Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pimenta de Cheiro - A Problem of Identification

Of all the essential ingredients in the Brazilian larder, one of the most difficult to pin down is the chili pepper. What exactly is this chili pepper I have in my hand, or how do I find the type of chili called for in this recipe or that recipe? These are questions that are frustruating if not impossible to answer.

There are several reasons for all this confusion. The main one is that the botanical genus Capsicum, to which all chili peppers belong, is extraordinary in its profusion. There are yellow peppers, there are red ones, green and purple too. There are round peppers, long skinny ones, and thick fat ones. There are peppers that burst with flavor and aroma, and others that only add heat to a dish. At times it seems like all they have in common in their name.

A typical example is a chili pepper called pimenta de cheiro. The name means "aromatic pepper" and this chili is one of the most commonly used chilis in traditional Brazilian cuisine, particularly in Brazil's north and northeast regions. Many recipes from Bahia, from Ceará or from the jungles of the Amazon call for pimenta de cheiro. So, assuming you are in Brazil and want to find some pimenta de cheiro for a recipe you're going to try out - how do you find it in the market?

Photos don't help much. If you search Google Images forpimenta de cheiro you'll see photos of many different peppers that don't seem to have much in common. A web search will lead you to sites that provide helpful instructions on identifying pimenta de cheiro like this one:

Shape can be long, round, triangular, bell-shaped or rectangular. The mature fruits vary in color from creamy yellow to bright yellow, from orange to salmon, or from red to even black when fully mature. Some are sweet, some are slightly hot and some are very hot. It's aroma is strong...

So that's easy, right? Just look for a pepper that's yellow, rectangular and sweet. Or one that's black, round and very hot. Or red, bell-shaped and slightly hot. In fact, the only characteristic that is common to all these varieties is the aroma. I guess that's why it's called the aromatic chili pepper.

Two more problems cloud the picture even further. A chili that's called pimenta de cheiro in one spot in Brazil might have another name just 20 miles down the road. That doesn't make one's task easier. In fact, the whole thing is so confusing that even botanists can't agree on what a pimenta de cheiro is, so even if you were able to get the DNA from your pepper you couldn't be sure it was a pimenta de cheiro. Some botanists assign the common name pimenta de cheiro to varieties of the species Capsicum annuum while others think that it's actually Capsicum frutescens that deserves the moniker.

Our advise, when looking for a chili for a particular recipe, focus on the qualities that the author of the recipe wants to add to the dish. Then shop with your eyes, nose and even tear ducts. If you're looking for intense heat, find a chili that fits the bill. If the recipe need s a chili with a lot of flavor but without a lot of ardency, sniff around the markets until you find one you can use. Call it what you will, it's the characteristics of the chili pepper your after, not the name.


  1. Hi there, James. Congratulations on the blog. As a brazilian and new to the blogging world, I think you're doing a great job on bringing up one of the bests things about my country. I'm actually a bit jealous of how much fun you must be having doing all this traveling and eating. Good luck! :)

    1. Thanks, Juliana. Interesting that you're writing about Brazilian food as an expatriate Brazilian in London, and my perspective is as a Canadian living in Brazil. That's the glory of the blogosphere, eh?

  2. I too struggle to find the names for teh various delicious peppers from Brasil.
    The Round Yellow one pictured above is called Piment Bode in Piracanjuba (Goias)- I think! And the other ones similar but shaped more like a bell pepper and still unknown to me but absolutely delicious - quite flavorful. I also grow the malegueta (SP?) which are quite hot and look a bit like Thai chili peppers.

    What I want to know is, how do i bottle them like they do in Brasil? I buy them in glass jars with plastic tops (Key packaging BTW) and the vinegar solution is very unique. I see teh biquino recipe on another post but am not sure thats the taste im looking for. Anyone?