Chilies!!! 🌶️🌶️🌶️ The word chili comes from the Aztec Nahuatl word chílli, meaning a “red pepper.” Chili peppers, or “chile” peppers in Mexico, are the fruit of various species of the genus Capsicum, a diverse and colorful genus pretty enough to inspire artists for millenia. The primary species are C. annuum, C. frutescens, C. chinense, C. pubescens, and C. baccatum. Sometimes the species C. frutescens is confused with C. annuum, so in some herbal compendiums a chili such a cayenne, technically from the species C. annuum, may be listed as one or as the other.
Chilies contain a chemical constituent called capsaicin which causes a sensation of heat on the tongue. The quantity of capsaicin in the particular variety is what determines the perceived heat, from mild to so hot it numbs the palate. The heat is most concentrated in the seeds. One of the hottest chilies is the Habanero (C. chinense), which has a lantern-shaped fruit in a variety of colors: green, yellow, orange, red, and maroon. I remember the first time I dug into a salsa of freshly chopped habanero peppers and it isn’t something I’ll ever forget! Because of the intense heat of some, when working with chilies it is very important to wash hands thoroughly afterwards to avoid burning eyes or face with the residue.
There is a wide range of chili varieties around the world with diverse flavors from fruity to smoky, from sweet to pungent. They may be used fresh or dried, and the same variety may have different names depending on whether they are fresh, dried, or smoked. Often, especially in Mexico, they are smoked and retain and carry the smoked flavor well into various dishes.
When you find dried chilies at your local market it is helpful to know what the terms mean. ‘Chile” usually refers to a full fresh fruit or dried pod, whereas “chili” or “chili powder”refers to a blended dried powder, and in the spice industry that may very likely be a blend that includes other ingredients such as salt, black pepper, and cumin (or even Mexican oregano, which you can read more about on my page). “Red pepper flakes” usually refers to a blend of chili pepper seeds and pieces from one or more varieties.