Perhaps you aren't familiar with urfa biber, a Turkish chili redolent of chocolate and raisins, which works spicy wonders in homemade brownies or the morning's coffee brew. Or maybe you didn't know that it's possible to buy dried and ground jalapeño that isn't smoked (unlike the ubiquitous chipotle, a dried and smoked version of the popular green chili) to add bright and fruity heat to your guacamole. At the Spice Station in Silver Lake, you will find both of these among an impressive array of other dried chiles sourced from all over the planet.
Despite its dissemination throughout the globe, genus capsicum (geek-speak for chiles) is solely indigenous to Mexico, Central America and South America. What about those beloved Thai and Japanese chiles? You can thank the magnanimous conquistadors for bringing capsicum to the Iberian peninsula some 500 years ago, which, in turn, drove Portuguese traders to sail the chiles to Southern Asia, where they have continued in cultivation; today, India is the largest producer and exporter of them.
Capsicum also spread rapidly from Iberia to North Africa and the Middle East, and when the equally magnanimous Ottomans crushed the Hungarians in 1526, they gave these central Europeans yet more capsicum, which by the late 1800s would be dried and ground and called paprika. (Powdered chiles similar to paprika existed centuries before Hungarian paprika, including pimentón, born in 16th-century Spain.)
You can find four varieties of paprika at the Spice Station: hot Hungarian, Indian, smoked, and sweet smoked, along with a huge host of curries and masalas, exotic spice blends like za'atar and harissa, crazy salts (Bolivian rose and roasted garlic), flavored sugars and a cornucopia of other common and uncommon spices and herbs from around the world. But the hot commodity here — those 20 dried chiles from Mexico, California, China, Syria, Turkey and India — is reason enough to pop by this neighborhood spice shop.
Turn the page for six of our favorites…
For starters, there's the organic bird's eye chili, which is imported from India. At one point, this chili was thought to be the hottest on earth, until other varieties like the Scotch bonnet and ghost pepper were discovered (currently, the hottest chili known to humans is the Trinidad moruga scorpion). Bird's eye, also known as Thai chili, weighs in at 50,000-100,000 units on the Scoville scale (which measures the amount of capsaicin — hot stuff — in chiles). This is pretty spicy, so use caution with these pods, and for God's sake wash your hands after handling them — if you get even a trace of that capsaicin in your eyes, you'll be forever scarred.
When cooking with whole dried chili pods, it's often best to first toast them for around 30 seconds in a nice hot pan (preferably cast iron), to deepen their flavor, and then hydrate them in warm water for 30 minutes — a process called reconstitution. After that, you can drain the water and puree these chiles into a lovely sauce with Thai or Indian curries, or you might want to transform them into an awesome homemade sambal. Bird's eye chiles = $6.50/oz.
If you want a break from the standard crushed red pepper you'd find in a jar on the checkered tablecloth of a casual pizza joint or in a McCormick's container at your local Albertsons, you might want to invest in the flaked habanero chili, which offers an even spicier punch than bird's eye to pizza and marinara sauce, and it's bitchin' on mac-and-cheese. People have thrown it into everything from omelettes to chili con carne to Jamaican goat curry (it plays a starring role in both Jamaican and Yucatán cuisine). But be forewarned — at 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville units, these flakes will require a very ginger touch. Flaked habanero chili = $3/oz.
The dried jalapeño is equally versatile, and can be used in place of cayenne powder for a brighter and fruitier punch. It packs less heat than this other Mexican pepper, and its addition to salsa and guacamole is perfect for people with more heat-sensitive palates. Mix it up with the equally bright coriander seed, or juxtapose it with cumin's earthiness in fajitas. You can even knead it into ground beef to spice up a homemade burger, but don't knead too much or you'll toughen the meat. Dried jalapeño = $2.75/oz.
Given the state of affairs in Syria, Aleppo pepper at the Spice Station is not available for purchase at this time. But this was a top seller before the recent exacerbation of the Syrian civil war, so we felt we might as well show it off. This moderate pepper, also known as halaby, works great as a rub on kebab (or any barbecued meat) and can be substituted for traditional crushed red pepper or paprika. Native to Syria and used in many Middle Eastern recipes, it is less-known here in the United States than other chiles, and we certainly hope that — for many reasons — the Aleppo pepper will be hot on the shelves at the Spice Station soon. Aleppo pepper = $3/oz.
Native to Mexico, dried arbol chiles can be found in almost any upscale restaurant kitchen around town. Chefs love them. They add moderate heat without overwhelming flavors, are extremely versatile and can be used like a bay leaf, just plopped into a stock or sauce and fished out when all the ingredients have fused into deliciousness after a lengthy simmer. You can also mince them up to add heat to a marinade for beef or even hard cheeses like Manchego (removing seeds will take some heat away, but not all — most of the heat is in the interior ribs of the chili). Whether you're spicing up a cioppino broth or making mole, chile de árbol is a great pepper to use. Dried arbol chiles = $2.50/oz.
Urfa biber from Turkey is the star of all the chiles at the Spice Station — Urfa is the region in Turkey where it's cultivated, and biber is Turkish for pepper. Co-owner Bronwen Tawse immediately pointed to this chili as a must-try and subsequently explained that the Spice Station is one of only a few merchants in the United States that sells it. We fell in love at first whiff.
With its somewhat smoky, very earthy and simultaneously sweet, cocoalike aroma, this moderate chili (30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units) is a perfect accompaniment to chocolate — any kind of chocolate. Tawse routinely bakes brownies spiked with the ground chili, but it also meshes well with vanilla, and if you sprinkle a little in your coffee before you brew the grounds, it adds a nice punch to your morning cup of java. It's also a fine addition to many savory dishes, from kebabs to Middle Eastern yogurt spreads to roasted root vegetables. And — given its excellent pairing with heartier vegetables and wintry spices like nutmeg and cinnamon — it's a great chili to whip out as autumn nears.
You can get an ounce for $3.25, and, like all of these chiles, an ounce goes a long way. This dark, luxurious pepper is gaining more popularity in this country, but it's still relatively unknown, so we feel quite indebted to the Spice Station owners for not only introducing us to this Turkish gem but for providing so many other chiles from the world at reasonable prices for us Angelenos to savor. Urfa biber = $3.25/oz.
Editor's note: The spelling of “chili” in this piece, rather than “chile,” is correct according to the AP Stylebook. Just in case you were wondering. (Some of us have been spelling it “chile” for years and years.)
Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer and a pastry cook at Lucques. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.