Ask Peter: chillies — you should never be without
I love making my curries from the basic ingredients — I make my own paste rather than use store-bought because I grow most of my own ingredients. I wonder though about chillies: many recipes specify dried or powdered, or sometimes a specific variety. What are the rules about what to use? Steve from Matarangi.
I’m a huge fan of chillies, in all their various forms, but it wasn’t always that way. I can remember going to Bali in 1985 and for the first time ever, deliberately sprinkling chopped fresh red and green chillies on a meal, I think gado gado. A few days earlier I had drizzled chilli sauce on to a fried egg I had for breakfast, because I was in Asia, and it sort of made sense. Previous to that I can remember tasting Tabasco sauce on a Bluff oyster — something my father liked — but I didn’t really get it at the time. We’d add cayenne pepper to cheese scones but I don’t think I ever thought of that as a form of chilli. I’d eaten a fair amount of Thai and Indian food in Australia during my apprenticeship years, and while I liked the warmth of chillies, I really didn’t appreciate the flavour of the various strains.
In Turkey they have a dried chilli flake called kirmizi biber — which is also known as Aleppo chilli. The interesting thing is that when you buy this lovely warm red flake, there are no seeds in the mixture. The flakes are slightly moist — but in an oily way rather than a watery way. It’s the fibre that holds the seeds to the body of the chilli that contains the heat, so when you scrape out both seeds and fibre, you reduce the heat considerably. In Turkey you’ll eat a kebab and in all likelihood there will be a dish of the chilli flakes nearby for you to sprinkle on your meat, so don’t be shy. It’s packed full of flavour and a very mild heat. In Korea they have also have a dried deseeded chilli flake, gochugaru (also known as kimchi chilli). It’s much hotter, in fact it can be very spicy, but it’s an essential for many Korean dishes including kimchi. Make a Korean recipe substituting it for another chilli flake (heaven forbid, one that contains seeds) and your Korean mates will leave the room.
Many crushed dried chillies contain a lot of seeds and this is fine in my book for certain recipes. It’s likely they’ll be hotter than those that don’t contain seeds but it’s not always the case. Ground chillies, i.e. chilli powder, comes in many forms from the often-sweet Hungarian paprika through to Spanish pimenton (smoked paprika — an essential in making chorizo), the aforementioned cayenne pepper and others which will have a different name depending on whether they are from India, the Caribbean, Malaysia or somewhere else. In Mexico, chilli capital of the world I reckon, you can buy numerous dried chillies of varying heat from the medium heat guajillo to the fierce de arbol. In Spain when making romesco sauce you must use dried nora peppers, a mild chilli frequently used to make paprika.
When using most dried peppers you need to hydrate them for a few hours in warm water, then cut in half and scrape the “flesh” from the skin using a teaspoon – as the skin can be quite papery and hard to digest. The flavour you get when using fresh rather than dried chillies is quite different. My favourite for flavour is the scotch bonnet — fiercely hot, but distinctively flavoured, it’s a favourite in the Caribbean and I only came across it when I was cooking in London’s Notting Hill in the early 90s, buying it on a stall alongside plantain, cassava and dried salt cod.
As to which chilli to use — as you know I don’t tend to stick to historical rules. If all you have are three fresh green chillies, and the recipe calls for 2 teaspoons of an obscure ground Mexican red variety, go ahead with what you’ve got and see what happens. But perhaps blacken the chillies in a dry medium-hot pan to blister the skin and add a smokiness which might be good. And next time go online to an exotic deli well in advance and be better-prepared. Whole fresh chillies freeze well, and dried ones seem to keep indefinitely — so you should never be without.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.