Probably harvested for over 8000 years in South America, the Rocoto is the generic name for the main category Capsicum pubescence. These are more hairy then the other Capsicum varieties.

Rocotos – the hot Paprika with the black heart

Whilst they cannot be missing from the daily cuisine of central and south America, they have only recently begun their conquest of the Europe’s regions. This article is about Rocotos. A chili breed, which can pack a middle to high heat degree and a comfortable aroma through its thick pulp.

The hot Paprika is mostly valued in the kitchens of Peru and Bolivia. The robust and hairy plants are also a popular ingredient in the Tex-Mex cuisine. Rocotos are outstandingly fit for cultivation in our latitude, as they easily forgive colder days. However, Rocotos are not for growing indoors in a flowerpot. Rocotos want space. A particularity of the chilies compared to other culture breeds is that they have a black heart. This means, the placenta where usually white-yellow seeds are to be found, now has dark brown, almost black seeds.

Rocotos – a species of its own

Rocoto, this is the denomination found in the common use of language used for the chilies of the breed capsicum pubescens. This breed forms together with the wild strains capsicum eximium and capsicum cardenasii a group of their own inside the multitude of breeds offered by the capsicum. This is why this group is worth mentioning, because crossbreeds with other strains outside of the group are seldom to come by, whilst crossbreeds inside the group are easily doable and quite common.

The name capsicum pubescens indes points to an important characteristic of the Rocotos: the plants are pubescent – which means hairy. Similar to nettles, the sprouts and the leaves are covered by tiny trichomes, which, however, do not burn in the case of the hairy chilli, but they spray a very strong smell if you touch them (similar to tomatoes). A German name for this breed is “Baumchilli” meaning something like tree chilli. It has its origin in the fact that in its homeland, the Rocotos grow many years old and many meters high, similar to a real tree. The Rocotos are highly valued in Asian territories as well. There they go under the name of “Cabe Gendot”

Powerful purple, strong growth

A further specific characteristic comes along with the Rocotos next to the beforementioned. Whilst the capsicum annuum (and sometimes capsicum frutescens) sometimes make purple flowers, the capsicum pubescens has this as a strong, visible characteristic. There is no Rocoto plant which has really clean, white flowers, but only such, where the flower color is a bit fade. “Rocoto San Isidoro”, which is cultivated in Spain, and “Sukanya Rocoto”, are some of the white flowering Rocotos, which, however, depending on the circumstances and the cultivation conditions, can also show fading purple tones. The shape of the flowers is also comparably typical: single petals stand – like in the case of daisies – crown-shaped outwards, and depending on the strain, more or less overlapping. The course of the purple coloring – for example with a white middle section and a purple crown at the margins – as opposed to a full purple petal – which can also be found.

The plant has a full growth during the cultivation phase, especially in comparison to its direct relatives, the capsicum cardenasii and the capsicum eximium. Whilst the latter have a single stem which grows straight up, the capsicum pubescens are quick to grow a thick foliage and branch out comparably soon. The stem beneath the first branches is therefor also noticeably thicker than with most other chilies. Everything that follows is simply a question of space. Freely following the gardener fist formula “a crown can only become as big as the root”, the Rocotos can grow to humongous sizes if they are provided with enough space for their roots.

Glasshouse? No thanks!

Rocotos, as mentioned, need space. Namely lots of it, if the goal is to get a decent yield from them. They can also grow to a decent size in a 10-liter pot, but they prefer more volume to spread their roots. Those who grow the Rocotos in a 20-liter pot make however no mistake. Those who have more space, can obviously put them in a 45 or 60-liter pot and they can be sure that the plant will be thankful and will honor them accordingly. But: if you plan to hibernate the plant, you will run into some space troubles, which is also the reason why the capsicum pubescens is quite unfit for a glasshouse. Glasshouses pose yet another problem: the plants love the temperature differences between day and night, which is limited in this case. A safe place in semi-shade for a Rocoto.

Rocotos do not only need a lot of space. They also need a lot of love. The plants are robust, but God knows they are not undemanding. An unfertilized Rocoto bears little to no fruit, which makes it recommended to feed them regularly. Large plants have no problem assimilating 2 to 3 times the normal amount of fertilizer required for a capsicum chinense. The Rocoto plants will honor this greatly through a corresponding yield.

