Chilies' mood swings offer surprises

Because I love chilies so much — both from culinary and artistic points of view — it doesn't surprise me that more chilies are produced and consumed than any other seasoning in the world. However, no other ingredient resists standardization with such persistence.

You see, no matter what their official character is supposed to be — "hot," "sweet" or somewhere in the middle — all chilies retain an element of unpredictability. But it doesn't bother me that these capricious capsicums with their mercurial mood swings offer surprises.

After all, they bring such flavor and energy to my recipes. It's interesting that a supposedly mild-mannered Anaheim can turn on you if so inclined.

The use of chilies as flavor enhancers has been an elementary cooking technique for thousands of years. And because chilies have played an integral roll in dozens of cuisines — Mexican, American Southwest, North African, Ethiopian, the Near East, Indian, Chinese, Korean, Southeast Asian and Cajun — I'd hardly refer to it as some little, regional thing. Particularly not when they grow so well up here in the Pacific Northwest, miles and miles from swaying palms and Margaritaville. So if you have not done so in years past, perhaps this is the season to dedicate a bit of square footage in your summer garden to a few chili plants.

There's also an air of confusion surrounding the naming of chilies, which can be named for any number of reasons: color, use, shape, place of origin or hotness. There's also the custom of changing the name of chilies as they turn from green to red or from fresh to dried.

For example, the fresh poblano chili becomes ancho once dried. To further confuse the issue, this same chili is called pasilla in California. And then there's the fresh jalapeno, which becomes a chipotle when smoked and dried.

But I thought it would be helpful to take a stab at classifying some of the varieties. The following primer, which I adapted from "Mark Miller's Indian Market Cookbook," should come in handy, as more and more unusual varieties of fresh and dried chilies are finding their way to your local market these days.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at

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