For centuries, cuisines from around world have employed chilies to impart both flavor and complexity. And those of us who love them think chilies are magical due to their depth of flavor and the variety of their heat. That heat comes from the chemical capsaicin, concentrated in the chili’s veins. Scientists express chili heat in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), a subjective measure derived from a test that involves human tasters and dilution of the chili with sugar water. While a bell pepper scores 0 SHUs, the cayenne is somewhere between 30,000 to 50,000, and the world’s hottest chili, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion clocks in at 2 million.
With numbers like that, chilies can be intimidating for the home cook—used too liberally they can wreck your palate or destroy your stir-fry. But there are good reasons to do a little chili experimentation.
Below is a guide to five lesser-known varieties to help you spice up your pantry. How many have you tried?
1. Hungarian Wax
Yellow, long and thin, many compare the Hungarian Wax to the banana pepper. Yet the Hungarian Wax’s heat profile is not as forgiving—with an SHU rating ranging from 1,000 to 15,000—reminding us that looks do in fact deceive. The Eastern European chili appears as an essential ingredient in many stews and goulashes and can also be stuffed with proteins such as shrimp.
Where to get them: Look for the Hungarian wax at some grocery stores, online and at your local farmers market.
Due to its mouth-searing effect (50 to 100,000 SHU) this variety suits the diverse dishes of Peru’s diverse Hispanic and Asian culinary tradition. Often found in the form of a paste or hot sauce, the rocoto has conspicuous black seeds and grows in many colors. It particularly complements Peruvian ceviche, tiradito, and beef rellenos.
Where to get them: Although it can be tough to get rocotos fresh, pick up the paste online or at specialty grocers next time you’re in the market for hot sauce.
Ever wonder what makes tandoori chicken so vibrant? It’s this Indian chili variety. Cultivated in its eponymous Kashmir region, the Kashmiri is all about the looks. Its spice level, or lack thereof, (1000 to 2000 SHU) allows the chef to impart an intense hue, without forfeiting the taste buds of diners.
Where to get them: Powdered Kashmiri is available online and at many Indian grocers, but keep an eye out for the dried form for the most dramatic coloring in your next curry.
Like the poblano, at 1,000 to 2,000 SHU, this versatile Mexican cultivar adds intensity to all manner of Mexican cuisine. Chilacas can be eaten raw and tossed with queso. Known as pasillas (little raisins), when dried, the green pepper becomes almost black and imparts depth to moles like this one.
Where to get them: Both forms can be found online or at Mexican grocers.
In both appearance and risk factor this Spanish chili is similar to the shishito—10 to 25 percent end up quite hot (8,000 SHU, similar to a chipotle). These little green peppers are delightful sautéed with olive oil and salt, and maybe a little prosciutto and mint. Or make it fancy and add scallops.
Where to get them: Grab padróns online or at some higher-end grocers.