So Much More Than Spice

From green chile grits to Scotch bonnet jelly to guajillo stew, these 36 global pepper recipes show us there’s so much to love about capsicum.

By SAVEUR Editors

Updated on September 16, 2021

In the late 1400s, pursuing their desire for South Asian spices, Spanish and Portuguese explorers found the inhabitants of the Greater Antilles growing and cooking with red peppers. The fruit had a similar piquancy to the black pepper native to India, so the traders brought the ingredient back home to the Iberian Peninsula. From there, the pepper so thoroughly spread across the lands—from Europe to the Arabian Peninsula to Asia—that by the end of the 15th century, India had become one of the world’s largest producers of capsicums. Now, the end of summer brings an explosion of different colors, types, and varieties to market everywhere—a vibrant dream for the spice devotee. 

But as any pepper lover will tell you, chiles are so much more than their signature blazing heat. Beneath many capsicums', mouth-scorching fire, you’ll find an aromatic base of floral, fruity, and sometimes even sweet flavors. Generally, the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. Slender jawla, which are popular in India and Southeast Asia, have a peppery accent that intensifies curries and chutneys. It’s easy to see why New Mexico is hooked on Hatch chiles; in the Southwestern state, the fire-roasted fleshy peppers can be found atop enchiladas, tucked into burritos, and everywhere in between. Mastering Jamaican Jerk requires taming the Caribbean Scotch Bonnet: a fruity and floral powerhouse of Scoville heat. Entire walls are dedicated to dried chiles in Mexican markets, where the flavors run the gamut from smoky to spicy, to chocolaty, earthy, and mushroomy. Citrusy bird’s eyes—popular throughout South and Southeast Asia—make sauces and dips like Thai nam phrik brighter. Sichuan mala would not be possible without equal contributions from numbing peppercorns and raisiny er jing tiao peppers. And sweeter Korean peppers used in dried form called gochugaru are ubiquitous across Korean cuisine. 

Whether you’re picking your own hard-earned harvest or exploring all your grocer has to offer, here’s how to take advantage of all the chiles’ unique flavors in every recipe.

A toasty, subtly fiery chile oil to drizzle over soup or dip with dumplings. It's worth making a large batch; the oil will keep at room temperature for a year. Get the recipe for Sichuan Chile Oil »

While the margarita is far better known, the grapefruit-, tequila-, and soda-based Paloma is an equally refreshing Mexican classic. Using árbol chile-spiked grenadine as a sweetener—rather than agave nectar or simple syrup—adds smokiness and a touch of heat. Get the recipe for Chile-Pomegranate Paloma »

The heat of this deep-red ancho chile soup and its pasilla chile garnish is balanced by the addition of cooling crema and thinly sliced avocado. Get the recipe for Ancho Chile Soup with Avocado, Crema, and Chile Pasilla (Sopa de Chile Ancho) »

The key ingredient to this rub is Chimayó chile, an heirloom variety, harvested in the town of Chimayó, New Mexico. Use it to help tenderize meat and give grilled flavors a jolt of spice. Get the recipe for Chimayó Chile Rub »

Black-eyed peas are puréed smooth and brightened with lots of lemon juice and served with a tiny dollop of intensely aromatic shito, a Ghanian chile paste, made sweet and spicy from caramelized onions, dried seafood, and smoky chile flakes. Get the recipe for Black-Eyed Pea Hummus With West African Chile Paste »

Toasted sesame oil and hot chile oil spice up this porky ramen. Get the recipe for Sesame and Chile Ramen (Tantanmen) »

The Gonzalez family in Las Cruces, near El Paso, makes enchiladas similar to these using an old family recipe. Get the recipe for Red Chile Enchiladas »

This salsa is spicy—use it sparingly!—as any serious salsa should be. Its flavor is all chile and garlic, and does well atop nachos, burritos, and eggs. If you're feeling daring, go for big scoops with your favorite bag of tortilla chips. Get the recipe for Chile de Arbol Salsa »

The staple meats of Western China, lamb and mutton can be found folded into everything from pilafs to buns to noodles. Of course, they're also the focal point of the region's iconic kebabs. Seasoned with freshly ground cumin (zira in Farsi and zīrán in Chinese), which was probably introduced to Xinjiang from Persia, the kebabs get an extra kick from minced garlic cloves and ground chile powder. Get the recipe for Chile and Cumin Lamb Kebabs (Yángròu chuàn) »

In Padang, restaurants grill and fry small whole mackerel before smearing them with sambal, a spicy chile-based condiment commonly used in all kinds of chile recipes. We find that the skin-on fillets of larger fish work just as well. Get the recipe for Ikan Balado (Padang-Style Grilled Mackerel with Sambal) »

For soft, creamy, and flavorful grits, chef Harold Marmulstein of Austin’s Salty Sow cooks his low and slow, then adds a rich, spicy, bright-green purée of chiles and cilantro. Get the recipe for Green Chile Grits »

The fiery chile-based rub on this chicken is balanced by a basting of sweet-sour duck sauce. Get the recipe for Spice-Rubbed Chicken with Duck Sauce »

This classic pasta, from award-winning chef Fulvio Pierangelini at his restaurant, Irene, in Florence, Italy, is enriched with the lobsters' coral, or roe sac. It adds a pop of briny flavor to the pasta, but can be omitted if the lobsters you buy don't contain it. Get the recipe for Lobster Linguine with Chiles »

