Friday, 22 March 2013

Amateur Chile-Growing (Day 14): chile knowledge

Since my last chile post, all my varieties have sprouted. So far, so good.

In fact, the chinenses are no longer in the lead. The Peruvian Purple has totally overtaken them.

Peruvian Purple in the back row, güeros up front. I'm totally risking cross-breeding.

The güeros aren't doing too badly either. And the jalapeños are bringing up the rear.

Well, one of them is doing all right.

I actually need to start thinking about "potting on" (transferring these little compost plugs to a larger pot) soon.

I never got that far last year, but these babies won't keep growing unless I give them more room.

I'll need good-sized pots and more compost by the time these sprouts get a couple sets of leaves each.

As predicted, my malaguetas have totally slowed down, though there are some fairly big green ones that will taste nice of I can get them to ripen.

So in the meantime I'm going to drop a little chile knowledge on you. I've written previous posts called "The Truth about Chiles", but they didn't have much specialist information about chiles.

Of course, I'm nowhere near a chile expert. But I work with them a lot, and I have a tendency to remember everything I read. So here are some things I know about chiles.

The first thing I want to mention is that the genus name for all true chiles is capsicum. "Capsicum" is also what Australians call bell peppers. Because bell peppers are a chile too.


But one of the weirdest things about chiles is that there are only a handful of distinct species. The exact number is up for debate, but it's probably around five:
  • C. baccatum (the ají pepper family)
  • C. pubescens (the rocoto pepper family)
  • C. frutescens (the tabasco family)
  • C. chinense (the habanero family)
  • C. annuum (the big family that includes jalapeños, poblanos, and most other chiles you'll have heard of. Also bell peppers.)
But how can this be? There are meant to be over 200 varieties of chile in Mexico alone.

The explanation is there are three ways of categorizing chiles: the botanical, the horticultural, and the culinary.

Botany is a hardcore science, and as such it uses the strict scientific definition of "species", which states that two organisms are members of the same species if they can produce healthy, fertile offspring.

Since chile plants are really good at interbreeding and crossbreeding, this approach greatly limits the number of actual chile species.

A horticulturalist, by contrast, will determine species by examining the physical characteristics of the plants. Unfortunately for chileheads, they are interested in the leaves and flowers, not the fruit (the chiles themselves).

Since a lot of chile plants have the same leaf and flower shape, this once again limits the number of species.

But in the kitchen none of that matters, just like it doesn't matter that tomatoes are technically fruit.

For example, the poblano plant yields three different chiles, from a culinary perspective.

Chiles poblanos are the large, fresh green chiles used for rajas and chiles rellenos among other things. As with pretty much all green chiles, they are the immature or underripe state of the fruit.

They usually ripen to red, at which point they are dried (in order to preserve them) and they become chiles anchos ("wide chiles"), used in more chile sauces, moles, and other dishes than I can name in one blog post.

But some poblanos ripen to brown instead of red. When these are picked and dried they are called chiles mulatos. And though they would have been interchangeable in their fresh green state, you cannot substitute mulatos for anchos. They just don't taste the same.

In fact, the famous mole poblano requires you two have both kinds; not one or the other: both. Or it ain't mole poblano.

And of course don't even think about substituting anchos or mulatos for fresh green poblanos.

But all three chiles come from the same plant (which just happens to be the same species as a jalapeño and a bell pepper).

Horticulture isn't blind to these variations. The many different chile-pod types of a given species are called "cultivars". (Of course, poblanos and anchos are the same cultivar.)

So when you read about the 200+ varieties of chile used in Mexico, it's because cooks and chefs are interested in how the chiles taste and how best to cook (with) them. If two cultivars of the same species have different uses in the kitchen, they are de facto different chiles to us.