Jamaicans are familiar with Scotch bonnet, country and bird peppers, but there is a whole world of capsicums out there.
It's been difficult of late finding Thai chillies and fresh jalapeños — not the pickled kind which are readily available in jars. On odd occasions you can find canned chipotles in adobo sauce as well. Basically, each pepper has distinct flavours, and for me, as much as Scotch bonnet is my favourite due to its distinct heat and spice, there are some dishes where the flavour can overpower the end result I am trying to achieve, especially when making a dish from another culture. Nonetheless, when I lived in the States and wanted to make Jamaican food and couldn't find Scotch bonnets, I used Habañeros as a substitute, but it just wasn't the same, and I couldn't capture the authentic beloved flavour of our island's cuisine.
According to the Oxford dictionary, a capsicum is a tropical American plant of the nightshade family with fruits (peppers) containing many seeds. Many cultivated kinds have been developed: Genus capsicum, family Solanaceae; several species and varieties in particular C. annuum, the cultivated forms of which include the "grossum" group (sweet peppers) to the "longum" group (chilli peppers). Here in Jamaica we utilise sweet peppers a lot in our cuisine; in the US they are known as bell peppers. This variety can be eaten raw or cooked, and tastes different in its various stages of ripeness, from green to yellow or red and orange. Today, however, I want to focus on the hot stuff.
Originally, India was thought to be the home of the world's hottest chilli called Bhut Jolokia, otherwise known as the ghost chilli. Its heat is said to make grown men cry. However, quite recently Trinidad's Scorpion Butch T has surpassed it to become the world leader for the hottest pepper. There is a scale to measure heat intensity of chilli peppers. Naturally most of us have individual levels of heat tolerance, so what may be hot to one person may be mild to another. However, in 1912, Wilbur Scoville, an American chemist, devised a way to define heat by measuring the capsaicinoid content of each variety of pepper.
This measurement is called the Scoville scale which reveals the amount of capsaicin — the property which creates heat in all varieties of peppers. The scale units are called Scoville Heat Units (SHUs) and range from 0 to 16,000,000. A sweet pepper would be 0, the mildest, while the fieriest — Scorpion Butch T — measures 1,463,700. Jamaican Scotch bonnet and hot peppers are found in the top 10 hottest peppers in the world, and their piquancy ranges from 100,000 to 325,000 and 100,000 to 200,000 SHU's respectively.
Be careful when handling all hot peppers. You are advised to wear gloves as most of the heat is concentated around the seeds and membrane. Nothing is worse than the persistent burning tingling on your fingers, and if you accidently rub peppery hands on other parts of your body, the burning can be unbearable. If you are cooking a spicy dish, please let your guests know because many cannot handle too much pepper. You could make a milder version, keeping within the authenticity of the dish, and have diced pepper or pepper sauce as an addition to the table for adventurous diners to help themselves. Enjoy this week's recipes which are best enjoyed with an ice-cold beer.
Baked Jalapeño Peppers
These hot, creamy and crunchy snacks are great for entertaining. Typically they are fried, but you can bake them for a lighter version. Best of all they pop in your mouth.
12 jalapeños, sliced in half, lengthways, and seeds removed
115g/ 1⁄2 cup cream cheese
55g/ 1⁄4 cup Cheddar cheese, shredded
4 stalks of escallion, green parts only, finely sliced
1 egg, beaten
100g/ 1⁄2 cup breadcrumbs
1⁄2 tsp paprika
1⁄2 tsp chilli
Salt and pepper
Light vegetable oil spray
Preheat oven to 350°F
In a small bowl, mix cream cheese, cheddar and escallion. In another bowl, mix breadcrumbs, paprika, chilli, salt and pepper. Fill pepper halves with cheese mixture. Dip each one in beaten egg then in breadcrumb mixture until well coated. Layer foil onto a baking tray and spray with light vegetable oil, then layer jalapeño peppers on top.
Bake for 25 minutes and serve immediately.
Indian Style Chilli Chicken
This chilli-infused chicken dish is Indian, but with Chinese influences. It's quick and easy to prepare, serve with naan and/or basmati rice. It is quite spicy, so those who like hot food will appreciate this dish.
500g/1lb boneless chicken breast, sliced into 1 inch pieces
2 medium onions, finely diced
4 medium chillies, finely chopped
1 large green sweet pepper, deseeded and cut into strips
1tbsp tomato purée
1⁄2-inch piece ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp red chilli powder
1⁄2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
2 tbsps flour
1 1⁄2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsps vinegar
1⁄2 tsp salt
1 tbsp vegetable oil
In a large bowl, add tomato purée, ginger, garlic, red chilli powder, black pepper, flour, soy sauce, vinegar and salt. Mix well, add chicken pieces and coat thoroughly. Marinate for at least four hours. In a large frying pan, add oil and sauté onions for a couple of minutes. Add chicken pieces and sweet peppers and cook over medium heat, stirring often for 30 minutes.
Add chillies and cook for an additional five minutes.
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