These are rolled enchiladas—soft corn tortillas stuffed with shredded chicken and smothered with green chile sauce and cheese. If you prefer, make “stacked” enchiladas by layering tortillas, chicken, sauce, and cheese, as if making lasagna. Get the recipe for Hatch Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas »

In this American Chinese classic, lightly battered chicken is tossed in a sweet, slightly spicy sauce. Though not traditional, apricot jam adds a welcome note of acidity and pop of color. Get the recipe for General Tso’s Chicken »

The key to great pikliz, a spicy slaw made with cabbage and other vegetables, is time. The longer the sturdy, crunchy vegetables soak up the vinegar and citrus, the better. Serve it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on everything from eggs to steak. Get the recipe for Spicy Haitian Cabbage Slaw »

A mortar and pestle is key to getting the right texture for this beloved northern Thai chile dip. Reprinted from The Food of Northern Thailand. Get the recipe for Grilled-Chile Dip with Shallots and Garlic (Nam Phrik Num) »

Peppery watercress, nutty sesame seeds, and earthy Korean chile flakes are brought together by an easy lemon vinaigrette in this simple cold-weather salad. Get the recipe for Watercress with Spicy Chile and Sesame Vinaigrette »

Jalapeños, red bell peppers, poblanos, and serrano chiles come together in this spicy-sweet jelly from Elizabeth Stark, the blogger behind Brooklyn Supper. It’s perfect paired with rich meats, spread on sandwiches, or served on a cheese-and-cracker spread. Get the recipe for Four Pepper Jelly »

A simple, light soup not short on heat or spice. Get the recipe for Korean Spicy Clam Soup »

The Daiquiri is an adaptable creature, and it welcomes new companions in the form of bitters, infused simple syrups, or salty-sweet rims. This version keeps the classic’s sour formula, but adds a veil of spice lent from serrano- and jalapeño-infused sugar syrup. Get the recipe for Charred Chile Daiquiri »

At Hart's in Brooklyn, the chefs use urfa biber and aleppo chile to lend a smoky-spicy flavor to succulent shrimp. Get the recipe for Shrimp and Chile Oil »

Harness fiery Scotch bonnet chiles, along with sweet mango and honey, into a DIY hot sauce. Get the recipe for Caribbean-Style Scotch Bonnet Pepper Sauce »

These are classic latkes, grated potatoes bound with matzo meal and egg, but the simple addition of jalapeño adds a new kick to an old Jewish classic. Get the recipe for Potato Jalapeño Latkes »

Hawaiian chiles are traditional in this tangy, piquant condiment—hence the name—but Thai chiles also work well. Get the recipe for Hawaiian Chile Pepper Water with Soy and Fish Sauce »

A batch of this spicy, tangy condiment in the fridge is money in the bank for Hawaiian home cooks. Get the recipe for Hawaiian Chile Pepper Water with Garlic and Vinegar »

Lightly smashed and crisped potatoes soak up a jalaleno-anchovy dressing. Get the recipe for Pommes Tapées with Jalapeño Vinaigrette »

Mixed mushrooms are tossed with chile-lemon oil and roasted, resulting in a flavorful, umami-packed dish. Get the recipe for Roasted Mushrooms with Chile-Lemon Oil »

Puerto Rican pique is a seasoned vinegar, a simple blend of chiles, garlic, and spices (with pineapple usually added for sweetness) that gets better the longer it sits. Get the recipe for Puerto Rican Spicy Vinegar (Pique) »

Rawia Bishara, the Galilee-born chef behind Brooklyn’s Tanoreen, uses this crisp, bright salad as a side dish or as a fresh and herbal condiment atop fried fish or grilled meat. Get the recipe for Cilantro Salad with Olives, Avocado, and Limes »

This vegetarian soup, a Jamaican classic, is made with callaloo, a spinach-like green that can be found canned or fresh in Caribbean groceries. Serve with minced fresh Scotch bonnet chiles sprinkled on top for extra heat. Get the recipe for Pepper Pot Soup »

Distantly related to Mexican salsa, pebre is an emulsified blend of tomatoes, peppers, and vinegar traditionally served with bread rolls in Santiago. Get the recipe for Chilean Tomato and Pepper Sauce (Pebre) »

Calabrian chiles and chile paste produce a fiery, brick-red oil that is spooned over delicate steamed fish, crunchy spring vegetables, and fregola, a Sardinian pasta similar to Israeli couscous. Get the recipe for Steamed Grouper in Chile Oil »

Infused with guajillo chiles, this nourishing, slow-cooked stew is usually made with various tough cuts of beef, but we found oxtails to be the most flavorful choice. Get the recipe for Oxtail and Guajillo Chile Stew (Caldo de Res) »

Greens laced with freshly ground peanut butter and fermented seafood for a funky kick is a common one-pot dish in West Africa. Get the recipe for "Creamed"Collard Greens with Peanut Butter and Chile »

Chile recipes aren't limited to just dinner. This flavor-packed sipper is served alongside a neat glass of tequila at La Mezcaleria in Ajijic, Mexico. Do as many Mexicans do: A sip of tequila, a sip of sangrita—repeat, for the best experience. Get the recipe for Cilantro, Chile, and Pineapple Sangrita »

This mix goes way beyond the typical flavors with Chinese fermented black bean chile paste and chile powder for a spicy, savory hot cocoa that delivers a kick of heat to the back of your throat. This is one hot cocoa that doesn’t taste like anything else you’ve ever tried. Get the recipe for Spicy Hot Chocolate With Fermented Chile Paste »

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