Chiles don't always taste like you expect. Remember aji panca, the sweet purple chile that tastes oddly like blueberries? Well here's another Peruvian import (a nation whose chiles I seem to have a thing for) that's something of an edible surprise: lemon drop chiles.
"Their flavor and aroma are spectacular: a rounded, sweet lemon flavor, with tinges of the tropics and the smoldering fire of capsaicin."
I first encountered lemon drops at a local farmers' market. I was assured that yes, they did taste remarkably citrus-y, and that they were quite hot. They didn't disappoint on either front. Their flavor and aroma are spectacular: a rounded, sweet lemon flavor, with tinges of the tropics and the smoldering fire of capsaicin. My first bite—a nibble off the end of a dried pod—was a strong enough kick in the mouth to make me pay attention. But the heat dissipated quickly, leaving a smooth kiss of citrus behind. This is a chile to get excited about.
When fresh, the peppers are bright mustard yellow, a couple inches long with pointy tips. They turn a darker color when dried, but retain an unmistakable lemon-y flavor. Truth be told, the chiles taste more like the eponymous candy than lemons themselves, but their considerable heat eliminates any trace of cloying sweetness. Their flavor is slightly reminiscent of habaneros, whose remarkable fruitiness can be dominated by face-melting spiciness. If those chiles are just too hot for you to get any enjoyment from them, lemon drops are a worthy substitute.
Unfortunately, while habaneros can be found in the unlikeliest of supermarkets, lemon drops are pretty hard to find. They're best found at farmers' markets or, if you're really lucky, from a local chile grower willing to make a deal. Or you could grow your own: the internet abounds with sources for seeds and tips for cultivation, as they seem to be popular with many gardeners.
Lemon drops pair well with other bright, acidic ingredients: citrus of all kinds, garlic, vinegar, and the like. But they also brighten ingredients that could use some jazz, especially simply-cooked pork, chicken, and mild legumes. Their distinctive flavor is best left unmarred by competing ingredients; most of the time, I'm happy to slip in a bit of coriander and call it a day.
Like habaneros, a little goes a long way. Mince the peppers fine or grind them into a powder, and add them toward the end of cooking to preserve their flavor. They'd be out of place in your pot of chili, but are perfect in soups, braises, and stir fries for a bright finish.
My favorite use of lemon drops, both for its ease of use and the way it showcases all the chiles can do, is a simple vinegar hot sauce. Yes, it has some supporting players: garlic, coriander, cumin, and a tad of fruity olive oil, but it's all about the chiles. Bright, fiery, and citrusy, I use it in vinaigrettes in place of mustard, in marinades, and straight into a bowl of beans or greens. Like the chiles, this hot sauce hits hard and fast. The heat lingers, but it's the beguiling flavor of the chiles that stands out, perfect as a last-minute accent that beats the pants off straight lemon juice.