Complex, Rare Peppers To Discover
By Greg Gonzales
Serious chile lovers can rejoice in the semi-secret variety they get to enjoy. It’s easy to forget that chiles are fruits, and that they come in a myriad of flavors. Out of the thousands of peppers in the world, some taste like their more distant fruit cousins, plenty will burn your mouth out, some invoke regional flavors and others are perfect for everyday cooking. Each one offers its own unique flavor profile, giving home cooks and chefs something to experiment with. Consumers know how to use familiar varieties, but they’re seeking out unfamiliar ones, and some brands have made a name for themselves by incorporating these lesser-known peppers into their salsas and sauces.
One of those peppers is the aji panca, a Peruvian pepper with little or no heat and tons of flavor. It’s sometimes noted as having a mild blueberry flavor and more complex pepper taste than a poblano. In Peruvian cuisine, these peppers are used in sauces, stews and rubs, though they can also be used like citrus zest. Some dessert recipes, like chocolate pots de creme, call for the pepper, which plays well with chocolate. Serious Foodie, a brand of specialty gourmet sauces, uses the pepper in its Blood Orange Aji Panca sauce. “We’ve all been to Peru and experienced the food there, and wanted to come up with something that captured the flavors of Peru while keeping an American twist on it,” said Jim Pachence, President of Serious Foodie. He said the aji pancas are often ground into a paste and used for condiments in Peru.
Pachence also noted a pepper called mirasol, the name of which translates to “watch the sun.” When dried, it’s called guajillo, a common ingredient used to add a bit of sweetness and umami flavors to a dish. Fresh, it’s unlike anything else, but Pachence said it’s rare to find it fresh in the United States or Mexico, due to the popularity of guajillo. “When people taste the pepper by itself, they’re a bit surprised,” he said. “It’s a spicy strawberry, isn’t that weird? Biting into it, it tastes like a berry, but it’s got a little spice to it. It’s not outrageously hot; about as hot as a jalapeno, not as hot as a serrano.” Serious Foodie uses mirasol peppers in its mole, one of a number of Mexican chile-based sauces. But it’s also a great addition to fish, chicken, potatoes or pork. It’s also the right kind of spiciness for lighter salsas.
Another pepper flying a bit under the radar these days is the aji dulce, a family of sweet perennial peppers from the Caribbean and Latin America. It’s close the habañero, but with mild heat and smoky flavors. “It flips the habanero on its head a bit — habañeros are nice because they have a fruity tone, but they’re wickedly hot, so they’re difficult to cook with,” said Pachance. “The aji dulces are inherently sweet with a little bit of hot, and I’ve seen those all over the place, all of a sudden. I think it’ll get more popular as people start growing them.” This pepper is extremely popular in Venezuela, where it’s used to make the national dish, Pabellón Criollo, and also meat sauces.
There’s also the aji crystal, which has a pineapple flavor and can be spicy, but they’re usually harvested and used while slightly immature to keep them mild. These chiles are often sautéed with garlic, salt, black pepper and oil to make pebre salsa, or are served with bread and butter at restaurants. “It tastes like a very spicy pineapple. “[They are] very fruity,” said Pachence. “A lot of these serrano family of peppers have some unusual fruity qualities.”
Gochujang, the versatile Korean red pepper paste, is still on the rise, too, on trend with international flavors. “People are looking for this kind of flavor profile. I think gochujang still has a chance of being the next sriracha,” said Pachence. The paste provides a powerful kick, and the fermentation process used to make it adds complexity and earthy flavors. The pepper for which the paste is named, the Korean gochu, is sweet and provides a savory-sweet interplay of flavors for rice dishes, salads, stews and meat marinades.
The hot sauce market has grown more than 150 percent since 2000, according to Euromonitor data graphed by Quartz Magazine, but consumers want new flavors to try as this market expands, and they aren’t merely seeking more heat. “Some people say they don’t like hot foods. If they understand the flavor profile isn’t about burning their mouth, that works,” said Pachence. “You have to run the gamut a little bit. Some people like higher spice, some don’t. I think the ghost pepper type of burn-your-mouth is a novelty item and it’s usually bought for someone’s birthday as a goof, rather than a culinary experience. People are now turning that around and wanting the culinary experience. They want unusual flavors, they want things to pop. The finest restaurants are the ones that, you’ll have a sauce, and the sauce is so intensely flavored — not spicy, not hot, just intense. We find the consumers are interested in that.”
Go to websites like chileplants.com or pepperjoe.com, and you’ll see hundreds or even a thousand different peppers available. Many of them are purely for novelty, rather than regular use at home or in restaurants. “They’ll be so strange, so hot, you have no reason to grow them or eat them,” Pachence said, referring to one of the sites. “This site has six varieties of the ghost pepper. Those things are inedible, there’s no reason they should exist except to torture somebody.” So rather than throw darts at a board of pepper names, Pachence recommended that people familiarize themselves with peppers by making pastes with store-bought dried Mexican peppers. “Then you get an idea of the subtle differences between those Mexican peppers, and why moles are so complex — some moles call for five to 10 different dry pepper types.” He also said to look for seasonal varieties at local markets, and to pick out several from different heat levels. “It’s like fine wine; you’re trying to pick out the subtleties of the peppers. Is this fruity? Does this taste more like a green bell pepper that has its own funky umami to it? Start picking those up, and think about what they match with. Treat it like a wine tasting, think about how the flavors combine with other ingredients.”