The weather's starting to cool down. Trees are turning bright yellow, orange and red. Folks are breaking out the sweaters. And you can turn your customers' desire to stay warm into a sales opportunity by matching your produce section with the colors outside—load up with the vibrant colors of chile peppers. More and more, shoppers are turning on to the depth of flavors and heats that chile peppers hold, as well as to the numerous products containing them. From salsas to hot sauces to ethnic cuisines, exotic chile fusions are becoming commonplace. A certain maturity is ripening when it comes to using chiles to flavor food, without necessarily burning lips and stomachs—unless that's the goal.
Chiles are native to South America, most likely originating in Brazil and Bolivia, according to the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. In the United States, chiles can be grown as perennials in southern California, Florida and southern parts of Texas and Arizona. These members of the nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes and potatoes, take 70 to 130 days to mature. There are five domesticated species: Capsicum annuum (serranos and jalapeños are members), Capsicum chinense (including habaneros and datils), Capsicum frutescens (the tabasco pepper is one), and the lesser-known Capsicum baccatum and Capsicum pubescens species.
When it comes to the burning question in most customers' minds—"How hot is it?"—the answer is complex. Heat levels depend on the plants' genetics, but environmental factors also loom large. Stressing a plant through, say, water restriction or over-watering, increases pepper pods' levels of capsaicin, the hot substance in chiles. Simply ripening a plant in higher temperatures can double the amount of heat a similar plant ripened at lower temperature would yield. Mature pods are more pungent than immature pods.
Contrary to what many believe, seeds are not the source of heat within a pepper. Although they do contain some capsaicin, it is the "placental tissue," the part of the pepper that holds the seeds, that produces capsaicin and is, therefore, the hottest. From end to end, a pepper will be hotter near the stem. According to the Chile Pepper Institute, the flavor-causing portion of bell and jalapeño peppers is 2-isobutyl-3-methoxypyrazine. This chemical is detectable when diluted to one drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool of water, making it the most potent aroma known to humankind. Every pepper family has its own flavor chemical.
Gretchen VanEsselstyn, editor in chief of Chile Pepper, says her magazine started in 1987 as an answer for gardeners looking for information on growing the then-exotic chile pepper. Twenty years later, she calls roasted red jalapeño, more commonly known as chipotle, "ubiquitous."
Dave DeWitt, editor of Fiery Foods & BBQ magazine, says salsa outsells ketchup "considerably," and his publication's 2007 Scovie Awards, a hot-food contest, had more than 740 products entered in 62 categories of fiery foods. "It keeps going up every year," he says.
What does this mean for naturals retailers? Customers are already very aware of chiles as a generic concept. They purchase the salsa, premade chili, hot sauces and potato chips that bear their names, like chipotle salsa, cheddar and jalapeño chips and habanero hot sauce.
DeWitt suggests creating a display of premade salsas and hot sauces, and "putting your dried pods there and say, ?Make your own.' " Customers will make the connection between those fresh, ground, bagged or dried chile ristra strands and the products they already buy.
"A lot of customers are going to look at a habanero and say, ?What do I do with this?' " DeWitt says. "Recipes are always a good way to humanize those raw ingredients." He recommends taking yellow Hungarian waxed peppers and chopping them up in a salad, which adds a little heat and a lot of flavor. Create a display in produce pairing this colorful pepper with more traditional salad fixings to further help your customers make the chile connection.
If you're looking for a more dramatic way to help customers down the chile road, Paul Bosland, Ph.D., director of the Chile Pepper Institute, says a newer chile trend "is grocers having roasters to roast fresh green chiles for the customer." And the New Mexico Department of Agriculture is making that easy for retailers. If a retailer places a large order for chiles, the department will include a complimentary roasting machine and fresh pods, so customers can see the process in action. "The customer gets a little DVD that shows them how to use the chile peppers," DeWitt says. "You'd be surprised. Yes, it's successful in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Texas, but it's also very popular in South Carolina and some Midwestern states. It's been an extremely good promotion."
An organic conundrum
"Organic chiles are becoming more common. But there is normally a higher price per unit for organic because of the increased cost of production," Bosland says.
Weeds, bugs and viruses are all issues for organic chile growers, and this makes large-scale organic production difficult and expensive. "No one has found a way to grow larger amounts of chile organically, so they're tough to find unless they come from smaller growers," DeWitt says. He suggests the best places to look are with smaller farmers who can supply your store directly and at farmers' markets, where a local farmer might already be selling organic pods. "But they charge a fair amount of money for organic pods," he says.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 74, 76