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Feb 8, 2010 08:39 AM

Old World Chile in New World Chili?

There are, of course, many types of chiles in Africa, Asia and southeastern Europe. I rarely hear, however, of American chili cooks incorporating those Old World chiles in their chili.

Is there any reason such cross-hemispheric chili would not work? Do fatalii, bhut jolokia and "Thai" chiles, for instance, have such a distinctly eastern flavor that they would lead to a bizarre pot of chili?

Just curious.

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  1. A major component of chili is the mix of mild to medium hot chiles, typically New Mexico, Ancho, Pasilla, etc. Hotter ones are used, but in smaller quantities. For yourself you can make the chili has hot as you want, but for groups and competition you have to be cautious.

    Hungarian paprika is perhaps the best known 'old world' chile in the less-than hot category. The others that you mention are in the very hot category.

    Is there a 'distinctly eastern flavor' to these 'old world' chiles? I suspect that the way of using chiles is more distinctive than the chiles themselves.

    1. Technically speaking, there's no such thing as an "old world" chile -- all chiles originated in the New World, although as you pointed out, they've been developed in different directions over the centuries. I don't think that any chiles taste intrinsically "eastern" -- your perception is based on the fact that you've always had them prepared in specific ways. You could have a blind chile tasting and see for yourself if you can tell a chile is "old world" or "new world" on its own.

      25 Replies
      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        So you don't believe "terroir" likely applies to chiles?

        1. re: Perilagu Khan

          But does 'terroir' apply at a continental scale, or does it have more to do with microclimate and local soil conditions

          1. re: paulj

            Valid point.

            I rather doubt Old World chiles taste dramatically different from New World chiles, and they should thus work just fine in chili. However, chili traditionally relies on large portions of fairly mild New World powdered chiles (NM, ancho, chipotle, etc.) to establish the foundation of the chile. I think a mild powdered chile from the Old World used as the foundation would create a chili that simply doesn't taste like traditional chili. Therefore, I suspect using Old World chiles in small doses to broaden the flavor profile in interesting ways would be the approach to take.

            1. re: Perilagu Khan

              Right. It's not that certain types of chiles are intrinsically more "eastern" it's that different types of chiles are traditionally prepared (i.e. dried, smoked, etc.) and used in different ways in different regions or by different cultures. And of course, people use the kinds of chiles they have available. Lots of Chinese restaurants in the U.S. for example, use jalapenos, because that's what's commonly available, whereas I assume that in China they would be using a different but equivalent chile. I'd still be interested if you can tell the difference between the types of chiles you described as "eastern" and their "western" equivalents in their raw form in a blind taste test.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                Another probable stumbling block (more psychological than anything) is that we associate certain chiles with certain dishes or cuisines. Hence, we associate Thai peppers (there are actually several different Thai peppers) with Thai food. Would significant quantities of Thai chile in chili therefore strike a wrong note with us because we associate that flavor with gai ga pao rather than a bowl o' red?

                PS--I also would be interested in knowing the results of the blind taste test you propose.

              2. re: Perilagu Khan

                Can you make a beef stew using a generous amount of Hungarian paprika, and end up something that tastes more like chili than goulash? For example, is it enough to add cumin and (Mexican) oregano to change one to the other.?

                Some Spanish cookbooks suggest you can substitute anchos or NM chiles for Spanish Nora peppers. Presumably the reverse would work.

                1. re: paulj

                  I don't know, paul. I've never tasted a chili that uses paprika as the primary powdered chili. However, paprika does appear in chili in a supporting role fairly often, and, I would argue, paprika is the Old World chile that is most familiar to the New World palette. This being the case, I think paprika could very well work as the primary chile in chili.

