On Chiles

Chiles, whether fresh, frozen, roasted, dried, pickled, jellied, crushed, ground, or whole, are among my favorite flavorings in the kitchen.

I have no idea how many different chiles live in my kitchen at any given moment, nor do I know in how many different forms they are stoerd there, but I do know that I am so enamored of the flavor and flavor-enhancing qualities of the chile pepper, that I am apt to use them to flavor almost any dish, even ones that most people think should never have a spicy kick.

You know, things like brownies.

I am not sure when or why I started becoming enamored of chile heat. I do know that when I was eighteen and in college is when I first tasted real Sichuanese and Hunanese foods at the China Garden Restaurant in Huntington, West Virginia, and that is when I really started liking what the searing heat of chiles did for other foods. My passion grew from there, to the point where now, more often than not, if one eats at my house, they are going to be eating from a cuisine where chiles are used liberally and with abandon. From Thai to Indian to Chinese to Mexican to Southwestern US to Louisiania Bayou cooking–I love and crave the cookery that utilizes chiles to the fullest extent possible.

What I want to make clear is, it isn’t all just about the heat. I don’t like macho food that is just as searingly hot as possible without any sensible rhyme or reason. I don’t like spicy foods that are -just- spicy–that is boring. I love chiles that are used judiciously in combination with other strong flavors, all of the spices, herbs and seasonings working together to create a vibrant symphony on the tongue.

For example, I like the synergy that happens between chiles and garlic. The garlic enhances the natural sweetness of chiles, and the chiles catch and boost the sparkling heat of the garlic. Chiles and lime are another great pairing–the acid of the lime juice tames the heat and brings out the fruity quality of the chile, while the chile kisses the bitter edge that lime juice has and sweetens it just enough to make both flavors sing in harmony. Fish sauce and chile is a blessed union of two disparate ingredients that make the palate dance with glee–the salt and oceanic complexity of the fish sauce brings out the fruit flavors in the chile, while the chile seems to erase any lingering fishiness of the fish sauce and just makes the golden-amber fluid taste luxurious as mermaid’s treacherous kiss.

When the cook goes beyond pairings and begins to make a culinary menage a trois with chiles, the fun really begins. Add ginger to chiles and garlic and a holy trinity is born. The ginger’s floral scent and clean, brisk heat tempers the wild garlic passion and the chile’s incendiary nature. The three flavors, I am convinced, could bring the dead to life, not to mention kill the common cold. Chile, lime and Thai basil is another sacred marriage; the basil, filled with verdant sensuality, adds depth to the almost simplistic acidity of the lime juice and further enhances the fruity qualities of the chile. And when fish sauce, chile and sugar are wed, the sweetness offsets both the salt and the heat, and unifies the three flavors into an epic trilogy of mythic proportions.

So, when it comes time to present recipes for this month’s The Spice is Right event, I am hoping to see adventurous cooks mixing chiles with a variety of strong flavors, and in a myriad of culinary contexts. I hope to see appetizers, sauces, entrees, salads, drinks and desserts in this batch of entries, and if what I have seen of the entries so far is any indicator, I think that we will have a lot of fun creating new favorite flavor combinations to go with chiles.

So, remember, even though I named this month’s theme, “It’s Too Darned Hot!” it isn’t all about the heat.

It is all about the flavor.


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  1. Are you a food writer or something because I swear my brain is tasting chiles and basil and ginger and garlic and lemon and lime…
    You write it beautiful!!!

    Comment by tanna — July 10, 2006 #

  2. I am apt to use them to flavor almost any dish, even ones that most people think should never have a spicy kick.

    You know, things like brownies.

    I only discovered this combination a few years back, and feel immediately, passionately in love. Good Eats once did a recipe for hot chocolate mix, and suggested adding a punch of cayenne. After that, I started making my hot chocolate spicier and spicier, until my husband could/would no longer drink it. Wooo, it does warm the bones.

    Comment by bomboniera — July 10, 2006 #

  3. I love, love, love chilis. Although, like you I’m no macho jalapeno eater, eating to show how tough I am. I like what they do to the flavor of food – from the smokiness of chipotles to the fragrant herbal flavor of the little Thai chilis, to the sweetness of Fresnos – love them all. Serranos are the workhorse of my kitchen – I am never without them around. And since Thai and Indian is about 75% of what I cook, I use a lot of them. If I ever run out of serranos, ginger or garlic I start to panic.

