The New York Times recently wrote a piece on the decline of the chile in New Mexico. Not chili, the meaty, bean-filled soup you might find at a local diner—but chiles, the spicy hot peppers which are made into red-hot sauce and smothered on Tex-Mex and Mexican cuisine. In New Mexico, the chile industry is serious business. Locals argue over the hottest, most authentic recipes, signaling the centrality of the pepper both in the culture and local economy.
This article got me thinking about how I incorporate chiles in my own cooking. Chiles add dimension and flavor to many different types of cuisine, and not just because of their spicy kick. Different peppers offer different flavor profiles that can do wonders for a bland soup, stir fry, sauce—you name it. One of my favorite types of chile is the Thai pepper (prig kee nu) which is a small green or red pepper about an inch long. I like to mince it and saute it with ground pork, sliced bell peppers and garlic, and then serve that mixture over rice with Thai basil, a fried egg, and a squeeze of lime.
I think that many people shy away from hot peppers because they are intimidated. What if I choose the wrong pepper and it’s too spicy? What will the pepper do to the flavor of my dish? How do I cut it without burning my eyes out? All good questions. If mega-hot food is not your thing, it’s a good idea to get informed before diving into hot peppers at full-force. Below is a quick flavor and preparation guide to four peppers you may not have cooked with before, rated from least to most spicy.
NOTE: It’s good to remember that smaller peppers tend to be spicier. Therefore, the first pepper on my list is going be on the large side. Also, I’ve included both peppers and chiles (peppers are less spicy) in this list so that there is a range of spiciness for everyone.
1. The Poblano
The poblano (called ancho when dried) is a large (up to 25 inches) flat, green pepper that is most commonly used to make chile rellenos (stuffed peppers, usually with cheese). The pepper is originally from the Puebla region of Mexico and is great in salsas, roasted, or even served in place of bell peppers. To prep this chili, first cut off the top of the pepper, then the bottom, then slit open the sides and remove the seeds.
2. Hungarian Wax Pepper
Also known as hot yellow peppers, these have a bright yellow color and can be easily confused with banana peppers. They are on the milder side when it comes to chile spiciness, and are delicious served raw and sliced, added to stews or marinades, and are particularly popular in the pickled form. To prepare the peppers, cut off the tops, de-seed, and slice to your liking (if you want a spicier flavor, leave the seeds in).
3. Thai Chile
This little pepper, also known as birdseye, holds it’s own in the Asian chile category. Due to its size, it's definitely on the spicy side of the spectrum, but not so spicy that you need to be overly cautious using it. Both the green and red variety are the same chile, just at different levels of maturity. Usually if you cook the pepper, even just by lightly sautéing and removing the seeds and stem, the flavor will not overwhelm. Thai chiles are fantastic with seafood and meat recipes, and excellent in Thai-style marinades with lemongrass, lime, and fresh herbs.
4. Jamaican Hot (Chocolate)
This mega hot pepper is no laughing matter when it comes to heat. The glossy, habeñero-style peppers are deep chocolate-brown when ripe and about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long. They have an extremely hot Caribbean flavor that is strong and smoky. Jamaican Hot Chocolate peppers are perfect for making hot sauce and can be pickled to reduce the heat a bit, or ground very finely and added to sauces and marinades. Be sure to handle this pepper with caution, and as always, keep your hands away from your eyes.