What cuisines feature the hottest chiles?

What cuisines feature the hottest chiles?

Ready to introduce a little “heat” to your recipes? This primer on chiles from different lands will slap your tastebuds around til they’re dizzy!

By Christina Hamlett


Chiles find their way into most cuisines from tropical and warmer climates. Whether from the Southwest United States or Southeast Asia, there is a world of variety in dishes featuring chiles. Not surprisingly, chiles range from mild to wild in terms of heat. As a point of reference, the often used jalapeño chile is considered a medium hot chile, although you might disagree with that were you to bite into a fresh one.

Virtually any dish using chiles can be made almost intolerably hot by adjusting the type and amount of chile in the dish. To a certain extent, though, that’s the gastronomic equivalent of athletes using steroids. To best appreciate the hottest dishes, try ones that have been scalding palates for generations. Before you order at your local Cajun, Caribbean, West African, or Thai restaurant, however, you better have a good sense of what’s in store when you take that first bite.

The heat generated by the complex chemicals inside a chile is measured in Scoville Units, a measurement developed by Professor Wilbur Scoville way back in 1912. While more sophisticated heat measurements exist today, the Scoville scale still is what most judge hotness by. The trusty jalapeño weighs in at between 2,500 and 8,000 Scoville Units. The Scotch bonnet and habanero chiles used in many Caribbean, Central American, and African dishes blasts in at between 100,000 and 325,000 units.

The hottest dishes naturally use the hottest chiles. In the Western Hemisphere, that distinction goes to the Scotch bonnet and habanero. These cousins are the hottest chiles in the world. The most familiar use of Scotch bonnets is in Jerk seasoning, that remarkable blend of herbs and spices that is used on many meats in the Caribbean. These fiery chiles find their way into many Caribbean and Central American dishes, including soups, rice mixes, and entrees. The habanero is often used as a substitute in places where Scotch bonnets are not readily available.

Both the Scotch bonnet and the habanero are also used in a wide range of salsas, often with fruits such as mango or papaya added in. Regional salsa recipes from the Caribbean, Yucatan and Central America offer a range of combinations of chiles, fruit, citrus, and even carrots to add to meat and seafood dishes for a sweet and very hot accompaniment.

Just to the north in the Gulf of Mexico is Cajun country. This is home to two of the more well known chiles in the United States: the cayenne and tabasco chiles. Both of them are around 30,000 – 50,000 Scoville Units. While that puts them down the list in comparison to the Scotch bonnet, these red chiles are plenty hot when used in the traditional cuisine of Louisiana and the gulf coast of Texas. Unlike cooking with many other types of chiles, cayenne and tabasco are most often used in a highly processed form – powder or liquid. Gulf coast cooking is an exotic blend of meats, seafoods, vegetables and sauces befitting the diverse history of the region. Whether you’re having a jambalaya or fresh shucked oysters and hot sauce, enjoy the food – and the heat.

Before leaving the Western Hemisphere, a word is in order about the great cuisines of Northern Mexico and the American Southwest. There is plenty of spice to go around and the more popular cooking with chiles becomes the more creative the food from this region. In terms of heat, the jalapeño is one of the mainstays of southwestern cooking. In addition, the slightly hotter serrano finds its way into salsa verde and a number of entrees. Chipotle, a smoked jalapeño, is being used increasingly in sauces and condiments because of its heat and distinctive smoky flavor. Most chiles from this region are very flavorful and find their way into a wide range of dishes and sauces. When it comes to Scoville Units, however, most are decidedly tame.

On the other side of the globe, intensely hot food can be found in most countries from Asia to Africa. A few chiles, however, warrant special consideration. The first is the Thai chile, tipping the meter at a scorching 50,000 Р100,000 Scoville Units. Several clay pot, curry, and soup recipes use this chile to varying degrees. Many restaurants will offer you the choice of how hot you want your dish so, if you feel especially brave, load up. Many Thai dishes also use jalape̱o and serrano chiles.

Throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent there are wickedly hot foods. Vindaloo dishes from the former Portuguese colony of Goa off the Indian coast use cayenne in combination with the richly complex herbs and spices that are the hallmark of Indian cooking. Curries can be made in varying degrees of hot depending on the use of Indian red chile powder, a more powerful relative to the rich and hot New Mexico powder that finds its way into many dishes of the American Southwest. While tasty, the Tandoori chicken found in many Indian restaurants in the United States and the United Kingdom could never be considered a hot dish. That can change immediately, however, by adding more red chile powder to the mix.

African cooking is as diverse as the continent itself. Shrimp Pili-Pili, for example, is a grilled dish from Mozambique that highlights the heat of the Bird’s Eye chile. This green or red chile weighs in at a very hot 100,000 – 225,000 Scoville Units, coming in a close third to the Scotch bonnet and habanero. In this dish, the chili is crushed, and with garlic, oil, and lime juice made into a marinade for the shrimp. It also doubles as a very hot dipping sauce once the shrimp are off the grill.

West African dishes frequently utilize chiles, including habaneros and Scotch bonnets. A fairly pedestrian chicken stew, for example, becomes something altogether different when two finely chopped Scotch bonnets are added! In North Africa, harissa—a red chile paste—is used in many exotic dishes from Tunisia and Morocco.

No matter what equatorial region your palate takes you, finding exceptionally hot and delicious food is not a problem. If you decide to make these fiery dishes at home, however, be warned. Chiles are wonderful in food and very good for you, but they must also be handled and prepared properly. Before trying that incendiary recipe, read the handling instructions very carefully and follow them to the letter.

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