                  1. re: paulj

                    I would not substitute anchos for noras. Mild as they may be, anchos are substantially hotter than nearly all of the many Spanish varieties of pepper. Except in a few places along the Portuguese border, mainly Extremadura and Galicia, peppers with anything more than the slightest detectable level of heat are thought of by most people as disgusting. Anchos also lack the earthy sweetness of noras. The only appropriate substitute I can think of would be pimenton de Murcia
                    Though an attitude of condescencion towards Latin America pervades Spain, there is some interest in Latino food to be found in the bigger cities. The interest level is roughly comparable to that of very hot Thai food in the US - not extremely rare, but far from common. You can find chile con carne in some places, and some make it at home. Even then, it has very little heat. It is sometimes made using pimenton picante (which is typically as hot as ancho chile powder, with "super picante" varieties being barely as hot as cayenne powder), but more commonly made using pimenton agridulce (a blend of the not even a little spicy pimenton dulce with a usually smaller amount of pimenton picante). It ends up being a very Spanish tasting dish, which I suppose is sort of an answer to the original inquiry.

                    1. re: danieljdwyer

                      All of which raises another question in my mind: which European nation (including Eastern Europe, of course, but not Turkey or the Caucasus) has the strongest predeliction for truly piquant food? Hungary naturally springs to mind, but it occurs to me that the unassuming Brits, doubtless because of the continued cultural reverberations of the Raj, have a taste for the hot n' spicy and may give the Hungarians a run for the money.

                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                        I'm not really sure. England, and more recently Ireland (not sure about Scotland or Wales), have certainly developed a taste for spicy Asian cuisine. Germany has always seemed more open than most of Europe to spicy foreign cuisines.
                        As far as spicy indigenous cuisine, it seems like some countries (Italy at least) are like America in that some parts of the south like spicy food while it's not too popular in the north. Hungary's taste for hot paprika makes me wonder if other parts of Europe that had a lot of interaction with the Ottoman Empire might also like spicy food.
                        I can't find anything to back this up, but I vaguely recall reading somewhere once that Iceland has the highest per capita consumption level of hot peppers worldwide - which seems impossible, but may at least mean they have a taste for them.

                        1. re: danieljdwyer

                          If the Ottoman influence substantially accounts for Hungary's love of the hot stuff, then Romania, Bulgaria and Greece should exhibit that trait a fortiori. I honestly don't know whether or not they do, although I've generally thought of Romanian and Bulgarian cuisine as being rather highly spiced and similar to Hungarian. Greece, not so much, but I could be wrong there.

                          1. re: Perilagu Khan

                            Generally, I wouldn't say that there is much heat to Greek cuisine, but I've had Greek food that was around the same spice level as you'll commonly find in the Levant. Greek food is so intensely regional that you can have two tiny islands five miles apart that share almost nothing in terms of cuisine. So, it's very possible the spicy dishes I've had are representative of anomalous micro-regions.
                            I would say, though, that Greeks do not have the intense dislike of hot peppers that you can find in some parts of Europe. Spicy Turkish and Levantine food is common in Athens. And, if Cyprus counts as a part of the Greek world, that's at least one region of Greek cuisine that loves hot peppers.
                            Beyond that, I'd say Hungary faced very different circumstances than Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece. It's still complete conjecture on my part to say that maybe the Ottoman interaction influence Hungary's cuisine in this way, but I wouldn't expect every culture that fell, at some point, under Ottoman control to have been identically effected by this experience. Aside from that, Hungary was a crossroad of trade between the Germanic, Slavic, and Ottoman worlds for quite a bit longer than it was partially under Ottoman control.

                          2. re: danieljdwyer

                            While you may think Germany is more open to spicy foreign cuisines, it's difficult to find truly spicy Chinese, Thai or Indian food in the restaurants in Germany. You have to ask for it "Asien Scharf nicht Deutschen Scharf" and even then you may not get it really hot unless they know you. The Brits on the toytowngermany Berlin forum decry the blandness of the Indian restaurants there and the overuse of joghurt, making most dishes too creamy for their tastes. The more traditional Germans, i.e. older, less traveled, prefer their standard German fare at home, but will eat foreign food in restaurants, although, as I said, it isn't as spicy as you would find in similar restaurants in the US.
                            I am now back in Mexico and had lunch yesterday at a Japanese restaurant. In true Mexican fashion there was a container of soy sauce with sliced jalapenos on the table in addition to the container of regular soy sauce.

