SMOKEY, nutty, woodsy, tart," says chef and restaurateur Mark Miller. Then there are chocolate, licorice ... and even tropical tones - mango, papaya, wild berry.
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Mr. Miller is describing savory tastes of an existing fruit that most Americans think of as only two kinds of vegetable, red and green: Chile. That's chile with an "e" not with an "i," like the hot beef and bean stews.
"American's are hung up on chile peppers as something used solely for heat," says founder, chef, and owner of two of the United States's leading restaurants specializing in modern, Southwestern fare. "But there is an incredible range of flavor in a tradition going back thousands of years."
Flipping through his "The Great Chile Book," one can become conversant with about 89 varieties of the 150 to 200 that have been identified worldwide. Gourmet beware: They have different characteristics dried than when fresh.
There's the pale yellow-green scotch bonnet, used in Caribbean curries, an essential ingredient in Jamaican "jerk" sauce. The yellow-orange manzana is also known as chile caballo, shaped like a bell and carrying black seeds. The huachinango contains white veins and is from Central Mexico. Smoked and dried, it becomes chipotle grande, commonly used in salsas, stews, and sauces. Raising the culinary consciousness of the average American has become a way of life for the former anthropologist.
NE day when he was 9, he ate a curry dish at the home of a friend that eventually began a lifelong search for ingredients from around the world. A 30-year quest for "the identity of that fiery, tingling, sensation" took him to such countries as Morocco, Guatemala, Trinidad, Thailand, and Hungary.
Miller notes that until recently, the European-based food culture of the US has tended to overlook its subtleties in favor of rich, cream- and fat-based sauces. "The food cultures of Latin America, India, Africa, and the Caribbean tend to be undervalued for reasons of snobbery," he says. But today's nutritional and demographic trends are putting chile in the spotlight.
"This is not just a trend," Miller declares, speaking of the growth of Southwestern cuisine restaurants, ethnic cookbooks, and the sales of salsa. "We are never going to return to the dull, boring, rich, creamy world of the 1950s," he adds. "We are moving towards a cuisine that is lighter, healthier, less dairy and animal-based ... and more spicy."