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Key Ingredient: Chiles

Trying to imagine life without the chile pepper is like trying to imagine Lauren Bacall without the husky voice, Argentina without the tango. Heat, glamour, an undercurrent of pain: The chile has them all. Consumed in larger quantities by more people around the globe than any other spice, it's the underpinning of virtually every cuisine. Where would salsa, kimchi, and curry be without it? But because of the chile's signature bite, it's all too easy to forget its other qualities -- above all, flavor. Each chile contains a unique blend of notes ranging from nut to molasses, tobacco to licorice, citrus to stone fruit. And then there are its not insignificant health benefits. The heat in chiles dilates blood vessels, stimulating circulation and perspiration and speeding along digestion; when applied topically, it's been known to relieve everything from headaches to psoriasis to shingles. Talk about a Renaissance fruit.

South of the Border

The word chile comes from the Nahuatl language, and wild chiles -- the fruit of the capsicum plant -- were being eaten in Mexico as early as 7000 b.c. They made their way to Europe around the 15th century along with returning Spanish conquistadors, who disseminated them to the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia, where they quickly insinuated themselves into every cuisine they encountered.

Fruit of the Vine

Like eggplant and tomato, its nightshade cousins, the chile is a fruit traditionally consumed, and therefore thought of, as a vegetable.

Seeing Red

In Turkey, it's red pepper that takes pride of place in the kitchen next to the salt.

Help Line
When you've bitten off more chile than you can chew, take a sip of milk. The casein in it washes away the capsaicin.

Skin Deep
As a general rule, the thinner a chile's skin, the hotter it will be.

Fire It Up

The California-based International Chili Society helps communities organize cook-offs (the official categories include red chili, chili verde, and salsa) in order to raise money for various charities.

Feel the Burn

Capsaicin, the alkaloid that gives pepper its heat, consists of five known components, three of which provide an immediate bite and two of which offer a slow, lingering burn. For every 100 parts of capsaicin in the white membrane of a pepper, there are only six in the rest of the fruit tissue and four in the seeds. To moderate the heat of a pepper, then, strip the membrane, not just the seeds.

Pantry Powerhouse

Too many whole dried chiles on hand? Crush a handful of them and place in a bottle, then fill with your favorite oil (olive, peanut, sesame, sunflower) and leave for one month before drizzling over tuna salad, guacamole, and light summer soups.

12 inches: The length of some of the longest cayenne peppers.

Chili or Chile?

They're not the same thing. Chili is short for chili con carne, a spicy stew of beef and beans believed to have originated in Texas in the 19th century.

Pain-O-Meter

Based on Scoville heat units, which refer to the number of times the extract from a pepper can be diluted with sugar water before the capsaicin can no longer be tasted.

Mild ... Hot

  • Bell Pepper
  • Pimento
  • New Mexico
  • Poblano
  • Ancho
  • Jalapeno
  • Chipotle
  • Serrano
  • Thai
  • Bird's Eye
  • Habanero
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