                            1. re: RevImmigrant

                              The part of the USA that is most associated with bland food is the Midwest, an area with a particularly high proportion of German and Scandinavian immigrants.

                              The radio show, Prairie Home Companion used to have 'ads' for Ahua hot sauce, which I understood to be a spoof of the bland Scandinavian food preference. But apparently others took another way
                              (from a PHC source,
                              )"Dear Garrison,
                              We are loyal longtime fans of PHC and were wondering whatever happened to your sponsor !AHUA! hot sauce. With the rise in interest in Mexican foods and the proven pain-relieving ability of capsaicin (from peppers), they seem to be a good fit for the program. Maybe it would appeal to those who don't care for rhubarb.

                              The Laband family - David, Anne, Kim and Shelley

                              Dear Labands, We abandoned the Ajua commercials after we got some mail complaining that it was a racist joke that worked off stereotypes of Hispanic people. That is an argument that one cannot win, so we dropped the whole idea.
                              No problem for us."

                          3. re: Perilagu Khan

                            I've never found Hungarian food to be "spicy" in the sense of being hot. Well seasoned, perhaps. Romanian and Bulgarian cuisine is indeed more like Greek, although the national dish of Romania is a cornmeal dish similar to polenta, and the Bulgarians are insanely fond of avjar (a relish made of red sweet peppers and eggplant that can be hot but usually isn't). I think that despite the fact that they were part of the Ottoman Empire, Romania and Bulgaria, being poor backwaters under both the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires, generally continued to base their cuisine on local ingredients.

                            You're right that the Brits, after 200 years of strong ties to India, have developed quite a taste for spicy food.

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              Generally, I'd agree that Hungarian food is not necessarily loaded with hot peppers. But some paprikas have a decent level of heat, and some dishes use a lot of paprika. Some of the sausages made by the Hungarian butcher near my hometown were very hot, as sausages go.

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                Romania and Bulgaria were comparatively poor in the later Middle Ages and the early modern period, but they were also located on east/west trade routes and could have been hit by the west-to-east spice trade in the 16th and 17th centuries, and then by the east-to-west pepper trade in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is also true that pepper is grown domestically in Hungary and there is no obvious reason it wouldn't have been cultivated in Bulgaria and Romania as well. That's speculation, of course.

                                And Moldova shouldn't be left out of the conversation. The historical/cultural designation of "Moldavia" overlaps both Moldova and Romania and I have to think that Moldovan food shares a great deal with its western neighbor.

                                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                  The east-west spice trade in the Middle Ages mostly bypassed southeastern Europe. If you look at a map, you'll see that it was much easier to take goods by sea to Venice (which pretty much monopolized the spice trade in the Middle Ages) and then north into central Europe. Taking goods over land was much less efficient (which is why they were always looking for, and eventually found, good sea routes), and there are some pretty good-sized mountains in western Bulgaria and Romania. And besides, just because the goods are passing through doesn't mean the people along the route can afford to buy them. They do grow sweet peppers (see my comment about avjar, above) -- I remember talking to a Bulgarian who described how during the late summer harvest season you could smell the avjar cooking (in preparation for canning) throughout the countryside.

                                  The Transylvanian region of Romania was actually more heavily influenced by its western neighbors -- German from its days as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire was still commonly spoken there into the late 20th century (and possibly still).

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    You're right about the medieval trade routes. And more relevant, the early modern trade routes (when chiles would have been traded) presumably would have bypassed southeastern Europe as well. That said, however, Hungary was an unwilling part of the Ottoman Empire for close to two centuries (ca. 1520-1700), and Romania and Bulgaria were Ottoman possessions even longer. And I have to believe there would have been a great deal of intra-empire trade, if for no other reason, than to provision the garrisons strewn about the empire. Such trade could have been a source for chiles in those three nations/provinces.

