Rocoto Peppers

Rocoto Peppers
Full of juicy goodness and once a favourite of the Inca, the delectable gastronomical delight known as the Rocoto pepper belongs to the Capsicum pubescens species, which is one of the five domesticated species of the Capsicum genus. It is native to Peru and Bolivia and was first domesticated in the region around 6,000 BC. Nowadays, it is grown from the highlands of Mexico all the way down to Chile.

Dating back to pre-Incan times, the existence of Capsicum pubescens was documented by the ancient Peruvian cultures of the Paracas, Nazca, Moche and Chimú, through ceramics, textiles and domestic remains. Traces of it have been found in the Guitarrero Cave in Peru, an important archaeological site where human usage can be dated back to around 8,000 BC and possibly as far back as 10,560 BC. Nowadays, plants belonging to the Capsicum pubescens species are grown from the highlands of Mexico, through parts of Central America and throughout the Andean region all the way down to Chile. Unlike the other four domesticated Capsicum species — C. annuum, C. baccatum, C. chinense and C. frutescensCapsicum pubescens only occurs in cultivation and there is no wild form. However, it is very closely related to two wild species native to the Andes Mountains — C. eximium and C. cardenasii. Some researchers believe that the wild form of Capsicum pubescens may have gone extinct a long time ago. Others believe that it may have evolved from wild Capsicum species occurring in the same region.

Plants belonging to the Capsicum pubescens species can grow very large in their native habitat, sometimes exceeding three meters in both height and width. However, there are a few smaller growing varieties within the species, and when grown in pots the plants obviously won't grow as large as they would when grown in the ground in their native habitat. Having evolved in the Andes Mountains the species is well adapted to cooler growing conditions, and during the growing season plants belonging to this species can be grown outdoors in the UK without a problem. The foliage of mature plants can apparently withstand freezing temperatures for short periods of time without damage, and whole plants can tolerate temperatures as low as -3C for one or two nights. However, the general consensus among chilli growers is that this species can withstand fairly low temperatures but it should never be subjected to frost.

The plants can live for up to 15 years in frost-free regions, and the species is sometimes referred to as the 'tree chilli', which is most likely an allusion to how robust and woody the plants can become, giving them a small tree-like appearance. The growth habits can vary slightly. Some varieties tend to have more of a tall, vine-like growth habit, whereas others have a bushy growth habit or a compact spreading growth habit. Medium and large fruiting varieties tend to develop a somewhat untidy vine-like appearance once the branches become heavier from the weight of the fruit. Capsicum pubescens varieties don't make a good choice for indoor growing, although it is possible to get some varieties to produce fruit indoors providing they receive adequate light and some help with flower pollination. However, when plants belonging to this species are grown indoors they tend to develop an untidy, gangly appearance.

Rocoto Plants
Rocoto Plants

The general consensus among some chilli growers is that plants belonging to the Capsicum pubescens species prefer to be grown in partial shade, but this isn't necessarily correct. It all depends on the climate in which the plants are being grown. Capsicum pubescens varieties do like direct sun and can withstand daytime temperatures as high as 40C. However, they require a cooler night time temperature for good flower production and fruit set. They won't fare too well during the baking hot Texas or Arizona summers, but in the Andes Mountains, where they come from, or here in the UK, where I grow them, they do just fine. Rocoto plants can be very prolific when grown under optimum conditions, and contrary to what some internet sources claim, red fruited varieties are no more prolific than other coloured varieties. However, as with chilli varieties belonging to the other four domesticated Capsicum species, some varieties, regardless of fruit colour, are more prolific than others.

Capsicum pubescens will not cross-pollinate with any of the other four domesticated Capsicum species, and two characteristics that set it apart are the dark brown-black coloured seeds and blue-violet coloured flowers. San Isidro Rocoto, a variety from the Canary Islands, has paler flowers than most other varieties within the species, and some of the first flowers of the season can be almost white. Out of the five domesticated Capsicum species, Capsicum pubescens is the least widespread and the most genetically distinct. The species is also known for its hairy leaves (and sometimes stems), giving the plants an almost velvet-like appearance. Some varieties are hairier than others, and some don't produce very much at all.

Rocoto Peppers: Size, Shape, Colour, Pungency and Flavour

Cultivated in the Andes Mountains from Colombia to Chile, and to a lesser extent in Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and Indonesia, Rocoto peppers can vary in size, shape, colour and pungency. They are thick-walled and juicy and can range in size from that of a cherry tomato to that of an average-sized Bell Pepper. They can be pear-shaped, apple-shaped (manzana), spherical (tomato-shaped), blocky (bell pepper-shaped), conical-blocky, oval, ovoid or elongated, and immature fruits start green in colour and ripen to brown, red (rojo), orange or yellow (canario), with some colour variations in between. The texture of the fruit can best be described as being like that of a cross between a Bell Pepper and a tomato. Although they do have a distinct crunch, they're not as crunchy as a Bell Pepper or as soft as a tomato. The flavour is very unique and hard to describe, but mildly fruity, green, grassy and cucumber-like notes come to mind.

