For thousands of years, Native Americans cultivated capsicum, a member of the nightshade family best known for its spiciness. The Aztecs called it xilli; today, it’s chili. They’re used in everything from medicine to food to candy to riot control (hence “pepper spray”). Biologically, we’re not supposed to like them — scientists estimate that chilis evolved to produce capsaicin, their active ingredient, in order to repel mammals — but we tend to enjoy the punishment. The most masochistic of us revel in pressing the boundaries of capsaicin concentration, going out of their way to produce the world’s hottest pepper. The current record, measured in Scoville heat units (SHU), goes to the aptly named Ed Currie of the PuckerButt Pepper Company in Fort Mill, South Carolina: his Carolina Reaper, which clocks in at over 2,200,000 SHU, officially dethroned the previous world’s hottest pepper, the 2,000,000-SHU Trinidad moruga scorpion, in 2013.
Of course, some peppers are more sweet than spicy, better suited to date night than a chest-beating contest with the boys. To learn more about the tamer varieties, we took a walk to the Chelsea Fruit Market. These are ones that interest us and our admittedly fragile tastebuds.
Poblanos, a mild green pepper grown in the southwestern United States and Mexico, are often used in a variety of popular Mexican dishes and sauces, including chile relleno and mole. When dried, poblanos flatten and become anchos (Spanish for “wide”). A word to the wise: biting into a poblano can be like spinning a roulette wheel, as some contain an unexpected explosion of spice.
●○○○○ Cubanelle (0-1,000 SHU)
Like snowflakes, no two cubanelles are alike: they start out light yellow or green and turn red as they ripen, often twisting into odd shapes. Although they taste mild and sweet like bell peppers, their lower water content and thinner walls make them ideal for frying, whereas bell peppers yield themselves much better to roasting.
●○○○○ Jalapeño (2,500-8,000 SHU)
Named after the Xalapa region of Mexico, where the pepper was originally cultivated, the jalapeño is perhaps best known in the United States as the vegetal star of T.G.I. Friday’s award-winning appetizer, the jalapeño popper. Containing up to 8,000 SHUs, the jalapeño provides a medium kick that many use to help clear their sinuses.
●●○○○ Anaheim (500-1,000 SHU)
In the early 1900s, a farmer named Emilio Ortega started growing a little-known pepper in Anaheim, California, and so the Anaheim pepper was born. Like poblanos, they can be used to make chile relleno, although they have slightly fruitier flavor and tend to be a bit hotter. The variety grown in New Mexico is typically hotter than the Californian, often reaching up to 10,000 SHUs.
●○○○○ Serrano (5,000-25,000 SHU)
Although the Serrano looks like the jalapeño, it’s much hotter, often reaching 25,000 SHUs. Still, it’s mild compared to the habanero (see below), and many enjoy the kick it adds to pico de gallo and salsa. For those worried about too much spice, buy the larger ones: the smaller the serrano, the spicier.
●●●○○ Habanero (100,000-350,000 SHU)
At 350,000 SHUs, the habanero is one of the hottest commercially ubiquitous peppers in the United States; it has a citrus flavor, if you can get past the heat. According to archaeologists, who once found a pepper inside a cave in the Andes that dated back to 6500 BCE, the pepper comes from the Amazonas region of Northern Peru. Eventually, it made its way up to Colombia, and then to the Caribbean, where the Spaniards found it and disseminated it around the world.
●●●●● Green Thai Chili (50,000-100,000 SHU)
The unripe version of the red Thai chili, green Thai chilis were imported to Southeast Asia by Spanish and Portuguese traders. Today, they’re often used to make curry paste, particularly in Thailand, though Lao, Khmer, Indonesian and Vietnamese cuisines also make use of the chili.
●●●○○ Shishito (100-1,000 SHU)
The shishito pepper is a long, thin East Asian variety with thin walls and wrinkled skin that’s a glossy bright green color at harvest. They’re best prepared with a quick sauté in very hot oil and a dash of flaky salt, which makes for a rich, smoky and savory appetizer. Most shishitos are mild, but like the Poblano, about one in ten will have some extra kick.
●○○○○ Manzano (30,000-100,000 SHU)
The manzano is a bit of an odd duck in the chili world, and not just because of its black seeds: it also has furry leaves, produces stunning purple flowers and grows at high altitudes and low temperatures. Unlike some of the other hot peppers, which kick you right in the mouth, the manzano unleashes a creeping heat that lends itself well to jams, salsas and chutneys.