The chilli on which so many relishes are based came originally from South America and was brought back to the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century by Spaniards and, in due course, exported on to the Middle East, then India and Southeast Asia.
Used fresh, the larger milder chilli is a vegetable like a hot sweet pepper. When dried, it is used as you would a spice and people in the countries where they are grown value the chilli in its dried form just as much as when it is fresh. The heat-producing element in chillies is called capsaicin and the heat itself is measured in ‘Scoville units’, which range from zero for a sweet pepper to 300,000 for the hobanero - also called the Scotch bonnet - and the hottest chilli in the world (rated 10 on a simplified scale of 1 to 10).
When cooking with dried chillies, soak them first in just-boiled water for 20 minutes, then purée them in a food processor with some of the soaking liquid and add them by the spoonful to whatever you are cooking, tasting after each addition to control the amount of heat. Larger, meaty dried chillies, like the ancho, can be stuffed after a preliminary soaking. Dried chillies can also be soaked, then cut into thin strips to add to stir-fries, or marinated in olive oil and vinegar for salads.
When handling hot chillies — fresh and dried - try to remember to wash your hands carefully before touching eyes, nostrils or other sensitive parts. If you forget to take this precaution, you will remember why it was a good precept for some time afterwards. Like years.
© 1995 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.