You may have wondered what the colourful string of red peppers gracing the entrances of homes and offices around Santa Fe is all about. Today, I am glad to share with you the story of the ristra. Not only is it a beautiful and festive decoration, but it is also of practical use, as a way to dry chiles and preserve them for future consumption.
A ristra is a string of drying chile pepper pods composed typically of large New Mexican chiles or Anaheim peppers, although any kind of chile may be used to construct it. Chiles are in the genus Capsicum, which is in the nightshade family, and includes (interestingly) the tomato, potato, eggplant, tobacco and the petunia. Colloquially, chiles are often referred to as "peppers," however, they are not related to Piper nigrum, the source of black pepper. Even more interestingly, chile is a fruit and is considered a berry. Chile is also often considered an annual, however, in suitable climates it becomes a small perennial shrub that can live for a decade or more. In New Mexico, our chile comes in two flavours, red or green – and best yet the combo called Christmas! The red and green fruit represent two developmental stages of the same chile. The plant produces green fruit, which turns red if the pods are left on the plant. The red fruit is usually dried and ground into chile powder while green chile is roasted and peeled for fresh consumption, canning or freezing.
Chiles are an important source of vitamins and essential nutrients. A green chile pod can contain six times as much vitamin C as an orange. The content diminishes about 30% with cooking and is almost completely absent in dried chile. As pods turn red, the vitamin A content increases until they contain twice the vitamin A of a carrot. Chile pods also contain high concentrations of vitamins E, P (bioflavonoids), B1 (thiamin) B2 (riboflavin) and B3 (niacin).
Now lets talk about heat… the heat index for chile has a dramactic range, from the sweet bell pepper to the fiery hot ghost pepper and beyond. It is believed that the chile evolved its spicy factor to discourage mammals from eating the fruits as their digestive systems destroy the seeds. Birds, however, do not feel the heat, and happily disseminate the seeds.
Urban legend contents that the seeds are the source of the "heat", au contraire, it comes from alkaloid compounds call capsaicinoids, which are located in glands along the fruit's inner wall, or placenta. When you slice the fruit open you can tell how hot a chile will be – if the placenta is a bright orange, the fruit will be hot. If the colour is pale, the fruit will be mild.
“Heat” is affected by genetics, weather, growing conditions, and age. Plant breeders can select for desired ranges of spice, but stress to the plant such as a few hot days or less precipitation, can increase the capsaicinoid content and thus the burn. Chile spiciness is measured in Scoville Heat Units. Heat is felt via irritation of the pain and temperature receptors in the mouth, nose, and stomach. Your body responds by vasodilatation, sweating and flushing, and the brain causes the release of endorphins (giving you a bit of a rush) and possibly an addiction.
To combat the burn, milk or milk-based products which contain casein are helpful. Casein is a protein that unbinds the capsaicin from the nerve receptors on the taste buds.
The word "chile" is a variation of "chil" derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec) dialect. The "e" ending is the Latin spelling of the word. Confusion reigns as English speakers have changed the "e" to an "i" and made the word refer most often to the state dish of Texas, a combination of meat, beans, and chile pepper, called "chili."
Chile originates from the Americas where it was domesticated over 7,000 years ago. The wild ancestral form probably originated in the area of Bolivia and Peru. When Columbus landed, while searching for a shorter route to the East Indies and its prized spices, he found a variety of red chile which he called red pepper and took back to Europe.
The distribution of Capsicum extended from the southernmost border of the United States to the temperate area of South America. Spanish explorers in the late 1500s reported that the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico were growing a mild variant form.
Since the introduction of chile to Europe by Columbus, it spread rapidly along the spice trade routes to Africa and Asia, where it became a major crop. Today, a quarter of the population of the world eats chile daily. Though the world cannot compete with this home-grown prize as New Mexicans consume more chile per capita than any other group in the United States. Further, it is an essential ingredient of "Mexican or Southwestern food," the fastest growing food sector in the United States.
New Mexico has an optimum climate for growing chile given its low annual precipitation. Too much water encourages disease and renders the fruit less flavourful. In addition, the high desert climate provides intense sunlight, warm days, cool nights and daily breezes, which help to dry the plants after a rain or morning dew. Several hundred varieties of chiles are grown in New Mexico, including New Mexican (green and red), cayenne, and jalapeño.
I’ll leave you with a few fun facts, capsaicin is (unsurprisingly) the active ingredient in pepper-spray. Paprika is the Hungarian words for chile and is used as colouring in sausages, cheeses, drugs and cosmetics. Cayenne is named for a city in French Guiana. Jalapeños are named for Jalapa, Mexico. Chile has antimicrobial effects, and helps retard food spoilage, an important benefit in warm climates. Chiles are widely used as a natural remedy; pharmaceutical companies use the capsaicin as a topical agent in creams and liniments for sore muscles or for chronic pain as with shingles, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. And red chile, when fed to pink flamingos, improves their feather colour!
HEB offers a helpful guide to making your own ristra, https://www.heb.com/static-page/how-to-make-a-chile-ristra. If you give it a go, I advise wearing gloves, the chile permeates your skin and burns any sensitive areas you touch. Definitely do not put your fingers in your eyes!
Now go and find yourself a chile, wherever you may be!
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