People are often surprised by how hot Rocoto peppers can be when they try them for the first time. The pungency of Rocotos can range from about 30,000 to 100,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). However, as with chilli pepper varieties belonging to the other four domesticated Capsicum species, factors such as environmental stress, growing conditions and variety (genetics) can determine how much capsaicin each plant produces. Chillies belonging to the C. pubescens species contain a distinct range of capsaicinoids, causing some people to believe they are much hotter than Habaneros and Scotch Bonnets, but this is incorrect. They're just a different type of fire, which can be described as being more of a warming heat as opposed to the typical sharp, stingy heat that one would experience after munching on a Habanero or Scotch Bonnet.

Are Rocoto Peppers the Same as Manzano Peppers?

Rocoto peppers and Manzano peppers are two different cultivars belonging to the Capsicum pubescens species, and are therefore very closely related. However, Rocoto peppers are cultivated further south in the Andes Mountains from Colombia to Chile, whereas Manzano peppers are grown in limited amounts at high elevation levels in parts of Mexico. Manzano peppers are a distinct cultivar with a lower pungency, which ranges from about 15,000 to 30,000 SHU. The name 'manzana' means 'apple' in Spanish, and is a reference to the apple-shaped peppers. Rocoto peppers are normally hotter than manzano peppers, but some Rocoto peppers can also be quite mild. Both cultivars can be used interchangeably if need be. Reportedly, Manzano plants also perform better in warmer parts of the world than Rocoto plants, so if you live in a hot climate and wish to grow a Capsicum pubescens variety then perhaps Manzano would be a better choice than Rocoto.

What's the Difference between Rocoto and Locoto?

Chillies belonging to the Capsicum pubescens species are known regionally by different names, such as 'Rocoto or Rukutu' (in Ecuador and Peru), 'Locoto, Locato or Luqutu' (in Bolivia and Argentina) and 'Manzana or Manzano' (in Mexico). In parts of Peru they are also known as 'gringo killers', and in parts of Mexico and Guatemala they are known as 'caballo chiles', which means 'horse chillies' in English, a reference to how their heat can kick like a horse! To the Kichwa people of the Andes they are known as 'Rocot-Uchu'. The name 'Rocoto' is derived from the Spanish word 'roca', which means 'rock' in English, and is a reference to the firmness of the peppers. Chillies belonging to the C. pubescens species are known by lots of different names, but the ones listed above are the most common ones.

Cooking with Rocoto Peppers

Rocoto peppers are an important ingredient in Peruvian and Bolivian cuisines and are widely used for spicing up many types of food, such as sauces, stews, soups and cebiche, a Latin American dish consisting of fresh raw fish cured in fresh citrus juices and spiced up with chilli peppers. Another popular Rocoto dish is rocoto relleno (stuffed rocoto pepper). Rocoto relleno is a Peruvian speciality which originates from the city of Arequipa in Southern Peru. The peppers are cored and par-boiled and then stuffed with a seasoned meat, peanut, raisin, egg and vegetable mixture, before being topped with white cheese, covered in a milky sauce and then baked in the oven. They are then served whole with a potato dish of some description.

Rocoto peppers are very versatile in the kitchen and are great for spicing up many types of food. I often use them in stir fries or in pasta sauces in place of regular bell peppers. The two best methods for preserving Rocotos are freezing and pickling. They don't make a good choice for drying due to the thickness of their flesh. However, some of the elongated varieties, such as Aji Largo, have medium-thick flesh and would therefore make a better choice for drying, if one were so inclined to give it a try.

Rocoto Harvest - 20th October 2022
Rocoto Harvest - 20th October 2022

Outside of its native habitat, Capsicum pubescens is not grown commercially to any great extent, and therefore, peppers belonging to this species can be somewhat of a rarity to those living outside of Central and South America. Perhaps they're not widely grown commercially outside of their native habitat because the species requires a long growing season with cool, frost-free conditions, making it difficult for some countries to meet the requirements, or maybe the peppers aren't considered to be of much culinary value in other cuisines.

Rocoto peppers have a unique flavour and there are no substitutes. You may occasionally be able to source them in the freezer section at some speciality food stores, such as those catering to Hispanic communities outside of Central and South America. From time to time, such food stores would also likely sell jars of Rocoto paste, which can be used as a substitute for fresh or frozen Rocotos in some cases. Jars of Rocoto paste can also be purchased online. Rocoto paste is often used in Peruvian and Bolivian cuisines for spicing up soups, stews and sauces. Another popular chilli paste used in these regions of the world is made from the Aji Amarillo chilli, a very popular orange coloured chilli belonging to the Capsicum baccatum species.