Senin, 13 Oktober 2008

Chili papers are setting the culinary world on fire.

It was a brave man who ate the first chili paper, but it was an even braver one who ate the second. Yet this piquant pod, taken for granted in the American Southwest-where even wine is made with the fiery jalapeños-are causing a culinary conflagration from coast to coast. San Franciscans are discovering chili-based Thai cooking; New Yorkers are cowing down on red-hot Indian vindaloo, and Popeye’s, a New Orleans-based fried chicken chain (whose pungent birds taste as if they’ve been steeped in Louisiana hot-paper sauce), is giving the old Colonel, Church’s and smaller chains some finger-licking-good competition. But hasn’t the hot stuff always been around?

Well, yes and no. chilies, all 300 to 7000 varieties (depending on which regional expert you ask), originated in the Americas and were a staple of native diets in Central America, Mexico and our U.S. Southwest long before Columbus ever set foot in the New World.

Chilies first set foot, or pod, outside the New World thanks to Spanish explorers, whose spice merchants didn’t take long to snap to the idea that they had a hot (so to speak) trade item on their hands.

Dried chilies and seeds crossed in Pacific in the 15th century, and soon the hardy plants were thriving in Southeast Asia, China, India, and present-day Pakistan and Indonesia, where they quickly became integral to each area’s cooking. From Asia, chilies spread across Africa and into European kitchens, as paprika and pimento.

Chilies come in dozens of sizes, colors flavors and pungent variations, the fruit of bushy, woody stemmed plants. Most of the ones we eat are same genus and species, Capsicum annum (Chili papers should never be confused with piper nigrum, or black pepper, the seasoning you grind on salad and pound into steak aupoivre.) chilies can be as small as the pea-size chili piquing, which brave Mexicans eat like peanuts with beer, or as large as the foot-long Big Jim, a popular canning paper. They can be as insipidly mild as a bell pepper or as macho as a jalapeño. One rule of thumb: the smaller, the hotter.

What makes chilies hot? A devilish chemical known as capsaicin (cap –say-uh-sin), a crystalline substance that accumulates primarily in the fruit’s ribs and seeds. Many people maintain that a green pepper is hotter than a red one. The4 truth is that after a pepper reaches maturity, which it can do while still green, the capsaicin level does not change. A green pepper doesn’t contain as much fructose as a red one, so its heat is not masked by sugar, but the two are equally hot.

No matter what color the chili, it can make you very uncomfortable if drops of capsaicin squirt on your skin into your eyes. Always wash your hands with soap immediately after touching chilies.

Anything that reacts with your body as violently as capsaicin must be either very good or very bad for you, so it’s a relief to hear that the Capsicum genus is benevolent. Nevertheless, if you’re prone to stomach distress, serve a starchy food or dairy product during or immediately after the meal. Rich in vitamins A and C, a good hot chili will also, paradoxically, cool you down in hot weather by stimulating circulation and making perspire.

New Mexico, California and Texas are the leading chili-growing states. California’s San Joaquin Valley is ideal for mild peppers like the bell, while New Mexico and Texas easily out hot any other state with their thousands of acres of chili Serrano (the green devils that are smaller and hotter than jalapenos), red peppers (cayenne’s) and Anaheim (long greens). Basically, chilies require one kind of weather-tropical days with cool nights-which is why other major producing countries include Ethiopia, India, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and Tanzania.

When buying fresh peppers, check their maturity by looking for ends that have turned up slightly the ideal hot pepper is dark green with a pointed tip. Make sure that the stem isn’t turning black and that the chili hasn’t begun to decay or dry out. Although fresh peppers are seasonal, there are always dried, canned, and ground chilies. So, no matter the season, you can get them while they’re hot!

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