My dad, always the prankster: I must have been about 8, when one summer day he handed me a long, thin, red pepper. "Go ahead and take a bite," he said.
Having been a previous victim of his practical jokes, I felt a bit head shy. But as with many wild animals, I also did not want to show fear.
"Maybe it's some kind of tomato," I thought as I bit it.
They should have named that pepper Instant Tears.
However, my trauma was short-lived, only 20 or 30 years, and now I enjoy—in moderation—a good pepper or chili.
Standard supermarkets and local farmers' markets will carry the usual pepper suspects, but for the more exotic varieties, go to Compare Foods, Food Lion or any grocery with a large Latino clientele. The produce clerks can serve as tour guides to the peppers' preparation.
Pro tip: Stem and seed them. Wear gloves. If no gloves are available, then do not touch your eyes or nose. Otherwise, prepare yourself for Instant Tears.
(2,500–5,000 Scoville units)
This zesty pepper is often used as a rub on chicken, but vegetarians and vegans can enjoy the heat of it as well. Food & Wine has an ambitious but absolutely worth it recipe for chili-rubbed tofu that calls for a marinade of guajillos, garlic, onion, pineapple and orange juice that then soaks the tofu overnight.
(5,000–8,000 Scoville units)
Hotter than a guajillo, but smaller and a bit fruitier, puyas can be soaked or toasted, then used to flavor a dish rather than be eaten outright. But some intrepid souls put them on pizzas. They are also used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking.
The Land of Enchantment is also the Land of Chili Peppers. In addition to the generic New Mexico pepper, there are Hatches (1,000–2,500). They are known for their terroir, meaning the peppers' flavor reflects their growing conditions. So unique are the Hatches that only peppers grown in the state's Hatch Valley can legally carry that name. Roasted, these peppers are incredibly aromatic. Whole Foods occasionally has a Hatch Festival each fall, and you can smell them from the last row of the parking lot. Also growing in that neck of the woods are Pueblos (5,000–20,000). Their heat varies so wildly that it's best to tread carefully before taking a big bite.
(1,000–4,000 Scoville units)
Toss a whole one in a pot of chili and let it in infuse the entire dish with smoky undertones. For more heat, use a chipotle (3,500-10,000 Scoville units).
(100,000-300,000 Scoville units)
With Scoville units in this range, a little habanero goes a long way. There are hardcore pepper fans who can eat them raw, but that's not me. Instead they are used in salsas and chili, allowing you to control the dose per the tolerance of your stomach lining. Mince a small habanero, mix with olive oil, lime and orange juice (and top-shelf tequila is a nice addition) and baste a piece of grilled wild-caught salmon.
(1,000–4,000 Scoville units)
Although they're the most common hot pepper for salsas and sandwiches, I prefer to dice them raw and sprinkle them in a summer salad of corn, edamame, tomato and red onion. Drizzle with a marinade of lime juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Serve chilled.
Granted, this isn't a whole pepper, but gringos need to get hip to the secret of fruterias. Dice cantaloupe, honeydew and pineapple, then sprinkle with chili powder and squeeze half a small lime over the fruit cup. You'll never eat it plain again.