Usages For Peppers

Originally a valuable medicinal and culinary part of ancient South American cultures, the joy of peppers was spread worldwide after the Spanish and Portuguese started trading them at the end of the 15th century. Despite being treated as a rare commodity at first, peppers had enough time to take root and integrate themselves into many of the world’s cuisines and cultures – from Europe to Asia to Africa. Today, we cannot imagine many favorite meals without peppers. Indeed, if these colorful hollow fruits disappeared from the face of the Earth (God forbid!), our plates would become so, so much boring. Besides their culinary significance, peppers are a trademark of many cultures, are used as medicine, and can also be very decorative. Let’s see what are the various uses of peppers, predominantly in cooking but also in other aspects of human well-being.

What are peppers exactly? The classification

When we talk about “true” edible peppers, there are only five species in cultivation. These are:
  • Capsicum annuum
  • Capsicum baccatum, 
  • Capsicum chinense, 
  • Capsicum frutescens
  • Capsicum pubescens
These species have varying botanical features but distinct culinary properties and different uses. As you probably know, in layman’s terms, we divide peppers into “sweet” and “hot.” The sweet (well, non-pungent rather than truly sweet) peppers are known as Bell peppers or Capsicum, and small, hot peppers are called Chili peppers. Interestingly, sweet peppers exist only within the C. annuum species. All other species produce hot peppers – as well as some C. annuum varieties.

Culinary use of peppers

Since Europeans brought back the first peppers from South America to the Old World, thousands of pepper varieties or cultivars were created through selection and hybridization. And believe it or not, each one is at least slightly different than the other the terms of look, taste, texture, aroma, and spiciness. This has opened up an enormous amount of culinary possibilities for unique pepper dishes. Speaking of spiciness, the hot pepper varieties widely known as chilies – the most numerous pepper category – also compete in terms of pungency or hotness. Pepper hotness actually has it’s own measurement system – the Scoville Scale, with Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Depending on whether they’re sweet or hot, peppers have two main culinary uses. Bell peppers can be used in a variety of ways – fresh, baked, roasted, cooked, or pickled. Unlike sweet peppers that make the main ingredient of many meals, hot peppers are a tangy addition.

Sweet pepper use

When you look at it, it seems like there is no culinary limitation to using sweet peppers. Bell and other non-pungent peppers can be used as the main ingredient of a meal, as a side dish, as a part of a salad, or used to create various sauces and dippings. Perhaps the only unconquered territories are cakes! Let’s look at some awesome sweet pepper uses across the globe.

Grilled or roasted peppers

This universal side dish, popular in Southern Europe, is so basic yet so rewarding. Long sweet peppers are roasted or baked until their skin is charred and starts separating from the flesh. Then, they’re left in a well-covered dish or a bag for an hour or so, so the skin would be easy to peel off. High temperatures make the pepper flesh tender, and water evaporation concentrates the sweetness, creating a radically different experience when comparing it to the fresh pepper salad. Once peeled, peppers are saluted with olive oil, garlic, and some dark vinegar.

Stuffed peppers (Southern Europe)

Peppers are such a big part of south-central, south-eastern, and southern European cuisines that you’d think they’ve originated in this part of the world. Enjoyed seasonally, there are two main types of stuffed peppers in traditional recipes. In Mediterranean countries such as Greece, peppers are usually stuffed with a mix of feta cheese (or several kinds of cheeses), olive oil, kalamata olives, and Mediterranean spices and then baked until charred. A bit further North – in the Balkans and Central Europe, bell peppers are often stuffed with minced meat, rice, or a combination of the two, with the addition of onion, paprika (yes, never enough of peppers), and parsley or other dry veggies and spices. Then, these bell pepper cups are sealed with a slice of tomato. They are cooked and then baked slightly, or only cooked, and commonly served with soured milk.

Fajitas (Mexico & United States)

This colorful meat-and-pepper-based dish is one of the Tex-Mex cuisine’s classics. The tender, well-marinated, grilled meat is served with stripes of roasted sweet peppers of different colors and onions, lime, cilantro, and avocado. Flour or corn tortilla is usually used as a wrap. Best of all, if you marinate the meat in advance, it is actually a quick dish that can be ready in half an hour.

Tiger Skin Green Peppers (China)

This pepper dish coming from Sichuan province is actually quite similar to grilled peppers found in other cuisines, but the specific ingredients make it stand out. The type of pepper used in the preparation of this dish is the local variety of shishito peppers. They are cleaned of their seeds and are sautéed in a wok specifically until their skin gets black markings, resembling the tiger skin pattern. Other key ingredients are garlic, soy sauce, and green pepper with mostly garlic, light soy sauce, and vinegar. Some prefer to add these ingredients only after the peppers are done.

