefly talk about a few of the most common ways that peppers are included in the Mexican diet, where this piece of produce is truly available in any meal, from breakfast to dinner. And even though they are consumed directly in Mexico, or filled with different things, there is nothing more popular than including them in a good salsa. Salsas are at the heart of Mexican food and chilies are nearly inseparable from the vast majority of them. Mexican salsas could be simple, like the “Botanera”. These aren’t very spicy, and a lot of times they consist of a mixture including vinegar, serrano peppers, salt, and some additional spices. These salsas can be added to diced fruit or some fried foods, fresh food, and they don’t require any other creations, like pico de gallo. Pico de gallo consists of different types of diced vegetables (onion, tomatoes, peppers, etc., all of which are diced) and some of which have fried pork added to them. Some salsas need to be cooked, generally those that are based in tomatoes and that have grilled, fresh or dried peppers. These are vital for adding to tacos or for accompanying meats, marinades and mole sauce which are prepared with lots of spices and are used as rubs for a wide variety of meats. (They can sometimes even include chocolate, peanuts, etc.) The spice in salsas depends on each dinner guest’s tastes, and you can always adjust the spice level anywhere from not very spicy at all to very spicy. Recipes are available to everyone.
When including fresh peppers, you could use them in a good dish of ceviche (generally serrano peppers) for a few small surprises from bite to bite. If you want to preserve them, you could use jalapeños, which are included in all sorts of sandwiches (they are also used in nachos, which are popular but they are not a Mexican dish, but rather from the United States). Some of my favorite dishes include chipotles (sun-dried jalapeños) because they can be used very subtlety to season a lot of recipes. Chipotles are ripe jalapenos (they turn red after some time), then they are dried, sometimes smoked, and bathed in a tomato paste. It’s quite popular to fill them, for which you would need pretty milk varieties. For this, try them in a nogada sauce (a sauce using walnuts and pomegranates) and which are truly insurmountable. If you like trying super spicy things, try habaneros, which contain a lot of vitamins and offer very interesting experiences. I hope you take an interest in them, and remember that there are varieties for every taste that could undoubtedly be adapted for your own culinary needs.