Peru looks for its chili

The Pucunucho chili is small, narrow, twisted and has colors that range from orange to yellow, but it can also be green. It is grown in the Amazon basin and it is difficult to find in the Peruvian market, let alone in the restaurants of Lima; whether they be large, small or medium sized. It is a close relative of the habanero chili (as both belong to the Capsicum chinense family) and it is the spiciest chili in the Peruvian orchards; quite different than other chilies. Their spiciness is not a decisive factor because a chili's aromatic capacity is more important. However, people seem to remember it because of its spiciness and strange name, as there are not many other references of the Pucunucho.

The Pucunucho is one of more than 350 varieties of chilies that the Vegetable Program of Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina (UNALM) has registered in recent years. Roberto Ugas, who is in charge of the orchards of the program, guided us through this orchards were we saw a reality that few could imagine. There were chilies of all shapes and colors.

Most of the productions comes from the north of the country and the Amazon region. In many cases, these chilies have strange cases. There's one from Bagua (in the Amazon region) that is called thunder, as it is yellow, tiny, and elongated. It stands out because of its enticing aroma, but it is not as flashy as the charapita chili, a spherical variety that also grows in the Amazons and that has become well known over the last three years, to the point that it already has a stable place in the markets of Lima. It is the chili used to make canned goods, flavored oils, pulp vinegar, and sauces .., which are increasingly worth more. The orchards also have pacae chilies, which are large, elongated, and meaty chilies from Ilo (near the border with Chile), as well as other varieties, such as the matiuchu, ayuyo, malagueta, and ojo de pescado chilies ... Names that are virtually unknown for most Peruvians.

There is no middle ground in the Peruvian spiciness universe. They can be as popular as the yellow chili, the limo chili, the mirasol, escabeche, or panca chili, which are left to dry on the plant and get suggestive smoky flavor, or be completely unknown, like several varieties in the program's orchard, such as the bombucho, shiushin, pillis, challaruro, motelito, globito, and warimucho, among others. 

The Orchard Program from the UNALM has been recording these varieties for years, just as the National Institute for Agricultural Research had been doing it. Both institutions have now signed an agreement to devote the next three years to finish cataloguing Peruvian chillies. The work aims at culminating several programs dedicated to compiling an inventory, organizing, and normalizing the production of Peruvian chilies. A major effort in a country that, despite appearances, is not a major consumer of chillies. "Peru doesn't eat that much spicy food," Ugas said, adding that producer of chili sauces asked chili producers to give them chilies that were not that spicy and that cooks always used the same varieties. So far, both institutions have recorded nearly 400 chili peppers, including hot peppers (rocotos), which are absent from the orchards of Agraria La Molina. "We have recorded the chillies in 20 of the 24 departments of Peru," Ugas said. "That means we only have four more to explore, but the diversity is so great that we will need years to understand each family with precision."

Ugas said he hoped the country would recover the mochero chili, which is originally from Moche, a few kilometers from Trujillo, as it is considered endangered. There are some producers and each claims the authenticity of their product, but they are all different. To find it, researchers have to trust the memory of the old local chefs, get them to try all varieties until they recognize it, so they can define and record its aromatic reference profile. In Roberto Ugas' dream, the mochero becomes the first Peruvian chili with designation of origin.


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