Along with a lot of space and attention, time is also a factor to take into consideration when cultivating Rocotos. The plants grow quite fast and do not flower later than other chilies, but the ripening of the fruits takes a longer time. This way, it can take two months or more to get from flower to mature fruit. The fruits mature from the inside out – thus, whilst a Rocoto is green on the outside, the pulp can have already begun to change its color. The pulp of a Rocoto which turns yellow later and is cut up raw has, already short before the outside color change, become yellow-green. And the later completely black seeds become darker in this phase, from white-yellow to a darker and darker brown.

Juicy hot fruit – in the most varied shapes and colors

Rocotos are perhaps THE hot kitchen paprika as such. With a heat comparable to Thai chilies, somewhere between Habanero and Cayenne on the heat scale, they show their true power through their aroma and respectively through their shape and size. Because while there are smaller Rocoto fruits (such as Mini Rocoto or “CAP 357”), the goal with Rocotos is usually to obtain fruits as big as possible. Beginning at moderate sizes of approximately five centimeters diameter up to fist-size specimens which compete with vegetable bell peppers. Rocoto fruits are similar in structure to regular paprika: they have a thick, juicy pulp. The flavor of the Rocotos is usually described as sweet with a poignant fruity note, which is very similar to the regular yellow and red bell peppers.

The Rocoto fruits do not only vary in size. They also vary highly in color: The two main variants, yellow and red. Orange Rocotos are, however, not a rare sight, whereas brown ones do exist but they are more like an exception. By provoking the forming of anthocyanin one can even obtain “striped” Rocotos – which does not affect the taste in any way. In what the shape of the fruits is concerned, there are three shapes worth mentioning: The first and the widest spread is one that looks like a compact regular bell pepper. This shape is best for meals that require the Rocotos to be filled. The second shape is elongated with a rounded tip and a thick bulge around the placenta. In addition, there is a third shape which reminds of an egg. Typical candidate for this one is the Mini-Rocoto, whose shape strongly reminds of the quail eggs. Obviously, there are further solitary shape and color variants, but they play no part to most cultivators.

Kitchen classics in Peru and Bolivia

What the Jalapeno is for the Mexican cuisine and the Thai Chili for the Asian cuisine, the Rocoto is for Peru and Bolivia: No kitchen without it. While chilies mostly – except Jalapeno and some spicy bell peppers – a secondary role in the shape of “spices”, respectively heat that is delivered, the Rocoto proudly takes its place as main ingredient. The most well-known dish is the Rocoto Relleno – a type of one-pot dish similar to filled paprika. Peru knows hundreds of variations of the dish, as practically each family has a secret recipe, as is the case in Germany with Cabbage. The Rocotos are usually filled with a mix of minced meat and vegetables and then they are put in a fireproof dish and doused with a mix of egg and cheese before they are cooked in the oven. This is, however, one of the many possibilities.

A completely different use for Rocotos is some sort of Rocoto Salad, made from finely diced Rocotos, onion, spices and lemon juice. For the dish not to become too hot, the placenta and the pulp that connected to the placenta are removed, thus, one might say that the fruit is filleted in order to remove some of the heat.

A further use, which is much more likely with Rocotos than with other chilies, is to cook a sauce which is solely based on Rocotos and spices. The principle is similar to that of Ayvar: The Rocotos are mashed and boiled, then cooked. Of course, it is possible to add spices and preservatives (for example sugar and vinegar), but in their clean form are Rocoto sauces already so tasty, that they don’t really need further ingredients.

The Rocotos are not really suitable for drying up, because of their high liquid content and thick pulp. Drying is however possible with the help of a dehydrator and a very uniquely aromatic Rocoto chili powder can be obtained. The latter is only made better through the fact that the chilies are smoked before drying and this way they get a chipotle-like aroma. The smoking of Rocotos is used in their homeland in order to preserve them. A very popular sauce is made of smoked Rocotos, which are fried shortly together with big onion slices and then boiled together with some tomato pulp and some cane sugar and then bottled.

Text by Nico Jäkel


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