Chiles: A World Tour.
Most European countries do not use chiles for their traditional dishes; only Mediterranean countries and Hungary have much of a chile tradition, though food is rarely really fiery even in these countries. Consequently, there are only few partcular chile cultivars in Europe. A good example is the fiery piri-piri, a Portuguese variety sold almost exclusively in pickled form.
Other hot chiles are mostly used dried, e.g., the piment d’espelette from Pays Basque in France, or the South Italian pepperoncino.
At it’s heart, traditional Mexican cuisine is the various permutations and preparations of chiles. Tamales, tacos, Rellenos, moles, tortillas, frijoles, enchaladas, etc. are all tempered by chiles. While each region of Mexico has its specialties the chile is omnipresent.
In Thailand, “curry pastes” (prik kaeng or prik gaeng) are ground mixtures of chiles with other fresh spices. Chile-based table condiments are almost ubiquitous in Thailand: nam pla prik (fish sauce with finely choppen green chiles), prik dong (chopped red chiles in vinegar) and prik phom (red chile powder) allow each diner to adjust spiciness (Europeans, however, rarely use the option). The mentioned three chile condiments, plus white sugar and ground toasted peanuts, make up the standard set of “fiver flavours” which is offered even in very cheap restaurants and at family tables. In Indonesia a red hot chile sauce, sambal, is provided at the table to adjust hotness level to one’s personal taste. Sambal may consist simply of mashed, salted chiles (sambal ulek), but may also be fried or enhanced with shrimp paste, nuts or other spices; a popular recipe is sambal bajak.
Most Chinese cooking styles, as a rule of thumb, avoid too much spicyness; especially Southern Chinese (Cantonese) recipes. In Central China (Sichuan and Hu-nan province), however, chiles and garlic are very popular and used in astonishing amounts. Dried red chiles are often fried in hot oil until dark brown, the oil then being used to prepare stir-fries. The local tien tsin chile is particularily suited for this high-temperature procedure.
Another method of using chiles is doubanjiang (hot bean paste), a fiery paste prepared from chiles, garlic and soy beans by fermentation; it is most typical for Sichuan cookery. An example of Sichuan cookery is mapo tofu, spicy minced pork with bean cheese. For this dish, the pork is stir-fried together with doubanjiang and garlic and then combined with mild, soft bean cheese.
Although Vietnamese food is only moderately spiced, chiles are always available as optional additives at the table, either fresh or in fish sauce (nuoc mam), similar to Thai custom. This applies mostly to the South; in North Vietnam, garlic replaces chiles as condiment. In Japan chiles are used less often than in any other Asian country. Chiles are rarely employed in cooking, but table condiments containing chiles are served with specific kinds of food. For example, dried chiles, either alone or in mixture with other spices (shichimi togarashi), are popular for spicing up soups.
In neighbouring Korea, though, chiles are much loved. They are either used fully ripe and dried (a red powder of bright colour and full heat), or in form of a chile-flavoured hot bean paste.
South Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine uses fresh green chiles, which are taken in mind-boggling amounts for stir-fries and deep-fried lentil snacks. For curries, dried red chiles are usually preferred; three large tablespoons for one liter of curry is not unreasonable.
In Northern India, as well as in Central Asia, chiles are nearly always used dried. They are sold whole or ground at the market and are intensively fiery, intensively coloured and intensively aromatic. Usually they are fried in fat so the pungency is distributed uniformly in the food.
Not surprisingly, chiles appear in many spice mixtures: Indian garam masala and sambaar podi, curry powder, their Ethiopian pendent berebere and Arabic mixtures. Far Eastern examples include Japanese shichimi togarashi and the former mentioned Thai curry pastes.
Other spice preparations are made entirely or at least dominantly of chiles, like the hot pepper sauces of the Southern US and Mexico (containing mostly vinegar or lemon juice, garlic, salt and chiles, or Tunisian harissa, a fiery paste of dried red chiles, garlic, cumin (or caraway), coriander, olive oil and sometimes a hint of peppermint.