By Julie Etra
While there are chilies – some of them (in)famous for their heat – from around the world, like the medium hot Hatch chilies from New Mexico, or hot Thai chilies, or even hotter Scotch Bonnets, this article focuses on the chilies of Mexico. Note, both spellings are acceptable: chili and chile.
The common name “chili” is from the Náhuatl word chilli. Chilies have been cultivated in Mexico for over 6,000 years. Although their precise origin is unclear, they no doubt come from Latin America. The Nahua (Aztecs) had various uses for the fruit besides consumption, including using the smoke to punish children or to combat military enemies; the smoke from charred chiles caused extreme eye irritation (anyone who has chopped a fresh or roasted high-Scoville-unit chili and then rubbed their eyes knows this firsthand).
Taxonomy and Biology
Chilies are in the genus Capsicum, derived from a Greek word meaning “capsule” (botanically speaking, that is incorrect since the fruit is a berry). They are in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), along with tomatoes and potatoes. Capsicum consists of 20–27 species, five of which are widely cultivated, with C. annuum being the most important. C. annuum includes chili de arbol, jalapeño and poblano, and others such as the domesticated sweet orange, red, and yellow bell peppers, Which are mature versions of the green bell pepper and not considered chilies.
The other four widely used chilies are C. baccatum (the domesticated ají pepper found in many South American countries), C. chinense (habanero chilies), C. frutescens (the Tabasco chili), and C. pubescens (the Mexican manzano, Bolivian locoto, and Peruvian rocoto). Many specific Mexican chilies have Náhuatl language equivalents (tlalchilli = chili de arbol).
Chilies found today have been bred from their wild ancestors, most likely the chiltepin or similar small but picante chilies that are found everywhere, since birds are one of the vectors and spread the seed with their waste. The chiltepin or pequin (or piquin) chilies that sometimes appear in the wild in Huatulco are consumed by the chachalacas (loud partridge-like birds with a red eye – chachalaca means chatty, which they are!). I have quit trying to cultivate these chilies, hoping to cut down on the chacalaca conversations in my yard! Wild chilies are pollinated by honeybees, bumblebees, other species of bees, and ants (and no doubt other insects).
What is the best way to describe chilies? Should we classify chilies by their heat? Fresh versus dried? By region? By size? By preparation?
CONABIO, Mexico’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity, puts out a fabulous poster of Mexican chilies with the slogan “Si no le pusiste chile, no esperes que te sepa.” This is the short version of a quote from David Alonso López, a graduate of the International Gastronomy program at the Universidad Mexicana: “Si no le pusiste chile, no esperes que te sepa la comida, aunque hay de picantes a picantes”: “If you didn’t add chilies, don’t expect you know our food [culture], although there’s hot and then there’s really hot.”
Chiles are often categorized by their heat or level of picante (spiciness), measured in Scoville units. For example, the habanero pica (bites), so it rates as very hot at 350,000 Scoville units, while the proletariat poblano, typically associated with the chili relleno, is considered mild at 1000-2000 units. (This might not always be the case with individual peppers, since chilies cross pollinate and hybridize.)
How to Use Mexican Chilies
Chilies can be used fresh or raw in salsas (immature/green; mature/red). They can be smoked, pickled (as in escabeche, that dish of pickled chilies, carrots, etc. that appears on many restaurant tables), or roasted. I like to roast poblanos, chop them up and add them to a batch of pinto or black beans, along with other ingredients, of course. Roasting usually adds heat; a roasted serrano is hotter than its fresh form. Typically, when chilies are roasted, the seed and the membranes are removed.
Dried chilies can be used in many ways; the red chili de arbol flakes are often served with pizza; chilies can be dried and ground into powders; whole dried chilies can be reconstituted by soaking in vinegar or water for use in salsa, e.g., guajillo salsa.
Poblano chilies can be stuffed (chili relleno; relleno = “filled”), not just with cheese but with almost anything. The poblanos first need to be roasted to char and remove the skin, which is hard to digest.
My favorite relleno is the very complicated chilies en nogada – chilies in walnut cream sauce, stuffed with meat and fruit and garnished with the sauce, pomegranate seeds, and parsley, the colors of the red, white, and green Mexican flag. The dish originated in the city of Puebla, where the struggle for Mexican independence began. It is said to have been prepared for Emperor Augustín de Iturbide (first president and then emperor after the war of independence – a long story for another time). It is a source of pride for the inhabitants of the state of Puebla; people from Puebla are known as “poblanos,” although that really means “people of the pueblo/town,” and not people of the pepper! You can order this exquisite dish at Campestre Santa Clara in La Crucecita.
