Chile or chili or chilli comes from the Nahuatl language (and not from the country Chile, whose name is derived from the Quechua words for snow or cold). Chilis, a native American species, refers to the fruit of the plant genus Capsicum, a member of the nightshade family. Columbus tasted his first chilis in the Caribbean and called them peppers because their flavor was reminiscent of black pepper, native to south India and so highly valued in 15th Century Europe that it was used as legal currency in some countries.
Chilis were grown as botanical curiosities in monasteries throughout the Iberian peninsula. Soon after, monks included the fruit in their soups and sauces. The spread of chilis to Asia was most likely a consequence of Portuguese traders who saw their potential as trade. India is now the world´s largest producer, consumer, and exporter of chili peppers. It is indeed very hard to imagine the cuisines of Asia without chiles.
Chilis have been cultivated in the Americas for more than 6000 years. There are five domesticated species of the plant and many varieties of each species. The substances that give chilis their heat is capsaicinoid. When consumed, capsaicinoids bind with pain receptors in the mouth and throat that are responsible for sensing heat. These receptors send a message to the brain, and the brain responds to the burning sensation by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and releasing endorphins. Endorphins are endogenous opioid peptides that function as neurotransmitters. They are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus during exercise, excitement, pain, consumption of spicy food, love, and orgasm. Endorphins make you feel well, comfortable and relaxed.
So eating chilis make you feel good. They are also good for you. Raw chilis, including bell peppers and the hotter varieties, are very high in Vitamin C, three times higher than oranges or other citrus fruits. Their nutritional value is greatest when freshly cut and eaten raw.
The heat of chili has traditionally been measured in Scoville heat units (SHU) which is the measure of the how much sugar syrup is needed to completely dilute the heat of the capsaicinoids. The more it has to be diluted, the higher the Scoville rating. Bell peppers rate a 0 SHU, jalapeños are 2500 – 5000 SHU, and Habanero are 100,000 to 350,000 SHU. And there are much hotter peppers. The Ghost Pepper, also known as Bhut Jolokia or Red Naga chili is cultivated in India and measures 855,000 SHU. The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion from Trinidad and Tobago is considered the hottest pepper in the world – a laboratory tested one specimen at 1,463,700SHU
Costa Rica cuisine makes use of bell peppers (or chili dulce), but the spicier capsicum is not commonly cultivated here. Jalapeños are sold in supermarkets, and the hot habaneros are also available. But it is a rare treat to find Aji Amarillo in our local market. Aji Amarillo is a yellow pepper that turns orange when it is mature. It is used in many classical Peruvian dishes, including ceviches and potato dishes.
In the old days, before there were supermarkets in Tamarindo, we used to travel to San Jose to shop. No trip to the big city was complete without eating at Macchu Picchu at the entrance to downtown, just off the Paseo Colon. Although Peruvian restaurants flourish in San Jose, we don’t have any Peruvian restaurants in Tamarindo. Finding fresh aji in the local market meant that I could satisfy my craving for causa limeña and tiraditos de ceviche without leaving town.
Aji is a moderately hot pepper measuring 40,000 – 50,000 SHU. Most Peruvians knock down the heat by removing the seeds and ribs from the pepper, then boiling it in water for 10 minutes. The aji can then be briefly fried in hot oil to loosen the skin so the pepper is easy to peel. Put the peppers, garlic and lemon or lime in a blender to make a classic aji paste.
One of my favorite dishes at Macchu Picchu restaurant in San Jose is tiraditos de corvine, sea bass ceviche floating in aji paste. Take a fresh filet of sea bass, cut thin diagonal pieces, then use your knife to lightly flatten each piece. Bathe the chilled raw sea bass in aji paste, then garnish the dish with corn kernels. Yum.
Potatoes are native to Peru, and aji is used in some of my favorite Peruvian potato dishes. Causa limeña is a cold appetizer made from potatoes mashed with aji sauce, stuffed with avocado, and shrimp, and then topped with black olive, pickled onions, and aji mayonnaise, and served with slices of hard-boiled eggs and corn.
Mexican food is great, and I love jalapeños, but aji really gives me the endorphin rush I crave.
Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.