    At the current count – including dried and fresh I have seven kinds lying around. Two fresh and five dried. And that isn’t even counting the paprika, red chili powder, etc…

    Comment by Diane — July 11, 2006 #

  4. The photo of the red, yellow and purple chiles is gorgeous! Is that from your garden? What varieties are they?

    Now I’m wishing I’d put in some chiles this year…

    Comment by Raedia — July 11, 2006 #

  5. I have never been a big fan of chillis, probably dating back to a giant childhood mouthful that left me with a psychological barrier! This post has almost made me reconsider my ban though…

    Comment by risingsunofnihon — July 11, 2006 #

  6. Although, like you Iā€™m no macho jalapeno eater, eating to show how tough I am.

    Agreed. And that kind of thing irritates me. I’ll rarely order the “hot” items on the menu at restaurants, but I’ll order hot sauce, chilis, or something on the side. Because you just never know what you’re going to get. As often as not, restaurants will make your food SO SPICY that you can’t even taste it! If I order, say, spicy shrimp, it’s because I want… shrimp that are spicy. Not just FIRE with shrimp thrown in for texture. (It especially bothers me in seafood dishes because their flavors can so easily be overwhelmed by too much heat.)

    Comment by Bomboniera — July 11, 2006 #

  7. You have paired chilies with a variety of flavors in the most wonderful way possible. This shows your genuine talent in marrying chilies for an incredible taste.

    {However, I would like to complete the wedding with one of the most important flavors in Inian cuisine.

    Indian low-cal cuisine enjoys everything from chicken to veggies with a marriage of chilies with yogurt and coconut.

    For a perfect chicken fry the combo goes for a paste of green chilies, yogurt, coriander leaves and whole cumin.

    For veggies the above paste is substituted with coconut.

    But what rocks in salads to mushrooms and barbecues to curries is the combo of Green Chilies and Yogurt.

    Comment by Esther — July 11, 2006 #

  8. Hi Barbara, Did you get my emailed entry?

    Comment by L.G — July 11, 2006 #

  9. Well, tanna, I don’t get paid for writing about food (well, not often, anyway), but I do write about food, so I guess I count as a food writer. šŸ˜‰ Glad that my words evoked a taste sensation for you!

    Bomboniera–I -love- chocolate and chile. Stay tuned for one of my most coveted, desired and infamous recipes to be unveiled this week that involves chocolate and chiles.

    Diane–serranos are a good all-purpose chile. The fresh chiles I am most likely to have around all the time, though are Thai bird chiles. Frozen, I know I have habeneros, jalapenos, I -did- have serranos, but ran out, green Indian mirchi, poblanos and roasted New Mexican green chiles. Dried, I have ancho, chile colorado, chipotle and tien tsen. Powdered, I have cayenne, and chipotle. Flaked or crushed and dried, I have jalapeno, Pakistani red chiles, Aleppo pepper and California red chiles. And canned, I have chipotle en adobo, and pickled, I have Thai bird chiles. I also have a bunch of salsas, sauces and jellies in the pantry somewhere. I should probably drag them all out and take a photograph, just so people can see how chile obsessed I am!

    Raedia–yes, they are in my herb box garden–I bought them last weekend as two plants from my CSA farmer at the farmer’s market. I had to replace some herb plants that drowned in the self-watering planters that got overly wet because of a lot of rain and their roots rotted. Very sad.

    I don’t know what variety they are, but I will ask Becky, who grew them in her greenhouse on Saturday at the market, and come back here to report back.

    Risingsun–there are gentle chiles to start out with, you know. Aleppo pepper is one to look for, as are poblanos or anchos.

    Esther–I adore green chiles and yogurt in Indian food. If I sat and named -every- delicious combination of chiles and other flavors–wow–I don’t know that I could name them all! But you picked up on a great one. I love green chiles, yogurt and cardamom a lot. With cilantro. Oooh, that foursome just makes me shiver!

    L.G.–I did not get the emailed entry. Try again at helgarde@gmail.com and see if it comes through this time!

    Comment by Barbara — July 11, 2006 #

  10. Hi, I have send it again. Let me know whether you rcvd it ,please.

    Comment by L.G — July 11, 2006 #

  11. I have it, LG, thanks!

    Comment by Barbara — July 12, 2006 #

  12. Thanks Barbara! I hadn’t thought of planting chiles when I did my garden this year (the first time I’ve lived in an apartment with any kind of space to plant), but I was lucky enough to get a free Thai Hot Pepper seedling at a community event this weekend, so we’ll see how that does.

    Next year: purple peppers for sure!

    Comment by Raedia — July 17, 2006 #

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