One of the first foods brought back from the New World by Columbus in 1493 was a variety of hot chili pepper. Chili peppers were an easy-to-grow, inexpensive alternative to black pepper, and were quickly incorporated into the Mediterranean diet.

Throughout Spain, chili peppers are used in paellas, stews, and soups for subtle, rich heat. Smoky paprika, commonly known as pimento, is popular there. Italians call chili peppers collectively pepperoncini, and use them fresh, preserved, and dried (mostly in the form of chili flakes) with pasta, on pizza, and in tomato sauces and stews. In Syria and Turkey, dried chili peppers are used in almost every savory dish.

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North African cuisine tends to use the most spice from chili peppers compared to the rest of the Mediterranean. The condiment harissa, a fiery hot sauce made with dried red chilis, is often spooned over soups, couscous, grilled meat, and vegetables. Other Mediterranean countries and regions have their signature “hot sauces” as well: skhug (or zhoug, pictured above), drizzled over pita and falafel in Israel; chermoula, often used as a marinade for seafood in countries across North Africa; rouille, a Provençal mayonnaise-like sauce used as a garnish for bouillabaisse in France; and romesco, used on seafood in Spain. Find Grecian Delight’s recipe for Spicy Mediterranean Roasted Red Snapper with Skhug Sauce here.


Chili peppers may make us sweat, but it’s worth the delicious, complex taste they add to food. Research indicates that they may make us feel fuller and help us live longer too. And, like herbs and spices in general, they’re used to add more flavor with less salt.

When experimenting with different types of chilis in your cooking, add a little bit at a time. Here are a few more tips for cooking with chili peppers:

  • Check out the Scoville Scale to determine the heat of common chili peppers. Look for them in the produce and spice aisles at the grocery store, at international stores, or online.
  • Remove the inner membrane from fresh chili peppers to reduce their heat. The membrane is the spiciest part of the pepper.
  • Thoroughly wash knives, cutting boards, and hands after working with fresh chili peppers. Their juice can irritate the skin and eyes. Wear disposable gloves if you want to be extra cautious.
  • Dried chili peppers are less variable sources of heat than fresh chili peppers. Smoke-dried or “smoked” dried chili peppers add a delicious barbequed flavor to food without hours at the grill.
  • To diffuse the heat of chili peppers, add them to olive oil in a skillet and heat slowly over medium heat, along with garlic, anchovies, and other aromatic ingredients. Drizzle the oil to taste over cooked vegetables, pasta, and seafood.

Try adding a little heat to your cooking with this Oldways recipe for Roeasted Butternut Squash with Spelt (right). The toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas) add a delightful crunch, and Aleppo pepper gives the dish a spicy kick. Find the recipe here.

This blog post was inspired by our Mediterranean Foods Alliance newsletter. Click here to sign up to receive the next Fresh Friday and never miss delicious Mediterranean recipes and cooking tips again.

Madeleine Cohen, Oldways Health Through Heritage intern

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