The Challenges of Chilli-Cuisine

“Chilli? Well, maybe, but not too hot, okay?”

Those who like it hot tend to smile down upon the concerns of those who don’t. Here, however, lies the challenge.

The Ruin of Hot Kitchens

Kitchens like those of Hunan and Sichuan, dominated as they seem to be by the chile pepper, make that particularly clear:

They are identified with chile pepper pungency to such an extent, it often ends up being overdone.

Mapo Doufu
Like in the Mapo Doufu at Zhang Mama in Beijing

For a while already, Sichuan cuisine is being ruined that way.

The combination of chile and Sichuan peppers is typical for its taste; that taste has become ever more popular – so, lazy cooks use more chile and Sichuan pepper. And if possible, hotter chilli.

That may be good for a few ecstatic comments from chileheads whose tongues burn and foreheads glow, but it is not the real taste. Too often, it is not even good anymore.

Add to that how often the chile pepper would even be a main ingredient, not just a spice, and it’s clear how important the qualities of the basic ingredient would be.

Finding the right balance between ingredient, preparation, and guest is difficult, then – and the challenge.

Ingredient: “The” Chilli

Chilli itself sometimes is used just as a spice to add some zing.

Or it may accompany the main ingredient.

In other dishes, again, the chile pepper may figure as the main ingredient itself.

Not surprising, then, why I talk of “Know Thy Chilli” here (and argue that “There is no chilli“).

And thus, different uses need different chile peppers with the right properties.

Otherwise, a nice and tasty dish can end up hazardous waste in a pan. Biting into that can be just about as appealing as the prospect of taking a bite out of a red-hot lava flow.

The opposite can also apply, and a nicely pungent dish ends up a boring pile of food. Nothing but a reminder why some people don’t want to eat vegetables or tofu because “they don’t taste like anything.”

Preparation: Now how?

So, if the right dish is to be prepared the right way, with the aroma and pungency it should have, it takes the right kind of chile pepper.

It is not only the variety that makes the pungency, though, there is also an influence of weather and season, for example.

For the cook, then, another challenge of cooking with chilli is the necessary final say, based on experience and their “nose” for pungency and aroma, on whether the available chile pepper is really going to work.

Of course, it would be much easier to just act the way too many people like doing it in everyday cooking:

You just cook in whatever way you want, using some spice mixture or even just salt; leave it up to the individual eater to spice up their food as they desire.

What sort of cooking and attitude towards cooking is that, though?

(And readymade meals sure haven’t done that attitude any favors.)

The Eating: Sweating is Par for the Course

On the part of the eaters, finally, chilli cuisine isn’t just to be consumed.

Yes, a good cook will have adjusted the food to the eaters.

Just as different chilli tastes differently and even the same chilli can be different when harvested at different times or stages, so different eaters – and the same eaters at different times – will feel pungency differently.

And so, in the end, a normal occurrence in the chilli kitchen is that, in spite of all the careful attention paid to the chilli and its preparation, the eaters will sit next to each other and end up looking at each other, sweating, and having to concede that “Yeah, this dish did turn out quite a bit hotter…!

This, too, is a typical challenge. Just not the only or even main one.

The Blessing and Curse of Habanero

Habanero.

Among chileheads, the name of His Hotness has an almost mythical ring to it. After all, it is among this type of chilli that the most intense of aromas and the most super of hots can be found.

It suits our times only too well. Simple and loud statements, so easy to hear it’s reason to cry: People who develop a liking for pungency will soon enough hear of the habanero and its association with superhots.

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve seen people prayer-like repeat “habanero” to themselves as they browse the spring plant sale, looking for “the hottest you’ve got.

Habanero have the great advantage of providing distinct and easily discernible aromas even underneath the obvious pungency, making it apparent what a misunderstanding it is to believe that chilli were about nothing but heat.

The problem, however, is that the logical shortcut still tends to go from “chilli = heat” to “habanero = yet more heat,” and it tempts all too many people into picking habanero when they want something hotter.

