An Anarchy of Chilies

Image of An Anarchy of Chilies
Release Date: 
October 9, 2018
Thames & Hudson
Reviewed by: 

It is easy to guess that the author of An Anarchy of Chilies, Caz Hildebrand, is also a book designer. From the physicality of the debossed cover to the strong use of color with the graphic images of chilies that leap off the page, this book is carefully designed. It is refreshing to discover an illustrated food book when photography is de rigueur today. The book is tactile and fun to read. A word of warning for older eyes though, the black type on the bold colored pages requires that you read it in a well-lit room.

This is not an academic work, but it provides all the essential details about chilies. The introduction clearly explains the origin and history of chilies, and why we call them peppers, a misnaming by Christopher Columbus. The reader learns how this member of the nightshade (Solanacea) family started as a flavoring in Aztec hot chocolate and then spread through Europe, India, Africa, and Asia to become an essential ingredient in numerous cuisines.

Chilies are prized for their heat, which is measured on the Scoville scale. This is given as a range rather than an exact measure because the heat of the same type of chili can vary dramatically. The alkaloid capsaicin is what gives chilies their kick and is in the pepper’s flesh and white interior ribs. Capsaicin agitates sense receptors found in the mouth, and all through the body. Although chilies have taste and smell, it is our sense of touch that is primarily stimulated by these fruits.

Each of the 100 chili varieties featured receives a double page spread with a vibrant illustration of the pepper on one side and background information on the other. The size, origin, and how to grow and eat the chili are highlighted, too. The chilies are cataloged by their Scoville rating, rather than alphabetically, depicted by a colored, numerical scale on the left-hand side of each page. So the book begins with the benign bell pepper and ends with ominously named Carolina Reaper that was registered as the hottest chili in 2013.

This organization makes reading about each chili straightforward, but renders the index only partially useful. While there is an alphabetical list of alternative chili names at the back of the book, one listing the common names would have been a good addition. If you are looking for a specific chili you will have to skim through the whole contents page.

This is a reference book not a cookbook so there are no recipes. However, there are excellent sections on how to prepare and use chilies, plus a good description of their flavors, that range from fruity and citrus to woody and smoky.

The cook will appreciate the suggestions for matching chilies with food and food with chilies, which is not the same thing. There is a list of chilies to use for classic dishes plus a glossary of chili sauces. Taking the chile back to its roots, there is a guide on how to match them with chocolate. A detailed section on sourcing seeds and growing chilies is useful for anyone who gardens.

This beautiful book is a good reference, full of all sorts of information. Who knew that some of the hottest chilies are grown in the United Kingdom, or that the Peter Pepper has the more descriptive monikers of penis pepper, and chilli willy? The book lives up to its title revealing an anarchic world of chilies, which Hildebrand succeeds in explaining succinctly.