                                    1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                      I don't think there was a lot of cross-cultural pollination in South Eastern Europe, though. After all, unlike other parts of southern Europe (Bosnia, Albania), the people didn't convert to Islam. When I was in Bulgaria they pointed out a mosque and said it was one of the few leftover from the days of the Ottoman Empire. Basically, even if they had access to Eastern spices -- including chiles -- they didn't embrace them.

                              2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                As both a chilihead and a frequent European traveler for many years now (mainly on business, but not entirely), north, south, east & west, I'd have to say that there are no native European cuisines that hit the kinds of capsaicin levels that the more chile-oriented Latin American and Asian ones do. The Spaniards use hot peppers, to a minor degree - a dish of roasted padrone peppers is a fun sort of culinary roulette - but overall no.

                                You're right about the Brits and their taste for Asian heat, though - a typical vindaloo in an Indian restaurant in the US has only a small fraction of the Scoville rating of the same dish served in the UK.

                              3. re: danieljdwyer

                                Are you talking about the smoked pimenton? That smokiness would add a distinctive quality regardless of the heat level.

                                One brand (de la vera) labels their agridulce as 'tradicional'. That's the level of heat I prefer, though I've used all three.

                                I've only gone through a small jar of ground Nora, so don't have a strong opinion about the substitution. It was New Spanish Table that suggested anchos as an alternative, no doubt aimed at Americans without ready access to Spanish products.

                                I've seen mention in various places that pimientos de Padron, while normally mild, occasionally one gets one that is considerably hotter. The closest I've come those are some mild Korean chiles.

                                We haven't mentioned Korea as a source for peppers for chili. Koreans used chiles with a wide range of heat levels. Curiously, though, most of the chiles (fresh and dried) that I've seen at a large Korean grocery are grown in the USA and Mexico.

                                1. re: paulj

                                  Are those American-grown Korean chiles or simply domestic peppers such as jalapenos and serranos?

                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                    I had in mind the Korean ones, both small and larger long green ones (skinnier and more wrinkled than Anaheims). Fresnos also seem popular.

                                    HMart (NJ base Korean chain) carries a wide range of chiles, both Korean varieties and American/Mexican.

                                    Koreans also actively develop hybrids. For example I've seen packages of a new variety that is supposed to be high in some diabetes preventive.

                                  2. re: paulj

                                    The only pimenton I know of that is not smoked (ahumado) is pimenton de Murcia. I think the smokiness is only one part of what makes it so different in character, however. The Spanish use a lot of different peppers in various applications - oddly, they are very rarely fresh peppers, nearly always jarred, dried, or powdered. They get a wide range of flavors that I haven't found in any New World or Asian peppers, regardless of heat level or smokiness.
                                    I'm not familiar with pimientos de Padron, but they seem to be from Galicia. Perhaps due to being the most active part of Spain in trade with the New World during the colonial era, Galicia does have a fondness for hot peppers.
                                    Pimenton de la Vera - which is a denominacion de origen, not a brand, with La Chinata being the most common brand in the US - comes from Extremadura, which also has a fondness for hot peppers.
                                    Generally, I'm not a big fan of Anya von Bremzen's work. I have New Spanish Table, and some of the recipes are great. My problem is that von Bremzen writes like someone whose familiarity with Spanish cuisine comes solely from dining at better restaurants. She doesn't seem to have much understanding of Spanish home cooking, or the more day to day food of taverns and cafes, or even tapas bars outside the main drags of the big cities. For English language Spanish cookbooks, I much prefer Penelope Casas, who seems more in touch with the food that most Spaniards eat.

                      2. Second Ruth. No such thing as "old world chile" in my opinion.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: jaykayen

                          Yup! Just like no old world potato or tomato.

