Hello and Welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, where Sober Thursday Jon has to answer for the sins of Hungover Monday Jon. Today’s last-minute addition to the schedule is a discussion of the most potent potables in your pepper pantry: Paprika, Chili Powder, and Cayenne Pepper. Yes, of all the South American powders found in your standard American Kitchen, these three are certainly the most confused and misunderstood. Luckily, I’m here to sort through these crushed-up conundrums, and apparently alliterate all over the place.
Take A Chill Pill
Let’s start with Chili Powder. What chiles, exactly, is it made from? The answer is, of course, A lot of them, because this is culinary history so nothing is simple and easy, this whole conversation is a fucking mess.
Sometimes, things just don't have good explanations.
Speaking of Looney Tunes, if all the Tunes know of Porky’s stutter, why does he do the outro? Is it a confidence building thing? Bullying? Like, does he do it by CHOICE, or is he FORCED to do it for the other’s amusement? That makes Bugs Bunny an even less great role model, if the latter. Also, why are the cartoon characters called Tunes? I know the show name is a reference to the Silly Symphonies, but surely the characters themselves would be the Tune Toons or something.
What’s that? You want ACTUAL answers? UUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH. Fine.
So, to REALLY start, we have to go even further back than Chili powder. Because, and this is where we get really fun: chiles and chilis are different things, except when they aren’t, and literally all three products we’re discussing today come from the same thing…except it isn’t.
First, let’s talk words: when European explorers came to the Americas, they found a spicy plant later taxonomically identified as capsicum annuum. Columbus called the plants “peppers” (because they reminded him of the heat of Black Pepper) when he brought them back and started growing them in Spain and Portugal. Shortly thereafter, Spain invaded Central America, and learned the Nahuatl word for the plant was chilli, with 2 Ls. The Spanish took that word, and made it chile. Except, when they told England about it, they wrote down the name as "Chili", one L, ending in an I.
Did somebody say "Eye"?
This was complicated FURTHER when, sometime later, people started making chili con carne, a brick of meat, fat, and seasonings, formed together to later be cooked into a stew. Notice the I at the end? Yeah, as far as I can find, the stew has NEVER ended in E. So, in the general stance of America, a division was formed: If it ends with an E, it’s the pepper. If it ends with an I, it’s the stew. Unless you're writing about the plants themselves, because those MIGHT be Chili Peppers with an I, which are a TYPE of Chile, with an E.
Things Get Even Worse
IF you thought that was the end of the confusion, I envy you, you sweet summer child. Oh no. See, remember when I talked about Cauliflower, and I had to explain the difference between a cultivar and a species? If not, a quick summary: due to how plant genetics works, the same SPECIES of plant can be cultivated to grow vastly differently. Broccoli and Cabbage, for example, are the same plant, as are Kale and Cauliflower. In fact, they’re all the SAME plant. Capsicum Annuum has the same problem.
This is a picture from the website of a cancer doctor that put 4 wrong species in their pic. This shit is confusing enough that oncologists are fucking it up.
Bell Peppers, Jalapeñoes, Cayenne peppers, red chili peppers, Anaheims, *inhale*, Serranos, Poblanos, Hatch, roughly half of all peppers you can think of are just cultivars or treatments of cultivars of capsicum annuum. Chipotles and anchos, for instance, are just smoked versions of Jalapeños and Poblanos. (Most of the time. Some areas just CALL Poblano peppers Anchos, whether smoked or not) Most of the other half are cultivars of capsicum chinense: Habaneros, Scotch Bonnets, and every “hottest pepper in the world” contender: Scorpions, Ghost Peppers, and Carolina Reapers.
So, every pepper is just one way of growing the same type of pepper, chili is made from chiles which can include chili peppers, and words and logic have no meaning, life is chaos, death is the only release.
"Ki-k-ki ki-KI-ki ki ki-Kill Me!"
But misery and suffering never stopped me before, so why should they now? NOW, let’s talk about Chili Powder.
I Honestly Think I Have a Headache Now.
Chili powder, or Chile powder because again, words are meaningless, can be one of two things, because…look, I am SECONDS from breaking down weeping, let’s just ignore WHY it's two things, and explain the two things
EITHER it is ground-up dried pods of chili peppers, OR it is a mixture of that product with various other spices, such as garlic powder, oregano, cumin, and PAPRIKA. (we’ll get to why that’s upsetting later.) In general, if it’s spelt with an I, you can assume it’s the latter: it’s a flavor product meant to form the basic components of the stew. If it comes with an E, and it’s prefaced with a specific varietal such as “chipotle” or “ancho”, then it’s the former, and made from those specific products. If it says “Aleppo”, that means it’s from a varietal of peppers grown in Syria, and potentially a problem if your dinner guests include Gary Johnson.
Man, remember when a guy sticking his tongue out on national TV was considered too weird for an American politician? What innocent days those were.
