I was in the Brazilian Amazon not long ago and on my plate, stuck into a piece of decoration fruit, was this little, pea sized, yellow bean. I thought it was a piece of the fruit and poked the bean on my fork and put it into my mouth, chewed, and swallowed. It was fragrant, a little fruity, and then the earth shattered and my head exploded. Within seconds I was choking and tears were flowing out of my eyes. It took about ten minutes to recover. Seriously that hot. I had to ask the waitress how you were supposed to eat it. She explained that you just sort of squeeze it with your fork and get a tiny bit of the juice on it and then mix it in whatever you were eating to add some spice (in my case it was fish and rice).
What’s funny is I was once stuck for two weeks on the Peru-Ecuador border in a tiny – no roads leading to it and one pay phone (though there were no phone cards) – town called Pantoja waiting for a boat to take me to Iquitos. Every meal was a mountain of white rice with a fried banana. The family home that I stayed in and didn’t have any salt and pepper or seasoning of any kind, so aji charapita, aka cumari or Wild Brazil, was my only access to any flavor. I used one tiny pepper with every meal. I’d pick one out of the jar, just press down gently with my fork to get some of the juice out, and mix it in my boring rice. I should have noticed it in Brazil.
The charapita is equal to a Cayenne pepper on the Scoville scale (30,000-50,000 scovilles), though I’ve never eaten an entire cayenne. Specialty food shops in the states sell thin jars of the peppers (I bought one at a Brazilian store in Queens). The wild peppers are green when budding and turn yellow or red when mature. They grow on three-foot high (1 meter) bushes that produce white flowers and thousands of peppers. The peppers can generally be one of two species: C. chinense or C. praetermissum. The yellow chinense is more common and the one you will more likely find outside of Brazil and is listed by the USDA as cumarí. The praetermissum is slightly bigger and red.
In Brazil, where it is called cumarí, it is spelled in multiple variations such as cumbarí, comari, or comarim. It originates from a tupi (a Brazilian indian language) word, which has no original written form, thus the Portuguese translation varies. Like in Peru, where almost every pepper is called Ají, cumarí is a term used for every pepper in some remote villages. The cumarí is grown commercially in the Northern Brazilian state of Pará, but can be found in much of the Amazon northwest Amazon basin. The cumarí is increasing in popularity among pepper aficionados.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.