Chiles of the Americas
Chiles all belong to the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, the same one as tomatoes, eggplant and tobacco. While they are called chiles in Mexico, they are known as ajíes in Peru, Chile, Colombia and Venezuela; pimentas in Brazil; and peppers or chile peppers in the United States.
Today there are five species of the genus Capsicum—annum, baccatum, frutescens, pubescens and chinense, though this may change due to more genetic research.
In Mexico there are four varieties: annum is the most common (jalapeño, Serrano, and poblano chiles, to name a few), and the others are pubescens (manzano chile), chinense (habanero chile) and frutescens (Tabasco chile). In Peru, three varieties of chiles are grown: pubescens (rocoto), chinense (charapita, limo and panca) and baccatum (ají amarillo). And in Brazil, the most common ones are the frutescens (malagueta), but there are also chinense (pimenta de cheiro and pimenta de bode) and baccatum (dedo de moça).
Connecting the Dots Through Tastings
While in Brazil, I found that there was something common at every table. There were always pimentas in vinegar served in small cups so that they could be added to the food according to one’s taste. Most often these pimentas were malaguetas. To me, this was a surprise. I am not used to seeing chiles in just plain vinegar. I now had a question (or should I say chile seed?) in my mind.
I undertook an exercise with my students. It was simply a comparative tasting of Serrano vs. Tabasco chiles in different preparations: raw and plain, raw with lime juice, cooked in water, cooked in vinegar, and cooked with tomatoes. And all of the above with and without salt.
After coughing a lot and burning our mouths many times, we came to the following conclusions:
- The flavor of each chile is very different.
- Serrano chiles have a good taste when eaten raw or cooked. They are also good either plain or mixed with a mild acid such as the one found in tomatoes. Lime juice tends to overpower the chile taste. Vinegar does not improve on the taste, but rather flattens it.
- The Tabasco chiles were really spicy, regardless of the preparation in which we tasted them. The taste is flat when eaten raw, cooked and/or mixed with tomatoes. The flavor was good when tasted with lime juice, but the flavor was really good when mixed with vinegar.
- In every case, salt is mandatory when tasting chiles. It makes the flavor come out and shine and helps turn down the heat a bit.
Perhaps our most important discovery was that the differences in taste are not due to a cultural approach. It is more likely that it is the chile itself that determines the preparation and accompaniments. The annum chiles (including Serrano) taste better with a mild acid and a touch of salt. The frutescens chiles (including Tabasco) taste better with vinegar and a touch of salt, whether you are tasting them in Brazil or in the U.S.— though I find it enjoyable to taste chiles in as many different countries as possible!