The colourful world of chillies

22:17, Mar 31 2009
TASTE OF HOME: Brisa Garcia Pelayo makes salsa martajada. Chillies are finally becoming part of our culinary landscape, but remain an ingredient that is not widely understood.

Most of us know that chillies are hot, but not much more than that. Elizabeth Latham sheds some light on a widely misunderstood ingredient.

Chillies (or chiles in Spanish) are finally becoming part of our culinary landscape, but remain an ingredient that is not widely understood here - demonstrated by the fact that many supermarkets simply say "Chillies" on the package.

You may be told that they are hot or not so hot, but even that information is not consistent, and often not accurate.

Most Kiwis are probably familiar with the cayenne variety (usually ground up and sold in packages labelled cayenne pepper), but there are more than 200 varieties of chillies grown in Mexico, the home of the capsicum plant.

It is native to Central and South America as well.

A wild variety of capsicum has been found at archaeological sites in central Mexico dating back to 5000 to 7000 BC. This variety is called capsicum annuum, and is this species that is grown and cultivated today in myriad different forms.


Chillies have spread all over the world and have been renamed according to language and region (just to make it more confusing). They are equally central to the cuisines of Asia. India is the largest producer of exported chillies in the world.

Two important facts are that not all chillies are hot, and that they are very varied in flavour and texture, and can impart a fantastic array of nuances to many different types of dishes.

The heat in chillies comes from capsaicin, produced by glands in the seed-bearing part of the chilli. It is not just the seeds that should be removed from chillies to modify the heat, but also the seed sac that surrounds them.

Chillies are high in vitamin C, and capsaicin has been linked to providing benefits against certain cancers.

The important thing to remember when handling hot chillies is to either wear rubber gloves or ensure that you wash your hands thoroughly after handling the chilli sac and seeds, and keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and lips to avoid transferring any of the capsaicin.

A few useful guidelines to help you become familiar with chillies - usually, the smaller the chilli, the hotter it is; the wider the top of the chilli, the milder it is; and red chillies are sweeter than green ones.

Unfortunately, the limited Mexican menus of fast food outlets in this country provide an overly commercialised snapshot of what is actually a sophisticated and subtle cuisine.

Each region in Mexico grows its own chillies. Therefore, the tastes of regional cuisines are based in the different flavours imparted from their chillies.

For example, in the Sierra Mixe Mountains in Oaxaca, chillies are grown in the particular soils of that area within the microclimate of the mountains, then dried using artisan methods that include smoking over open wood fires, using firewood from the local forests. The Pasilla Oaxaquena chilli that results is totally unique in flavour.

Chillies can be used either fresh, preserved or dried. They are easy to grow and are now producing fruit in abundance.

A local producer of chillies, Vertu Specialty Foods, supplies them to local restaurants and particularly grows the chillies that Thai and Cambodian restaurants favour.

Another supplier in Marlborough, Heaven'scent, run by Sharon and Neville White, specialises in Hungarian yellow wax chillies and Thai hot chillies. These can be purchased at the Farmers Market in Blenheim.

Dried chillies can be found in many stores, but usually without a label identifying the type of chilli. Asian markets stock dried chillies in abundance but the genuine chillies of Mexico are not so easily available.

The Kaitaia Fire brand is available at Nelson City Fresh Choice in Collingwood St, and a significant number of types of dried chillies can be bought online through Mexifoods, such as guajilla, ancho, chipotle, pasilla and mulato. Go to

They also stock a range of different chilli seeds, which can be sent to you within a few days. The addition to your pantry will not disappoint you.

There is a process for using dried chillies, which normally starts with washing and drying them thoroughly, then dry roasting them in a hot, dry pan. They should be turned once and heated just to release their fragrance. If they are burned, they become bitter, so less is more.

The chillies are then opened and the seeds and seed sac discarded before the chillies are softened in hot water. (keep a few of the seeds if you want to heat up the recipe). Add enough water to cover the chillies, and bring to the boil. Take the pot off the heat and leave the chillies to soak for about 15 minutes. They will have softened and plumped up and are now ready to use.

As there are more than 200 varieties of Mexican chillies, there is a steep learning curve for the uninitiated. For easy identification of chillies, look at

The secret to the taste of Mexican food is the salsas, or sauces or side dishes, that accompany dishes, and the variety and combination of chillies used.

Salsa verde (green), salsa negra (black) and salsa roja (red) are examples of salsas that can accompany many different dishes, combining equally well with fish, chicken, pork, or (cannellini or pinto) beans if you prefer a vegetarian option.

Salsa martajada is a recipe shared by Brisa Garcia Pelayo, a young Mexican woman living in Nelson. She owns a restaurant-hotel in Chacala, Nayarit with her mother and sister, called Las Brisas. This salsa comes from the restaurant.



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