In general, unless the pepper stated is potent, chile powder won’t be particularly spicy. It’ll have some smoky notes and a bit of heat, but nothing too aggressive. Chili powder will be a little more varied, with more smokiness from the cumin.
So, if THAT’s settled, let’s talk…You know what, let’s do Cayenne next, it’s the easiest option, and I need a break or a drink after this fiasco.
I Fed a Caiman in Cheyenne some Cayenne from a Can
That may have been the most emotionally draining title pun I’ve ever written. I almost walked away from the keyboard and hit myself in the face with a two-liter of soda out of anger. Who knew a simple post about pepper powders would be the breaking point of my soul, huh?
Anywho, Cayenne, as mentioned, is the easiest one. Cayenne powder is made from Cayenne peppers, which are named after Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana.
A city I know essentially nothing about, but which looks fine, I guess.
That’s pretty much it. The only other notable claim to fame of the Cayenne pepper is some varieties are actually from a different species of pepper, capsicum frutescens, which really only holds it and Tabasco peppers.
Cayenne peppers are fairly hot, but not insane. The hottest cayennes are about half as hot as the coolest habaneros, and 10 times hotter than some jalapeños. You know those spicy red peppers you get in Chinese food? Those are often varieties of Cayenne peppers. (Well, technically, varieties of “bird peppers”, but it’s the same thing.)
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the BIG mess of the mix.
Time to Papri-Kash In!
I can't even bring myself to be mad at that.
Now, to understand the trepidation with which I start this section, you need to understand a quick fact: I knew going into this post that Paprika was going to be the HARD one to cover. It has a strange history, with a lot of details and elements to fully get it. And then I almost went insane on Chili Powder. So, what’s up with Paprika?
Spending more time with her parents?
I talked about Paprika last July, where I accused its delicate name (from the Hungarian for “Little Pepper”) for being the reason it’s overlooked in American kitchens. What I failed to discuss then is the sheer contrast of how it’s treated in America versus other countries. America, as I noted, mainly uses it for coloring, and mostly on egg-based dishes. Eggs Benedict or Deviled Eggs. Hungary, by contrast, really, REALLY cares about Paprika, if you couldn’t guess by the fact that they named it. They have EIGHT different classifications of it, with names like “Noble Sweet” and “Exquisite Delicate”. Spain notes that it has 3 versions, “Mild” “Spicy” and “Mildly Spicy”(Jesus, Spain, get it together) and then notes that its most popular form is NONE OF THOSE, but a secret 4th option “De La Vera” which is roughly equivalent to an American saying something like “St Louis-style”.
Why does Hungary care so much? Well, remember when I said Christopher Columbus called chiles peppers because they were hot like pepper? That’s only PARTLY true. See, at the time, black pepper was also what I call a “currency crop”: a crop of such value that it served as legal currency. Like Salt to the Romans, Chocolate to the Mayans, and many other examples, at the time, black Pepper was big business, just as a few centuries later white sugar would be big enough business to create the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Oh good, we've moved on from my personal suffering to decades of mass human suffering.
And by "Oh good", I mean 'How terrible"
Yeah, that’s not a joke. One of the major reasons Slavery increased so dramatically in the 1700’s and 1800’s was the need for manual labor to work Sugar Plantations in the Caribbean. I’ll certainly talk more about it later, but that’s the crux of it: Pepper was a huge business, so chili pepper became a huge side business. Spain brought them back from America, and started selling them to everyone, and they got to Hungary, who had the right climate to grow red peppers, and they went whole hog on that.
The peppers being grown were, in essence, red bell peppers. This is why the main variety most people know is “sweet paprika”: red bell peppers aren’t hot, they’re just colorful and tasty. Some were cross-bred with more Cayenne-tier peppers, creating “hot paprika”, and lastly, the “De La Vera” style was taking those peppers and drying them by smoking them, creating, pretty obviously, “smoked paprika”.
Wrong kind of smoke, Japan.
This is how paprika got into so many foods in Europe: for a couple decades, it was the hot new ticket, like how Kobe/Wagyu Beef has been real big in the last few decades in America. IT shows up in a lot of recipes of the time, including Goulash! Which I’ve often debated making for the site, but investigation has told me could be unwise: What, exactly, constitutes proper goulash is the European version of the Chili Wars of America: the recipe has changed in so many ways in so many locations, that any recipe presented is going to piss somebody off from as little as a 1-ingredient difference.
And THAT is…basically that. We’ve covered all three things we set out to discuss:
-chili powder is either ground up chile pods or a base mix of chili seasonings,
-Paprika comes in enough varieties to be useless to try to pin down to one definition,
-Cayenne is typically the spiciest of the bunch, except when it isn’t,
because all red powders in your kitchen are stained with the blood of historians, linguists, and indigenous peoples.
"Human Misery is the foundation of History!"
MONDAY: JON MISCOUNTED AND HASN’T COOKED SOMETHING YET. EXPECT SOMETHING BAVARIAN, SINCE HE’S STILL IN LEAVENWORTH.