Though this red, green, orange or yellow capsicum resembles the mild bell pepper you see in the grocery store, don't be fooled, the Peruvian rocoto is much spicer than its tame cousin. It's also a different species, Capsicum pubescens, a type of pepper that has black seeds and purple flowers instead of the usual white. The flesh proves thick and juicy, perfect for stuffing and adding to the saute pan, scrumptious egg dishes, on a pizza and anything else you want add a hot, crunchy bite to.
What Is Rocoto Pepper?
This is one cool pepper, though the flavor is more of a spicy apple-tomato hybrid. While many capsicums need heat and sun in order to thrive, this South American pepper does great in its not-so-hot home of the Andes Mountains of Peru, where it can survive a mild frost and cooler temperatures. Yet despite the cold, the rocoto has 30,00 to 100,000 Scoville heat units (SHU), making it on the same spice scale as the better known habanero and Scotch bonnet peppers.
Not that the rocoto pepper looks like the aforementioned heat bombs. Instead it's larger and shaped either like a tomato, apple or pear. The flesh too proves thicker and juicer than most fruits in this family, giving it a heft that makes the pepper more like a semi-ripe tomato in texture and great for main courses. In Peru's Andean highlands, where the rocoto was first domesticated over 5,000 years ago, this pepper gets used for all sorts of dishes from the traditional rocoto relleno (stuffed chilies) to rocoto ceviche to a fermented sauce that goes on just about anything. Originally it was dubbed rukutu luqutu in the classic Quechua language, and today the ingredient also gets called the locoto pepper.
What to Do With Rocoto Pepper
One thing to keep in mind when prepping rocoto peppers is that they don't dry out like many other varieties. Because the flesh is so moist you won't want to use it in a way that might steam the food, unless that's what you're going for. Instead try baking or roasting the pepper to make salsas; chopping up and sauteing with shrimp, slices of marinated chicken, corn and other vegetables; or hollowing out and stuffing with beef and spices to make a juicy and spicy pepper main dish.
These peppers can be eaten raw too, just keep in mind the flesh proves hotter than a bell pepper or other mild capsicums. That means you may want to skip packing slices of the rocoto in your kid's lunch bag, unless he or she has a hankering for spicy food or wants to play a cruel trick on the schoolyard bully.
What Does Rocoto Pepper Taste Like?
Think the nuance of a bell pepper with the juiciness of a tomato but the heat of a habanaro and you get the basic flavor outline of a rocoto pepper. It has a bit of grassy freshness to it as well, something that helps balance the rich spice. The flesh proves crunchy but luscious, showcasing that indeed this ingredient is a fruit and not the vegetable so many people perceive it to be.
Rocoto Pepper Recipes
This spicy red pepper is a staple in Peruvian cuisine, but it can be played with in a number of ways where chilies get used. Whether it's the star of the dish or meant as an accoutrement, try the rocoto pepper the next time you're planning a heat-fueld dinner.
- Crema de Rocoto: Spicy Rocoto Pepper Sauce
- Stuffed Red Peppers (Rocoto Relleno)
- Lomo Saltado: Peruvian Beef and Potato Stir-Fry
Where to Buy Rocoto Pepper
Because the rocoto pepper proves so juicy, it doesn't dry as well as other capsicum varieties. This is why you won't see it often in the grocery store in full fruit form, though sometimes it's dried and powdered. Instead of dehydrated, it's best to look for rocoto pepper as a paste, and brands such as Belmont, Inca's Food and Doña Isabel run the market. You can also purchase seeds for planting. Or when the time is right, think end of the summer, you may find these beauties in the farmers' market from a stand that specializes in exotic peppers.
If you manage to source or grow fresh rocoto peppers make sure to keep them in the refrigerator in order to stop the ripening process. Otherwise you might start with a yellow pepper and end up with a red. Not that the color change will greatly effect the taste, though it can make the heat level rise. Chances are the rocoto peppers you do get will be in paste form. This method keeps the ingredient good in a sealed jar for years, and for months after it's opened if you keep the closed container in a cooler.
Nutrition and Benefits
The main reason to eat this food is the taste since a rocoto pepper doesn't have that much going for it nutrient wise save for a hefty dose of vitamin C, almost four times as much as an orange. It also contains vitamin A, calcium and a little bit of fiber.
Aside from the clinical nutrients, the rocoto pepper has been used in folk medicine to help dilate blood vessels, treat ulcers, ease pain associated with arthritis and psoriasis, and aide in digestion by stimulating the stomach to produce mucus.
There's only one kind of rocoto pepper, though the Capsicum pubescens do have a few types. You will know it's a true member of this species by the seeds, which are black instead of the usual white. Like most capsicums, the rocoto can come in a range of colors from the unripe green to yellow to orange to red.