On the plant markets, when someone asks “What’s the hottest chilli you’ve got?,” it always makes be ask back, “What for?”

After all, chilli isn’t all the same.

Billa supermarket ad feat. Tabasco
Ad from Billa, one of Austria’s supermarket chains

Only because an habanero hot sauce tastes aromatic and intensely hot, it does not mean that an habanero sauce should be used to make food spicier.

Sure, if you just want to use it like ketchup, to splash something pungent onto your plate, nevermind what aromas come with it, go ahead.

But perhaps there’s a reason, not just related to the ease of cultivation, why something like 95% of chilli-kitchens around the world don’t use habanero, but other kinds of chilli.

Habanero, given its typical aromas, fits with mango or pineapple, can accompany a barbecue, but doesn’t work for many other things.

We are finally (just with a few years delay) getting Tabasco®-brand Habanero sauce into one of the common supermarket chains here in Austria.

For the proper uses, and to get to know an habanero sauce, it’s quite alright. What is really telling, however, is the advertising copy.

“Just a few drops give barbecue marinades and sauces a fruity-pungent pep.”

Oh yes, absolutely right there.

“No matter if Cajun cooking, Mexican, Caribbean, Asian or African – the TABASCO® Habanero Sauce will add real fire to the flavor.”

Say what?!?

Fire perhaps, but also flavor notes that are just plain wrong for most Mexican, African, let alone Asian recipes.

So, better to learn how and why to cook with the proper chilli for the proper recipe…

Pimientos de Padrón, Shishitou, and Chilli Lore

Tapas Pfefferoni

Ever since I got into chile peppers and their history, and thus started looking for the oldest varieties and the oldest festivals about the chilli, I have known about Pimientos de Padrón.

Pimientos de Padrón
Pimientos de Padrón

These little chile peppers had long ago become as intimately associated with the place they struck roots in as the New Mexican varieties had done in and around Hatch, New Mexico – and even more, given how they are named as nothing other than the chile peppers, pimientos, of that place, Padrón.

They are a very interesting variety, too.

Not only are they named after a distinct place, they also have a distinct use which suits their (newer) origin very well. Of course they also came from the Americas, and they have a certain likeness to Mexican types such as Poblano, but their particular shape and usage is Galician. And Galicia is not exactly the warmest and sunniest part of Spain, so it is very fitting that they would be used green.

Much more can be harvested using the green pods, and ripe ones would not just be fewer, they would also have a harder time ripening fully in a not-so-warm place as this. So, just as with the Serrano (also from, and here even named directly after, less easy mountainous climates), it fits perfectly.

Pimientos de Padrón also represent the fun of chilli consumption very nicely, as “uns pican, outros non” – some bite, others don’t. (Turned out, it’s mainly just a matter of ripening state: the closer to ripeness, the more pungent they get. But of course, in a harvest off a larger field, one may get the newer pods and some still-small but already older ones mixed together…)

What was particularly interesting, though, is that there has evidently been a marketing push for these peppers, so that they have been making their way into supermarkets in Central Europe. When that started, however, hardly anyone had an idea as to what they were and how they should be used.

"Tapas Peppers"
“Tapas Peppers” from the Discounter

Just now, I found one of the main discounters has started to also carry them, but without mentioning their name prominently, labeling them as “tapas peppers” instead – and selling them together with the olive oil they should be fried in and the sea salt they should be sprinkled with, in one set package. I’m torn between thinking that people really ought to simply learn that that is the way to prepare Pimientos de Padrón, and being happy that even cheap places are trying to get the how-to-use message across.

In plant sales, things went in a similar vein, too: When Pimiento de Padrón plants were first put up for sale two or three years ago, hardly anyone knew anything about them; last year they were rather highly sought after. This year, unfortunately, they weren’t on offer where I help sell plants and spread chilli knowledge…

Shishitou
Shishitou

One can also see the influence of marketing as the Pimientos de Padrón have become relatively well-known here, but the Japanese Shishitou peppers are still relatively unknown.

