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Chillies: Some like them hot, some don’t!

Gail Thomas explains how to grow and cook with these tender perennials

You’ll find chillies in cuisines the world over from Mexico and Spain to Italy, Japan and the Caribbean where names such as Scotch Bonnet, Habanero, Tobago, Jalapeno, Red Cap Mushroom, Maui Purple and more are savoured for their wide-ranging flavours and heat ratings.
Chillies’ fiery characteristics are measured on the Scoville scale as Scoville Heat Units (SHU), which is related to their capsaicin concentration. However, what some consider a mild ‘chilli hit’ or a ‘blow your head off’ experience can also depend on one’s individual tolerance.
Chillies come in all shapes, sizes and colours and can be sweet and mild or light up the palate with explosive volatility. Underlying the heat there is a broad range of fruit flavours, sometimes grassy or earthy notes. The profile of Habanero is likened to tropical pawpaw and coconut while others reveal sweet, floral or tangy citrus tastes.
As a general guideline, the smaller the chilli, the hotter it will be. These colourful fiery fruits are easy to grow, be it in the garden or a pot, and will produce a prolific eye-catching crop. Some varieties resemble long hot pokers, others are reminiscent of a bauble-decorated Christmas tree.

When to sow and plant
The hotter the chilli, the higher the temperature required for successful germination. Start seeds early indoors – a heat mat is good to get them started as soil temperatures need to be 25-28°C for germination and even up to 35°C for the hottest varieties.
Seed can be planted in the cool zone from September through to November and in the warm zone from August to December. For those in the hot zone it’s best to plant from April to October and in humid subtropical areas from August to April, while in humid tropical regions planting can be year-round.
Chillies can be established in pots, then planted out into the garden after any risk of frost has passed and when the soil temperature reaches 18°C as, once established, plants will tolerate cooler soils. These tender perennials need to be spaced around 50cm apart and situated in a position with full sun. Plants grow to around 50cm in height and require moist well-drained soils rich in organic matter.
Fruit will be ready for harvest from 12-18 weeks from transplant and can be harvested once they reach full size and ripen, as this will encourage the plant to set more flowers and produce more fruit. Varieties can be picked green or when they attain full colour, though Jalapeno, Serrano and Padrón peppers tend to be harvested mainly while green.
Growing a selection of different chilli varieties opens up a broad spectrum of culinary possibilities, not just for the heat factor but also to suit your favourite cuisine. Jalapeno and Serrano are a must when you’re cooking up a Mexican feast, Paprika for drying (Hungarian goulash anyone?), tiny Bird’s Eye for Thai or maybe Scotch Bonnet for Caribbean.
Blowing your brains
For those wanting to explore the extremes, Carolina Reaper, with 2,200,00 shu, is considered the hottest chilli in the world, closely followed by Trinidad Moruga Scorpion with 2,009,231 shu. Others with evocative names such as Naga Viper, Ghost Chilli and Dragon’s Breath are also up in the top heat rankings! By comparison, the maximum for Habanero is 350,000 shu, Cayenne 50,000 shu, Jalapeno 8,000 shu while Santa Fe Grande is only 700 shu.

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