Here’s a list of the varieties of chilies mostly commonly available in Huatulco, in fresh, dried, or smoked form, along with a few unusual chilies you might look for. The most popular are available in the supermarkets, but you’ll have better luck checking out the baskets at the produce markets and the Organic Market held on Saturdays in Santa Cruz (Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco – MOH). The Saturday schedule varies by the season.
The bola chili comes from Coahuila, Durango, Guerrero, Jalisco, and Veracruz. When it is dried, it is called cascabel. It’s used in salsas and “jams” (paste form), and has a nutty flavor.
The chawa chili grows in the Yucatán, and is used fresh (green) in salsas or pickled in escabeche.
The chilaca chili is from the state of Chihuahua, and is used green or red. A dried chilaca is called pasilla. Use chilacas in stews or roast them with cheese.
Chile verde del norte is similar to the anaheim chili or perhaps the Hatch chilies; green is spicier than red, which can be almost sweet. If it is dried while green, it is called chile seco del norte; if red, chile colorado. It can be used for chilies rellenos, in stews, soups (especially posole, the broth made with pork, hominy, and chilies, plus all the chopped toppings you want), and marinades and sauces.
Chile de arbol grows everywhere, is used fresh, either green or red, and dried, usually ground (molido). It’s picante – hot – and is used in everything.
Chile chicuarote (sometimes criollo) comes from the Valley of Mexico, and is grown in the San Gregorio Atlapulco neighborhood of Xochimilco, the floating gardens south of Mexico City. It is used fresh (green/red) or dried in salsas and moles. It’s also the title of a 2020 film directed by Gael García Bernal that portrays two young chicuarotes – the informal name for Xochimilco residents, meaning “pretty spicy” – who go from unsuccessful clowning to armed robbery while riding public transportation.
Chile chilhuacle is a rare chili that grows in Oaxaca, and is used dried. Considered essential in mole negro.
Chile costeño is also from Oaxaca, also used dried in moles and salsas. It adds a fruity flavor.
The chile loco comes from Puebla and is available in the rainy season. It used fresh or dried in salsas, pastes, or roasted and sliced. Picante.
The rare chile tuxta or tusta is from Oaxaca. It is dried and used in traditional recipes.
The small Chiltepin chilies grow throughout Mexico and are used fresh in salsas and aguachile (chili-water), a shrimp dish from northwestern Mexico like ceviche but without the marinating time that “cooks” the fish. Picante.
Güero chilis (güero = blond) are basically the same as banana peppers. They are grown in northern Mexico and used fresh in yellow mole, salsas, and escabeche.
Jalapeño chilies are available everywhere. When jalapeños are smoked, they are called chipotle; the canned version is called chipotles en adobo (sauce). Because it is smoked for less time, the morita chili is a milder type of chipotle. Jalapeños have many fresh uses (salsas, pickled for escabeche), while chipotles are used in stews and moles, among other dishes.
Manzana chilies come from the state of Michoacán in the Central Mexican Valley. They can be roasted or grilled, and are often used in salsas.
The mirasol chili grows upright – its name means “look at the sun.” Mirasol chilies come from the central Mexican altiplano (plateau). The dried form is called guajillo, a mild, sweetish pepper that adds rich flavor to moles, salsas, and stews.
Pequin chilies come largely from Coahuila and are used dry, mostly in salsas. Of course, the supermarkets all carry shaker bottles of “chili piquin,” sometimes with lime, which is great for sprinkling atop corn, eggs, avocado toast, and tropical fruit.
Poblano chilies are grown, predominantly in the state of Puebla, but are available everywhere; once the fresh poblanos are roasted, they can be stuffed (see above – delicious for chiles en nogada). Smoked poblanos are called ancho chilies, and good in bean dishes and stews. Serrano chilies are widely grown and available across Mexico. They are used fresh, both green and red, especially for salsa. Dried, they’re called chile seco. For more information and fun, check out these sites.
Lila Downs’ fabulous tribute to the chili, Son del Chile Frito. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_U1ZuI5rw3U.
- Conabio Poster: https://en.ihuitl.com/fullscreen-page/comp-jlojikxq/8c30da01-6084-4b6d-888b-80ebaafe6435/20.
- Scoville Chart: http://www.titlemax.com/discovery-center/lifestyle/peppers-ranked-by-scoville-heat-units/.
- On bola chilies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zs-hZ22iyM
- On loca and poblano chilies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JUdreyC-XU
- On the chicuarote chili: http://www.mexiconewsdaily.com/culture/cdmx-pueblo-chile-chicuarote/?utm_source=jeeng&utm_medium=email&trigger=click.