They were offered in the plant sale before (if probably in a wrongly spicy variety or described as such), but there hasn’t been any big growers and anything like the marketing push for the Pimientos de Padrón for the Shishitou.

Italian Frying Peppers
While I was writing, these “Italian Frying Peppers” appeared at the next cheaper supermarket…

In the USA, in contrast, the Shishitou peppers have (also) become a trend mentioned in many a place (even GearPatrol talked about them, just recently).

Funnily, both Pimientos de Padrón and Shishitou share – or are said to share, anyways – the (Russian? Spanish?) Roulette-like characteristic that some of them, sometimes, suddenly, give a kick while most don’t. (Or so it’s said. My Shishitou have always been mild, and from what I heard, so are the ones in Japan, usually.)

Now it just remains to be seen if the Shishitou trend will also make its way to Europe or if the ‘classical’ character of Spanish peppers wins out. Meanwhile, I’ll just be happy that there is one (double) example of chilli as main ingredient to cook.

Beautiful Bone Broth?

Schweinebrühe (mit Wachskürbis)

It’s always fascinating to me when traditions as different as what grandmother here in Europe would have told and what age-old Chinese cooking suggests suddenly come into total concurrence.

All the more interesting when it is with an issue that is one of those new trends…

Case in point: the hullabaloo about bone broth.

Beef broth on the menu of Zuppa take away in Vienna, Austria
Beef broth on the menu of Zuppa take away in Vienna, Austria

From the New York Times to the Guardian, a few quality newspapers have by now reported on this latest New York food fashion. Broths are being boiled out of bones and sold at roadside counters as if they were cappuccinos or energy drinks.

At a time when veganism seems on the rise and even paleo adherents who want their protein often seem not to want to know too well where the meat they eat came from, it seems a very strange trend. It is hard to imagine even the latter hacking away on bones and having them simmer for hours in their kitchen.

On the other hand, bone broth fits very nicely into the drive towards natural and traditional diets of real food with as much of the nutritional ‘good stuff’ as possible. And hey, talking of tradition, chances are there are enough people who have seen their grandmothers in the kitchen, making a stock from beef or chicken bones.

Further details reveal further fascinating connections.

Pork Broth (with Winter Melon / Wax Gourd)
Pork Broth (with Winter Melon / Wax Gourd)

For one, it is a lesson in the difference between flavors.

We are so used to it, we may consider the taste of ready-made soups from powdered ‘stock’ more normal. Even so, even if it takes some time to get used to the natural aroma of a bone broth again, the difference in taste is very noticeable – and after just a little time, the artificiality of the taste of other ‘stock’, no matter how much they claim to have been made without any “artificial flavor enhancers”, is easy to recognize.
Bone broth fits only too well with discussions about wasteful handling of food.

The same bones that can be used perfectly for soup stock are the ones most likely to be discarded by the butcher’s because no one wants them. They end up in bone meal or other “treatment” of cadavers that the butcher will, in fact, have to pay for… and similarly, a whole broiler chicken is a problem nowadays because it produces so much “waste”…

But then, thinking of bones may be thinking of danger.

BSE is not such an issue anymore, but fear of it had been going around just a few years ago. Still, animal bones may be considered potentially dangerous; they could contain prions or other disease-causing agents, and thus an industrially-made bone broth may not feel like the best of ideas.

At the very least, if hours-long cooking of bones for broth releases much of what accumulated in them, good and bad, it is essential that one looks for good quality. An animal that had been full of antibiotics to let it get marketably big in the least amount of time and not die from the conditions it’s being kept in probably doesn’t make for a good choice; organic and free-range, pastured, etc. does.

In light of intercultural/-national themes in cooking, pork, finally, makes for a particularly interesting example.

Beef or chicken stock feel familiar to a ‘Westerner’, but the very idea of “pork broth” somehow sounds strange. The only problem with this perception: Another already longer-running trend food has been ramen, and one of the most common and popular kinds of that is tonkotsu ramen. And what is tonkotsu? Nothing but a stock based (mainly) on pig bones, the making of which is considered quite an art in Japan and made into quite the science by some enthusiasts.