Fruit from the genus Capsicum – which includes both sweet peppers and chillies – are used in cooking all over the world. Even in modern British cuisine, sweet peppers have proven their worth – whether stuffed, fried or eaten raw in salads – while it is difficult to imagine a home-made curry without the comforting warmth of a chilli or two.
Unfortunately, shoppers who frequent supermarkets and high-street greengroceries are poorly served by a dull selection of capsicums. Fortunately, all is not lost, and adventurous cooks looking for a new experience have at their disposal innumerable immigrant shops scattered all over Britain. Always eager to please, these shops cater to the likes of Thais, Ghanaians and Bangladeshis, and provide their customers with an astonishing choice of fresh chillies and sweet peppers that puts their mainstream rivals to shame.
Of all the immigrant communities residing in Britain, it is indisputably the Italians who have made sweet peppers their particular specialty. Shop-bought varieties display extremes of shapes and sizes, from the small, finger-like frying peppers called ‘frigetello’ or ‘friariello’ (C. annuum) to the elongated bullhorn types (C. annuum) stretching to 230mm. As impressive as they are, however, these varieties take backstage to the enormous bell peppers (C. annuum) that are reminiscent of bloated Sumo wrestlers – one fruit I bought in a London shop measured about 100 x 140 mm, weighed more than 300 grams and held approximately 350ml of water (more than half a pint) in its cavity.
Though perhaps better known for their sweet peppers, the Italians are also maestros of heat and have given generously to the chilli world. One of their more distinctive contributions is a curious-looking bunch chilli (C. annuum), whose bullet-shaped fruit grow upright in clusters at the end of each stem. Once seen, never forgotten, and so different is this chilli that there is no question about getting its identity right.
Shops selling Turkish capsicums offer a standard selection of sweet peppers that consists of two varieties: ‘Dolma’ (C. annuum), a small, light green bell used for stuffing; and ‘Carliston’ (C. annuum), with yellowish, elongated fruit that can be over 200mm long. Both have little to recommend them from the point of view of flavour and are worth employing only when the use of authentic ingredients is an absolute necessity.
To make up for the indifference of the sweet peppers, the shops also stock an elongated, eye-catching chilli (C. annuum) whose bright green colour jumps out from the shelves. The snake-like fruit twist and turn and can reach 230mm in length, making it one of the longest chillies sold in Britain. It has a nice manageable heat, and the fruit are thick-fleshed enough to be delicious fried with garlic and yogurt.
Chillies sold in Asian shops are dominated by the ubiquitous cayenne types that are so cheap they can be bought by the bag full. For something more interesting, it’s worth tracking down the less common ‘Naga Morich’ (C. chinense), a specialty of shops with a Bangladeshi clientele.
Normally eaten green, the wedge-shaped, naturally-wrinkled fruit are, when at their freshest, hypnotically shiny. But shoppers should not be seduced by its innocent appearance: the Naga is one of the hottest chillies in the world, and the enormous pain it can cause is only partially offset by an enticingly fruity aroma. It costs significantly more than other varieties, reflecting perhaps its rarity and the high esteem accorded it.
Setting Thai standards
The cooking of Thailand is inextricably linked to chillies, and the Thais have elevated their use to an art form. Shopkeepers in Britain sell a uniquely diverse selection that comes in a range of colours, heat levels and sizes. One of the largest is prik yawk (C. annuum), an aromatic variety with very little heat, while at the other end is what must be the world’s smallest chilli, ‘phrik kii nuu suan’ (C. frutescens), with elongated, diminutive fruit that can be as short as 7mm. Add to this a bright orange variety (C. annuum), a dark green one (C. annuum) ideal for green curries, and at least four or five others (a mix of C. annuum and C. frutescens), and you have an enviable arsenal to suit every contingency.
Galicia, tucked away in the northwest corner of Spain, is home to the ‘Pimiento de Padron’ (C. annuum) chilli, a celebrated appetiser and snack that has immigrated to Britain. Unlike most peppers, its fruit are harvested small and immature, when the flesh is soft and the seeds still tender. They are then gently fried in olive oil and eaten whole with crusty bread and salt.
Acting decidedly unchilli-like, Pimentos de Padron are eaten so young that the fruit are usually heat–free. Unpredictably, this is not always the case, and every so often, a hot one slips through in a culinary game of Russian roulette. Nevertheless, the Padron chilli has its unwavering admirers, who appreciate the rich, herbaceous flavour and easy smooth texture that make it a coveted treat.
Out of Africa
Food reflects culture, and immigrant shops stock the foods of the communities they serve. Shops catering to Ghanaians, for example, sell a small, light green habanero-type chilli called ‘kpakpo shito’ (C. chinense). Sold either loose or in clear plastic bags, it is a particularly variable landrace, and a close examination of the fruit reveals a multitude of shapes that includes what is probably the world’s smallest bell.
Britain has a small Mauritian community that is big on chillies. A particularly prominent variety is ‘Piment Curry’, whose elongated fruit is moderately hot and normally sold green. It is a Capsicum baccatum, a species not commonly found in the Old World, let alone Africa. Likewise, it is a rare species in Britain, and the ‘Piment Curry’ may be its sole representative sold fresh in the shops.
Immigrant capsicums and Sea Spring Seeds
Sea Spring Seeds has been plant hunting in Britain’s immigrant shops and gardens for at least 10 years. Specialising in capsicums, we have collected and trialled dozens of chillies and sweet peppers in order to find decent-yielding varieties that are adapted to British growing conditions. This is an on-going programme, and so far we have had several successes, which we currently sell through our on-line catalogue:
- Dorset Naga (Capsicum chinense): a selection of the Bangladeshi ‘Naga Morich’.
- Jamaican Jerk (Capsicum chinense): collected from a Jamacian stall in Brixton Market.
- Petty Belle and Cheeky (Capsicum chinense): Selections from the Ghanian ‘kapakpo shito’.
© Michael Michaud