                        2. As the first American born to a Bulgarian escapee I'm thrilled to see Bulgaria mentioned so often here.
                          Here's what I know:
                          Bulgarians _adore_ peppers!
                          Pickled with some garlic and a splash of olive oil after a dry roasting to char bits of the skins: Great Goodness!
                          Set in a pan to boil with some oil, so that after boiling they fry: Great Goodness!
                          Roasted, Set to Steam, Skinned & Spread on a tray with minced garlic, salt & olive oil: Great Goodness!
                          Banana Peppers: Popular (Hot more than sweet)
                          Long med. thin and mod. twisty: Popular (Hot)
                          Long thin and fairly straight: Popular (Hot)
                          Cherry Peppers (Hot & Sweet) (Red & Green): Popular
                          Bell Peppers: Not so popular, but great in shopska salad! (Skip the feta & chunk things into a bowl ~ the "juice" to sublime!) Include as many peppers as your garden allows!
                          Pimentos in any form: Delicious! These are almost heart-shaped & meaty (Excellent!)
                          Dried Red Pepper Flakes: Excellent (Homemade, of course!)
                          I've never known a Bulgarian to not grow many varieties of peppers at home.
                          In appreciation of "hot" is the eating of raw garlic cloves, like popcorn, in a way. This is one head of garlic + one mound of salt + sour cream + sourdough bread on a tray, maybe with cucumbers, but not always - only in summers (in season). Peel garlic, dip into salt, chew. Tear off chunk of bread, add sour cream, chew. Repeat until the raw garlic is gone.
                          Similar: Pan of only boiled then fried peppers + sourdough bread. Eat a pepper, bite some bread. Repeat until peppers are gone.
                          So you see, peppers are very popular in the Bulgarian diet.
                          I hope this helps.
                          And, I hope you will consider offering a platter of peeled peppers with minced garlic & olive oil beside a basket or board of bread. Delicious!

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: SusanaTheConqueress

                            Interesting. So if the old Bulgars rejected capsicum as the food of the conquerors, the stigma seems to have lapsed.

                          2. I've used birdseye chiles in my chile, but I've added them at the end to perk up the higher notes.
                            TBH, I find them quite grassy tasting, and don't add much to a lot of dishes besides heat. So usually, I just skip them and use anchos or dried habeneros as the main flavorings. and if I use chipotles, they tend to overpower everything else, so they're used sparingly.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: Soop

                              Are these bird's eye chilis the "Chiltepe" chilies of Guatamala? My dear neighbor, now across the continent from us, gifted me a plant + the method for making chiltepe hot sauce. I _LOVE_ it _SO_ much! I can it by the quarts in summer. Chiltepes + Tomatillos, simmered with garlic & bay leaves, a little salt + vinegar = _Bliss!_
                              _VERY_ Hot peppers looking like sweet peas. They go straight from green to red - no yellows & oranges to be found on the plant.
                              P,S. ~ I'm currently harvesting red Tabasco chilis from the Tabasco plant out front, adjacent (6' distant) from the chiltepe and adding them to a jar of vinegar & garlic, to make my own aged Tabasco sauce in a few years' time! ;-) YUMM!

                              1. re: SusanaTheConqueress

                                Bird's eye chiles are found all over the planet. In the US and Mexico there are chile tepin and chile pequin peppers. In Africa there is the peri-peri. And I'm pretty sure there's a similar pepper in Southeast Asia.

                                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                  Many of these small chiles grow wild, and are often regarded as native. Humans had a role in their dispersal world wide, but at some local scale birds also spread them. They are probably close to the original variety of Capsicum annuum.

                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                    I almost came back to edit, last morning, on this. I wanted to clarify I use these fresh from the plants & ask if these "bird's eye chilies" are dried ~ if so, they're widely available in So. Cal. markets for a song...
                                    The chilie pequin peppers of Mexico aren't round, like little sweet peas, but slightly elongated - still teensie-weensie, but not the spheres I'm referring to - diminutive spheres of glorious heat & flavor but quite the chore to de-stem!
                                    Once, in a fit of some strong emotion, Rosa just dumped them into the blender & _yow!_ little 1" shreds of "wood" throughout!
                                    Still, so tasty we had it with her black beans & flour tortillas anyway! LOL!
                                    Chiltepep tastes just that great! :-)
                                    (She plops a whole head of garlic, unpeeled, into her black beans halfway through, too, I noticed... dunno what she does with it after ~ it's never ended up in my bowl... If she calls again, I'll ask.