There are people who should really be called chile abusers--ask anybody who's ever been to a chili cook-off or watched a chile-eating contest. But people who actually like to taste their food usually like chiles too, and in countries where peppers are an integral part of the cuisine, they're nearly always in the majority.
These traditional cuisines show the many ways chiles can be used to create exciting dishes that are not mere endurance contests. It's all a matter of imagination and balance. These are some of our favorite hot dishes.
Very hot but well balanced. The seeds and veins may be removed from the serrano peppers if you have any doubts about the amount of pepper.
MIN KAKKADILAKKIYADU (South Indian Fish, Muslim Style)
4 (6-ounce) lean fish fillets (such as snapper or cod)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1 large clove garlic
1 1/2-inch piece ginger root, peeled
4 serrano chiles
6 tablespoons oil
2 large onions, finely sliced
2 large or 3 medium tomatoes, peeled and cut into eighths
1 cup water
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 teaspoon garam masala or dash each ground cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin and nutmeg
Rinse fish fillets. Mix 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne and 1/2 teaspoon salt and rub fish with mixture. Mix remaining 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, 1 tablespoon cayenne and ground coriander.
Mince garlic, ginger and chiles. Mix well together or grind together in blender or food processor.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in skillet over medium heat. Brown fish 1 minute on either side. Remove fish and reserve.
Divide sliced onions in 2 portions. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in skillet over high heat and saute half of onions until browned at edges, about 5 minutes. Lower heat slightly and continue to saute onions until well browned, about 10 minutes more. Remove onions from pan and puree in food processor or blender.
Reheat skillet and add remaining onions, adding more oil if necessary. Fry rapidly, stirring, until transparent. Add garlic mixture, reduce heat to medium and fry until aromatic, about 1 minute. Add ground coriander mixture and fry few seconds. Add tomatoes and water. Mix well and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until gravy thickens, about 15 minutes.
Stir onion puree into tomato mixture and bring to simmer. Add fish and cook until oil starts to separate from sauce, about 10 minutes. Turn fish over halfway through, keeping fillets whole.
Stir in chopped cilantro and garam masala. Serve over plain rice with yogurt on side. Makes 4 servings.
A rough, simple creole dish from the Guatemalan border.
POLLO SALTADO (Chiapas-Style Chicken)
3 tablespoons oil
1 medium chicken, cut-up
2 large onions, sliced medium thick
2 large cloves garlic, sliced in strips
6 to 8 jalapeno chiles or 5 pickled jalapenos, seeds left on, cut in rings
2 large green or red peppers, diced 1/2-inch
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon ground oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Pat-dry chicken pieces and brown quickly on both sides, about 10 minutes per side. Remove chicken pieces to large casserole.
Add onions, garlic, jalapenos and green peppers to remaining oil in skillet. Lower heat to medium and saute mixture until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove and add to casserole.
Add vinegar, oregano, cumin and salt to casserole. Simmer, partly covered, until tender, about 40 minutes, turning chicken pieces and stirring vegetables halfway through. Serve with rice, tortillas and green salad, if desired. Makes 4 servings.
A rich and sneaky dish. You don't taste the chiles for quite a while, and you may even start sweating before the burn begins.
AJI DE POLLO (Peruvian Rich and Spicy Chicken)
1 large chicken, cut in serving pieces
3 cups chicken stock
8 new potatoes, well scrubbed
5 jalapeno chiles or 10 serrano chiles
3/4 cup walnuts
3 slices white bread, trimmed of crusts
3/4 cup evaporated milk
1/2 cup oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon crushed dried hot red pepper, about
20 Kalamata olives
8 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and quartered
Combine chicken and stock in large, heavy pot. Bring to boil, then simmer gently until tender, about 45 minutes. Remove chicken pieces and cool. Reserve chicken stock. When chicken is cool, remove meat from bones and tear into bite-size pieces.
Cook potatoes in boiling salted water until tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Puree chiles with walnuts and 1/4 cup broth in blender or food processor. Mix bread with evaporated milk.
Heat oil in large, heavy casserole over medium heat. Saute onion and garlic 5 minutes. Add milk-soaked bread, cumin and just enough turmeric to color mixture bright gold. Add chile-walnut mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer gently 2 minutes, stirring often.
Stir in 1/2 cup reserved stock and Parmesan cheese to make thick, rough-textured sauce. Add crushed red pepper to taste by teaspoons. Add chicken and heat to serving temperature. Spoon onto serving dish and garnish with olives, hard-cooked eggs and boiled potatoes. Makes 4 servings.
Food styling by Minnie Bernardino and Donna Deane