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11 July 2020updated 12 Jul 2020 8:57am

The politics of the spice rack: cayenne pepper

Each jar and packet in the kitchen is part of a wider story, involving geography, culture and politics.  

By Stephen Bush

The story of colonial settlement is, partly, the story of two different methods of preserving fish. Fifteenth-century Portuguese and Spanish fishing fleets preserved their catches by salting fish on the boat and then heading home, but English and French fishermen preserved their catches by drying them on racks onshore. The resulting settlements were the first European settlements on North American shores since the age of the Vikings – and it’s quite possible that had fishing practices been different, the United States and Canada would exist today in very different forms, with Spanish, rather than English, emerging as the lingua franca of the modern world.

As it happened, it was the English and French whose fishing methods meant they ended up heading further afield into both North and South America, and it is the cooks, traders and armies of the French Empire who are responsible for spreading the cayenne pepper from South America to the rest of the world. (It’s not clear which came first: the name of French Guiana’s capital, Cayenne, the first major settlement established by the French, or the chilis that grew freely in the surrounding area and on the banks of the Cayenne pepper.)

Chilis grew so naturally – and spread so happily with limited intervention – that botanists only recently realised that they all have the same distant Mesoamerican ancestor. Cayenne pepper is an intriguing beneficiary of that trend: it is, explicitly, a chili from South America, but it has become deeply interwoven into European cuisines directly. Most French and Italian recipes that call for chili powder work best with cayenne pepper and were created with it in mind. Here in the United Kingdom, it is regularly pressed into service in “chili powder”, which, as I explained earlier in this series, is marketed as one product but is actually several, meaning that it is used for recipes from the Indian subcontinent too, not always deliberately. (While some Indian recipes explicitly call for cayenne pepper, because it is something of a bully, I tend to avoid it unless directly instructed.) 

Several “hot chili powders” are actually just cayenne pepper blends – you can tell usually just by looking, because of their colour (all have a reddish colour, but cayenne has an almost speckled quality to it). Cayenne packs more of a punch than Kashmiri chili powder (Kashmiri chili powder is what most recipes from the Indian subcontinent that call for a “mild” chili powder taste best with in my view), and, as with other chilis, is used throughout the world’s cuisines.

One struggle with recipes is that so many collude in the chili powder myth – so when’s best to use cayenne pepper? It works best of all in my view in European cuisines – otherwise, unless specifically directed, I tend to avoid it: unless, that is the recipe calls for a “pinch” of chili powder, as its punch means it will work better than many others. Fittingly, the spice that originates in the one part of mainland South America that is still part of a European country works best when deployed in European recipes.

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This week I enjoyed…

I get my fish and seafood via PeskyFish, a new start-up that delivers freshly-caught fish straight to your door the day after it is caught. (Astonishingly, most fish in supermarkets, even at the fishmonger’s isle, and in many fishmongers, has a far longer lead time than this – this means firstly, your fish is not fresh, and secondly, more of the catch is wasted.)

Because what you can order in any given morning is dependent on the day’s catch, you end up trying more fish and seafood than you otherwise would, rather than simply going for popular well-known and in some cases overfished supplies.

This week I ended up cooking clams at home for the first time – which meant I was able to make Marcella Hazan’s white clam sauce as intended (though it is equally delicious, but somewhat different, with mussels as opposed to clams) – thanks to PeskyFish. Plus the experience of opening it every morning at 8am and deciding what to get is great fun, too.

This week I realised…

…that almost any savoury recipe calling for “raisins” can happily substitute dates, giving it a richer flavour with, in my view, a better texture.

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