Chillies don’t want you to eat them. We know this because when you do, a neurotoxin found in the fruit bonds with your pain receptors, making your head spin, eyes water and tongue feel like it has been set aflame. It’s generally the kind of biological deterrent used to ensure hungry lummoxes like ourselves keep their distance. But despite the chillies’ best efforts, humans can’t get enough of their spicy weaponry. In fact, for many chilli addicts, it’s a case of the hotter, the better.
Australian chilli addiction is at an all-time high with the recent wave of Mexican cantinas and food trucks sprouting up all around the country. While just a few years ago, chefs could only get their hands on Southeast Asian varieties like the Birdseye – or if they were lucky, your common Jalepeno – these days there’s a wide range of Mexican dried chillies on offer.
Chef Daniel Hawkins is the head chilli wrangler for Acland St Cantina and knows more than a little about how to handle their heat. “What we can get in dried and what we can get in fresh, there’s a big difference,” he says. “It’s starting to change a lot now there’s a tidal wave of the Mexican movement. Now with the Mexican thing’s going on, there are a lot more suppliers taking note of what they can make money in now.”
While Acland St Cantina uses chilli powders, a selection of fresh chillies and chipotles, it’s the dried chillies that really get Hawkins going. “I think the most exciting and the most interesting would be the dried chilli range, because they are imported from Mexico,” he says. “They all have different flavours, different uses, and different spiciness.”
Hawkins generally has a selection of three different styles in his chilli toolbox: the Pasilla Negra (or Little Raisin), the Mulato and his personal favourite, the Gaujillo. Each of the varieties can be put to different uses.
For instance, the Pasillo Negro – as its name suggests – is a sweet, raisin-like fruit that’s dark in colour. “When we use those chillies, they really impart sweetness, not the spicy, burning bold character,” Hawkins explains.
Mulatos, on the other hand, are a lot larger, almost like a capsicum in both size and flavour. The Gaujillo has a medium spice, along with some sweet characteristics. “If I had to pick an all-round chilli, I’d probably go for the Gaujillo,” says Hawkins. “It’s just a great all-rounder.”
When you’re choosing a chilli, Hawkins advises that there are a couple of important factors to keep in mind, colour being the most important. “You want to check that they have a good one-tone colour,” he suggests. “You see fresh chillies that have been left in the fridge too long and they start to go mouldy in patches. That tells you that if you can see patchy colours on dried chillies, people are just drying out old chillies that couldn’t be sold fresh.”
He also advises chilli-buyers to test the texture of their prospective fruit. “With Mulato, they retain a little bit of moisture,” he says. “They’re pliable – you can bend them, you can almost pull them back into their original shape.”
Despite their versatility and massive diversity of flavour, home cooks need to understand that you can’t just bung a dried chilli into the pot the way you would a fresh one. “You can’t just take a dried chilli, put it into a pot, then add the other ingredients. There’s normally a rehydrating technique,” Hawkins explains.
The most common way of rehydrating chillies in Mexico is to dry-heat them in a hot pan until they start to toast and release their natural oils. Then they’re placed in a bowl of hot water and left for half an hour, or until they soften. “At that stage, they’re ready for most applications, like making a paste or a sauce,” he says..
Finally, if you’re a fan of chillies but you’re feeling the burn, there really is something that’ll quench the flame. Capsaicin (the chemical found chillies) isn’t soluble in water, so drinking more won’t help. It is, however, soluble in fats and oils, so have a glass of milk or even a slurp of olive oil if you’re game. Or you can just suck it up.
If you’re looking to try out some chillies of your own, Acland St Cantina’s Mexi-Mart sells a wide range of dried chillies and chipotles, or you can get Hawkins to cook them for you.