Chiles and Chillies

Chile (Chili) Peppers

The chile is the fruit of a plant in the genus capsicum, cultivars of capsicum annuum, a South American plant that travelled to Mexico before the common era. The plant grew in Mexico, Central America, and northern South America and was introduced to Europe and Asia in the 16th century in the Columbian “exchange”. It is used in cuisine that is considered, in modern terms, to be traditional or indigenous to those areas.

Fresh and dried capsicum cultivars were used in the indigenous cooking of Mexico and Central America for centuries before the Spanish conquest. Mexican cooking uses chiles in moles and other sauces, chiles rellenos (chiles stuffed with a filling and cooked), and other dishes.

Most cultivars produce the alkaloid capsaicin. Most capsicums, including jalapenos, serranos, cayennes and Thai (Bird’s Eye) peppers are “hot”; new spicier cultivars have been developed. Capsaicin is an irritant which makes some peppers “red hot”. Capsaicin is not found in the seeds; little is found in the flesh of the capsicum fruit. It is in the white pith of the seed pod and the ribs of the fruit. The 1912 Scoville scale, based on detection of the diluted substance by tasters, is still used to assess the concentration of capsaicin although chemical analysis has superceded the 1912 method.

Many sources write chile for the capsicum fruit, and chili for stews made with chile. The English speaking inhabitants of South Asia (India) and Southeast Asia spelled the name as chillies. That spelling is still used.

Sweet or bell peppers are chiles. The bell pepper cultivar was developed in Europe early in 20th century and is widely grown and sold. The gene for production of capsaicin is recessive – bell peppers are not “hot” or spicy. Banana peppers and pimentos are mild too. Mild chiles add a sweet fruity flavour.

In pre-industrial practice, chiles could be used fresh, or dried. In the 18th and 19th centuries, processsors established methods of grinding dried chiles and storing and using chile powders and sauces made from dried chiles or chile powder. Ground spice powders made food safer and food preparation in kitchens more efficient. Powders of ground single cultivar chiles – e.g. ancho (dried ripe poblano) are available in some markets in the 21st century. In Mexican traditional cooking, a cook needed a supply of fresh or dried chiles, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and Mexican oregano (as opposed to the Mediterranean Origanum vulgare).

Black, green and white peppercorns are the fruit of the Asian piper negrum. The East Asian Sichuan pepper is neither capsicum or piper.

Allergies to bell peppers and other capsicum chiles are common, yet not well known or understood by the public. Many websites offer or share advice based on theories, some of which are or appear medical. The medical foundation of such theories is that allergies are immune responses to toxic glyco-alkaloids, or other alkaloids or proteins that may contact the skin or internal organs of humans. The theories blame substances in capsicum plants or in related plants in the nightshade family.

Con Carne

Chile con carne is a popular American stew:

Chili con carne (also spelled chilli con carne or chile con carne and shortened to chili or chilli; … meaning “chili with meat”, is a spicy stew containing chili peppers (sometimes in the form of chili powder), meat (usually beef), tomatoes and optionally kidney beans. Other seasonings may include garlic, onions, and cumin. The dish originated in northern Mexico or southern Texas.

Wikipedia (November 2021) Chili con carne

Amercan Chili is based on meat. Pork and beef are traditional choices. The meat can be ground or cut to bit sized stewing pieces. There are recipes with other meats. It is customary to brown the meat to flavour the dish. Some make chili without beans. Many use beans. The beans used in chili (pinto, black turtle, red kidney, cranberry) are the dry seeds of cultivars or varietals of the central American wild bean, phaseolus vulgaris. The beans dry naturally and are harvested as a dry grain. The dry beans are hard and have to be cooked until they are tender and “creamy”. Dry beans can vary by age and other factors, making cooking times a matter of judgment or luck. Beans can be booked in boiling water or simmered in water near the boiling point. The slow cooker was developed to simmer beans, but is losing popularity.

Meat cooked in a chile sauce – carne con chile – is/was a north Mexican dish. Rick Bayless has established restaurants offering Mexican cooking, as an advance on American regional cooking, including “Tex-Mex” Western and Southwestern cooking. Bayless provided a recipe for carne con chile colorado from the state of Chihuahua in his first book, Authentic Mexican (1987). He has chile con carne on the menu in Frontera, a restraurant chain, and has published a version of the Frontera Uptown Texas Chili. By mentioning the question about whether chili con carne was invented in Texas and ny publishing the following comment he suggested that chili con carne is not an authentic Mexican dish.

Chile con carne: detestable food that under the false Mexican title is sold in the United States from Texas to New York

Rick Bayless, in Authentic Mexican (1987), quoting and translating Diccionario de Mejicanismos

Carne con chile was adopted by non Hispanic/indigenous consumers in the southwest US as American settlers migrated into the land annexed by the US from Mexico in the wars of annexation in the 1840s. It can be prepared and presented in thousands of way. It is often served with cornbread, a baked “cake” associated with the Southern states of the US. A “Tamale pie” is chili with a cornbread topping, baked in an oven.

In the early 20th century, food scientists at the New Mexico State University recovered “heritage” peppers from indigenous peoples and started the lines of New Mexico cultivars of capsicum annuum for agricultural use.

Proprietary chili powder spice blends and sauces became popular in the late 19th century. A few brand names endured; the idea of a blended powder became dominant in the American market. The chile in chili con carne is usually a blend of powdered dried chile with other dried ground spices including cumin, oregano (often not Mexican oregano), garlic powder, onion powder and coriander In modern (late 20th and 21st century) chili competitions, cooks may use multiple branded chili powders and sauces to get a unique and pleasing effect.

The origins and authenticity of chile con carne are, on the internet, a vast cavern. There are many web pages and videos of methods, recipes, festivals and competitions. In modern times it is a stew of meat and other ingredients in a tomato sauce flavour by onion, aromatics and spices including chile.

For several years I made stews, including chili, in a slow cooker with a ceramic insert (a crockpot). I used the methods suggested by cookbooks including the America’s Test Kitchen book Slow Cooker Revolution (2011). The ATK approach was to use canned beans, drained of the can fluid, which is not appealing and assumed to be unpalatable, Considering the use of salt in canning, salty broth is normally a health concern. I have been using an Instant Pot to prepare or cook beans for the last few years, and have given up using a crockpot.


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