July 22, 2016
Vol. VIII No. 15
Mediterranean Heat: Chili Peppers
One of the first foods brought back from the New World by Columbus in 1493 was a variety of hot chili pepper. In their dried and ground form, chili peppers were immediately recognizable as similar in texture and flavor to black pepper, an expensive imported spice that was already being used frequently in Mediterranean cooking. Chili peppers were an easy-to-grow, inexpensive alternative, and were quickly incorporated - even faster than tomatoes - into the Mediterranean diet

In Spain, monks in the Congregation of La Ñora in Murcia cultivated what are now known as Ñora peppers, used throughout Spain in paellas, stews, and soups for subtle, rich heat. In Jarandilla de la Vera and Jaraíz, red chili peppers were dried over fire and ground into smoky paprika, now commonly known as pimentón. Italians took to a variety of chili peppers, collectively calling them pepperoncini, and still use them fresh, preserved, and dried (mostly in the form of chili flakes) with pasta, on pizza, and in tomato sauces and stews.

Through trade, hot peppers spread from Spain and Italy to the Ottoman Empire. Burgundy Aleppo peppers in Syria, and Urfa and Maras peppers in Turkey emerged, named after the places where they were first grown. Dried chili peppers are now used in almost every savory dish in Syria and Turkey. 

North African cuisine, in Tunisia and Morocco for example, tends to use the most spice from chili peppers, compared to the rest of the Mediterranean. Condiments such as harissa, a fiery hot sauce made most often with a variety of dried red chilis, is spooned soups, couscous, grilled meat, and vegetables. Other Mediterranean countries and regions have their signature "hot sauces" as well: zhoug, drizzled over pita and falafel in Israel; chermoula, often used as a marinade for seafood in countries across North Africa; rouille, a Provençal mayonnaise-like sauce used as a garnish for bouillabaisse in France; and romesco, traditionally used on seafood in Spain. 

Chili peppers may make us sweat, but it's worth the delicious, complex taste they add to food. Research indicates that they may make us feel fuller and help us live longer too. And, like herbs and spices in general, use them to add more flavor with less salt.

When experimenting with different types of chilis in your cooking, add a little bit first, taste, then add more to your liking. Here are a few more tips for cooking with chili peppers:
  • Check out the Scoville Scale to determine the heat of common chili peppers. Look for them in the produce and spice aisles at the grocery store, at international stores, or online.
  • Remove the inner membrane from fresh chili peppers to reduce their heat. The membrane is the spiciest part of the pepper.
  • Thoroughly wash knives, cutting boards, and hands after working with fresh chili peppers. Their juice can irritate the skin and eyes. Wear disposable gloves if you want to be extra cautious.
  • Dried chili peppers are less variable sources of heat than fresh chili peppers. Smoke-dried or "smoked" dried chili peppers add a delicious barbequed flavor to food without hours at the grill.
  • To diffuse the heat of chili peppers, add them, fresh or dried, to olive oil in a skillet and heat slowly over medium heat, along with garlic, anchovies, and other aromatic ingredients. Strain if you like, and drizzle the oil to taste over cooked vegetables, pasta, and seafood.
Look to the recipes below for more ways to add some heat to your cooking.

Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipe.

Skhug (or zhoug or zhug), a popular Middle Eastern condiment made with hot peppers and cilantro, adds the perfect amount of spice to falafel, shawarma, or in this case, whole roasted fish. Buy it pre-made, or make your own. 

Recipe and photo courtesy of Grecian Delight

The dressing for this tasty salad includes dried cayenne pepper, a hot chili pepper used in a variety of cuisines. Dried Aleppo pepper and pimentón paprika are good substitutes. The heat of the chili pepper pairs perfectly with salty cheese and sweet pears.

Recipe by Diane Kochilas for Mediterra. Photo courtesy of Mediterra

Enjoy this one-dish meal chilled in the summer. The toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas) add a delightful crunch, and Aleppo pepper brings some heat and complex flavor to the dish. 

An Oldways recipe and photo. 

Books We Recommend

by Aglaia Kremezi
by Greg & Lucy Malouf

by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
The award-winning Aglaia Kremezi, who introduced Greek cuisine to American kitchens, gives Mediterranean cooking new spice. Fresh, seasonal ingredients spiked with fragrant Mediterranean chilis are the basis for recipes bursting with color, flavor, and aroma.  
Greg and Lucy Malouf have compiled this collection of mouth-watering recipes inspired by the flavors of North Africa, Spain, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East. They want you to become comfortable with the cuisine in this part of the Mediterranean so you'll be able to whip up chermoula as readily as pesto.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins focuses on a cluster of core ingredients and foodways that are fundamental to Mediterranean cuisine. She devotes an entire chapter to New World peppers and tomatoes, describing what they are used for, what determines their quality, and where they fit in local diets.

Fresh Fridays is a bi-weekly celebration of Mediterranean eating and living. We hope our Friday recipes will remind you just how easy and delicious eating the Mediterranean way can be.   

To find even more delicious Mediterranean recipes please visit: