The use of Chillies in Spanish cooking

The History Of Chillies in Spain

While Christopher Columbus’ 1492 misguided voyage to the West Indies had the result of Spain probably becoming the first country in Europe where Chillies were introduced, the Spanish people did not become immediate fans. Initially, Chillies were looked on as being mere biological curiosities from the New World and found themselves being grown in monasteries and botanical gardens for their ornamental properties, rather than for their use as a culinary ingredient.

Spicy Spanish Paella

Slowly but surely, however, things began to change. The monks became more adventurous and started experimenting with using  Chillies in their cooking. Spanish farmers also started growing them as a domestic crop -  as an alternative to the ( then very expensive ) black pepper we know today.  In the 15th/16th century, when these changes were taking place, black pepper was the preserve of only the super-rich as it is said to have cost more than its weight in gold. To have something similar in the form of Chillies was to the poor farmers of the time, a taste of a lifestyle they could not afford

As time stepped on Chillies (particularly the milder varieties) gained popularity, it became more and more entrenched in Spanish cuisine, but even today they are still not used to the extent that they are, for example, in Asian and African cooking

How Chillies are used in Spanish Cooking.

Whilst the tendency in Spanish cuisine is definitely towards milder varieties of Chillies like the Padron and Gernika peppers (from the Basque region), Spain has a wonderful climate for growing Chillies. A variety of the super-hot Naga family (think similar to Dorset Naga) is successfully grown in Spain in the form of the Spanish Naga (aka Gibraltar Naga).

The Gernika Chilli (also known as the Choricero Chilli) is used in different ways at its different stages of maturity. When young and still green it is fried and typically sigaerved as tapas or when allowed to mature and turn red, is dried and used as a flavouring and colourant in Chorizo sausages. The Choricero is family of the famous Espelette chilli, which is grown on the French side of the Basque region. Both have special protected status declaring them to be unique specifically to their regions and that they must have been produced and packed in the area to be sold commercially under these names (Cookapedia)

Other uses for the Chilli in Spain are for use in rice dishes , being grilled or stuffed with cheese , pickling, in chilli sauces like that used for Albondigas (Spanish meatballs) and as in the case of when being used as a powder, Patatas Bravas ( Spicy potatoes)


Padrón. A  Chilli with a Scoville rating of 500 -2500 SHU from the municipality of Padrón, Galicia, Spain.  Whilst most are mild, a certain percentage at the upper end of the Scoville rating scale can be quite hot. Padróns  grow to approximately 2 inches long and about 1 inch thick and can be found in colours ranging from green, yellow and sometimes red.  Used in recipes like Pimientos de Padrón (Chillies blistered in Olive oil) and Pimientos de Padrón rellenos de queso Tetilla (Padron chillies stuffed with Tetilla cheese)

Pimiento Choricero ( aka Gernika) A  mild sweet Chilli with a Scoville rating of  0 to 1000 SHU from the Basque town of Gernika, Biscay, in the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country, Spain.  They are harvested while still young and green at a length of between 2 and 3 inches long with a width of approximately 1 inch. When is this format it is prepared in a similar style to Pimentos de Padron (blistered in hot olive oil and served as Tapas).  Another way of using these Chillies is allowing them to mature and turn red before drying them for use as in ingredient in making Chorizo sausages and flavouring dishes like Bacalao a la vizcaína  (Salt cod in Biscay sauce)

Pimiento Ñora. A mild ball-shaped chilli with a Scoville rating of 0 -1000 SHU from Murcia, Southern Spain. It turns to a bright red colour when mature and is then dried.  It is extensively used in Spanish kitchens in the form of Paprika.  In the cuisine of Valecian community (Alicante) of Murcia it is fried when fresh to colour and flavour rice. In Catalonia, it is commonly used as an ingredient in Romesco sauce which is used to flavour Catalan recipes for rice, grilled meats, vegetables, and fish.  A typical recipe in this region is Arroz Negro (black rice with squid and prawns)


Image Credit :   Tapas / by  Ben Sutherland CC by 2.0 / via Flikr


The use of Chillies in Portuguese cooking

Image: Portuguese seafood
The History Of Chillies in Portugal

While they were hugely instrumental in popularising Chillies around the world - having introduced them amongst others to countries like India and China -  the Portuguese are not particularly fond of spicy foods.  Except for  Piri-Piri Chilli, which can be found as a sauce or oil on many a Portuguese table, you are more likely to find mild bell pepper type chillies in Portugal’s cuisine.

Image Prawns and clams with Chillies
Portuguese seafood prepared with chillies

Whilst the Chilli is not that widely used in Portugal, this is not to say that  Portuguese speaking people in other parts of the world are not fans. In Mozambique, Angola and South Africa (which has many citizens of Portuguese descent), Portuguese cooking is closely associated with the use of the Chilli. Dishes like Piri- Piri Chicken and Piri- Piri prawns are much loved by many from these countries. Indeed, it was because of the fondness for chillies developed in the former Portuguese colonies that the Piri-Piri chilli has become so popular in Portugal.

Similarly, in Goa India,  which was a Portuguese colony for 450 years, many dishes are fusions of Indian and Portuguese cooking, e.g. Vindaloo curries are made with Chillies.  Brazil is another example of a former Portuguese colony where Portuguese is widely spoken where Chillies are used in a variety of recipes.

How Chillies are used in Portuguese Cooking.

Peri- Peri chillies are used in Portugal to prepare chicken and seafood dishes. Dishes like Frango Peri- Peri (Peri-peri chicken), Sardinhas assadas com pimenta chili, limão e alho (roasted sardines with Chillis with lemon and garlic are typical examples. In Portugal and Mozambique chillies are used to make Piri-Piri Camarão (Peri –Peri Prawns). It is also used extensively to make Molho de Piri-Piri (Peri -Peri sauce) and Peri –Peri oil

Milder chillies are used to make Massa de Pimentão (Bell pepper paste with garlic and olive oil), Caldeirada (Portuguese fish stew) and Chourico com Pimenta (Chorizo and chillies)


Peri-Peri / Malagueta Chillies. The names are used interchangeably depending upon what part of the world you are in. Some may call the Malagueta the Peri-Peri chilli; others will argue that the African Devil should claim this title. Yet others claim that they are the same thing. Whilst they both have the same origin (Capsicum frutescens species), I believe  that these chillies are different. The African Devil  is a shorter and about an inch in length. When it matures, it turns bright red. It has a Schoville rating of between 50000 and 175000 SHU and is predominantly grown in Africa. It was highly likely introduced to the African continent by the Portuguese

The Malagueta whilst being grown in Africa ( and also called Peri-Peri) is more commonly found in Brazil, which interestingly was a colony or Portugal It starts out as a small tapered green chilli that grows to 2 inches when it will mature and turn red. It has a Scoville rating of between 60 000 and 100000 SHU.

Irrespective of the above both are much loved in Portugal.

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