Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Fickleness of Chili Peppers

Ever wonder why you have trouble reproducing that amazing dish featuring chili peppers that you had elsewhere? Ever wonder why there is such a proliferation of different kinds of peppers both spicy and sweet and everything in between?

The answer is actually quite complex.

Peppers which definitely came from South America are rather complex objects. They are incredibly sensitive to what the French might call terroir.

The soil matters; the amount of sunlight matters; the temperature of the warm day versus the cool night matters a lot. In short, they are rather fickle little things.

Take the same strain and plant it in two different places — warm Louisana as opposed to cooler Oregon, just to take two places at random and you will get diametrically opposing results from the same plant. Even the same strain in the same location will differ from year to year because the weather is variable.

That's just one of the problems.

They've also had a solid five centuries to spread all over the world. The different sub-species were pushed not only by natural selection but also cultural selection into the hundreds of varieties all over the globe. (Contrast with oranges which are completely ancient but there aren't that many sub-species of oranges out there even with all the human-controlled cross-pollination.)

This is the reason that some of the magnificent dishes of Sri Lanka really cannot be reproduced elsewhere. Even if you got the seeds, you don't have the weather.

It's the same reason that Hungary keeps a really tight lid on one of its products — Hungarian paprika. You will get arrested if you try to steal the seeds and smuggle them out. They did smuggle them successfully and tried to reproduce them in Oregon. All the efforts failed. The climates might be "similar" but they are not similar enough. The soil certainly isn't.

The same goes for the different varieties of Spanish paprika.

The story of Tabasco which is a product of Louisiana follows the same pattern. They've had a limited amount of success reproducing it in Mexico but it wasn't easy. (The story of Tabasco is rather fascinating since it has all the elements of a financial thriller — competitors, corruption, patent laws, politicians, bankruptcy, questionable tactics, possible illegality, etc.)

All to protect a brand that, truth be said, the CC is kinda fond of.

It's actually rather hard to get the truly great peppers of Peru. Even in New York. Only the dozen or two of so most-commonly used peppers actually proliferate. The most common ones are probably more "robust" than the other strains.

What it does mean though that if you want to eat truly great peppers, you'll just have to go to the source.

It's good to reminded from time to time that travel matters and  that "variety truly is the spice of life."


reva said...

Absolutely hot post. It's summer in India - if you remember the obsession with stocking up for the year. People order chilly peppers from the place they were born/grew up. So I get mine from a town in Rajasthan called Pali, which is where mom got hers from. My mom by marriage gets it from a store in Mumbai. And there is a blending for colour plus spike. Like coffee and chicory.

ShockingSchadenfreude said...

My advice would be to store it in an air-tight light-impervious container.

It will maintain its aroma for at least the better part of the year.