Hot pepper culinary uses

The fact that hot peppers are used “just” to spice things up doesn’t mean they’re insignificant. In fact, some of the world’s cuisines, like Mexican, rely on the zest and specific taste of certain pepper types to give that final touch to a meal, making it unique. However, some people like it hot, and surely – hot peppers can be eaten raw or preserved to experience the full hotness and aroma. Still, eating more than one or a few, or in some cases, just one bite, might not be comfortable. We can explore the usage of hot peppers based on the habanero peppers.

Uses of Habanero chili in cooking

Pepper enthusiasts, or “pepper heads,” commonly have a taste for eating Habanero peppers alone. The way that habaneros burn is intense and aggressive, but it fades quickly. However, when added to dishes, habanero loses some of its fierce trademark hotness and gives a warm or hot tang, depending on the amount used. They are a staple in many spicy dishes from across the world, and even more – in salsas and hot sauces. Habaneros are also used extensively in marinades, chili pastes & purees, chilly oils, and pepper jams, and are a fave addition to spicy deserts. In exotic dishes, they go considerably well with sweet ingredients such as mango, as the fruit sugars tame their hotness.

Peppers as a Spice

Pepper powders are commonly used to add either peppery sweetness (in the case of dry, sweet peppers) or peppery hotness to meals. As an additive, peppers are used either dried whole (e.g., when cooking beans) or, more commonly, in the form of a powder that originates from dried ground pepper fruits. The most notable non-pungent pepper powder is paprika. It is used heavily in Spanish, Hungarian, and Balkan cuisines and makes a central addition to Louisiana’s Creole dishes. The uses of hot pepper powders – the chili powders – are even more abundant. In nearly every hot dish in every part of the world – there’s chili powder. Still, it’s not all about the pungency- there is also the specific flavor that is much different from other pungent spices, such as the black pepper (which is not a pepper at all). Mexican dishes, such as burritos and tacos and burritos, always include ingredients made with chili powders. Curry is another typical example of rich hot pepper powder use. Even pasta dishes can be made more interesting by adding some of the tickling chilly powder sensations.

Canned or Preserved Peppers

Both bell peppers and hot peppers can be preserved for the winter, usually in the pickled form or preserved in oil. These are used on their own as side dishes or added as ingredients to various recipes. I’ve already mentioned a special relationship of the Balkan peninsula with peppers. There is one specialty called Ajvar – prepared from grilled, peeled, and ground peppers, with the addition of eggplant prepared in the same manner, garlic, oil, and salt. This paste is then canned in glass jars and used throughout the winter. Interestingly, the name “Ajvar” originates from the Turkish word for caviar – havyar, possibly due to its orange color, but also its rich taste!

Medical Uses of Peppers

Besides being a treat for the tongue, peppers have been celebrated for their alleged or real health benefits. In many cultures, hot peppers have been used as a traditional medicine for centuries – even in non-native regions. For example, in traditional Chinese medicine, hot peppers are considered therapeutically warming, help control pain, and improve circulation, much like ginger. However, is there any truth to the alleged health benefits of peppers?

Peppers’ vitamin and nutrient content

Peppers are packed with life-maintaining chemicals we call nutrients. Bell peppers contain vitamins (especially Vitamin C, but also the B-Vitamins and Vitamin E), carotenoids, and antioxidants. Due to these properties, they reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases and improve vision. Habanero peppers are so full of Vitamin C that eating just one of those small chilies will provide you with over 100 percent of the recommended daily dose. Also, they have a high potassium concentration. However, meeting the recommended daily intake of that nutrient through habaneros would require much more peppers than your stomach and taste buds could handle. However, the most special compound of peppers is capsaicin. This chemical is responsible for making the peppers spicy. And although it will make your tongue feel as though it is in flames, capsaicin is actually a strong natural anti-inflammatory. It is used in pharmacology to create various medical preparations. For example, Capsaicin cream, gel, and patches are very effective as a topical treatment for various painful medical conditions.

Cultural uses of peppers

The most interesting cultural uses of peppers predictably come from their homeland – South America and its ancient civilizations. The first known “hot chocolate” drink – Xocolatl – was not only hot as in warm, but also hot as pungent. It was made by the Aztecs from cocoa and various spices, including lots of chili powder. As you can suppose, it was a bitter and piquant beverage and had a nearly ritualistic significance. Ristras are red peppers (usually chilis) hung in masses on the front porches in the Americas. The main reason they’re hung up like that is the drying process. However, Ristras are also considered a sign of good fortune and good health. Last but not least, these pepper bunches look very decorative. We see similar customs in other regions of the world where peppers are among the dominantly grown vegetables – e.g., in the Balkans.

To Sum It Up

In about five hundred years since they ventured out of South America, peppers have made their mark on cuisines and cultures across the world. Most of the warm and temperate world region’s cuisines have their own exemplary pepper dishes, sauces – or both. Peppers have even managed to create an entire gastronomic subculture that revolves around them – the pepperheads.   Has the magic of capsaicin enchanted us all? I sincerely think that the answer is “Yes.” Now excuse me – some delicious stuffed peppers are waiting for me.

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