Though this red, green, orange, or yellow capsicum resembles the mild bell pepper you see in the grocery store, don't be fooled by its exterior. The Peruvian rocoto is much spicier than its tame cousin. It's also a different species, Capsicum pubescens, which means it has black seeds and purple flowers instead of the usual white. The peppers are thick and juicy, perfect for stuffing and adding to the saute pan, scrumptious egg dishes, on a pizza, and anywhere else you want add a hot, crunchy bite.
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 irrespective of the cold, the rocoto scores 30,00 to 100,000 Scoville heat units (SHU), putting it on par with better-known habanero and Scotch bonnet peppers.
The rocoto pepper does not look like the aforementioned hot peppers. Instead, it's larger and resembles more squat tomato, apple, or pear. The flesh proves thicker and juicer than most peppers, giving it a heft that makes its texture more like a semi-ripe tomato; it's great for main courses. In Peru's Andean highlands, where the rocoto was first domesticated over 5,000 years ago, this pepper is implemented in 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. The ingredient sometimes is also referred to the locoto pepper.
How to Use 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.
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 are most common. You can also purchase seeds for planting. Or when the time is right, toward the 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.
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 greenish-yellow to orange to red.