One of the most frequent flavorings in cuisines as diverse as Indian, Chinese, Moroccan, Hungarian and Mexican is the chile or chili. Some believe that it is perhaps the most commonly used spice in the world.
The chile pepper is native to Central and South America. Research into its origins suggests that chile peppers were domesticated at least 6000 years ago. There is also evidence to the effect that they were used as currency in South America, and that they were amongst the first cultivated crops in the Americas. The Mayas used them as medicine to treat stomach and throat problems, and they also considered them an aphrodisiac.
Christopher Columbus was amongst the first Europeans to encounter chiles, and he gave this new spice the name pepper. This could have been in part due to his search for the spices of India, and in part due to the fact that the new discovery also had a pungent hot flavor like that of the Asian peppercorn. The chile pepper was brought to Asia via European and Arab traders. This was a happy development for the Asians who perhaps because they were already used to embellishing their foods with a wide variety of spices, took to them eagerly. So much in fact, that today India is the largest producer of chile peppers in the world.
The chile belongs to the same botanical family as the tomato and the potato, and most common varieties fall under the botanical sub-groups of Capsicum Annuum and Capsicum Frutescens. Currently, about 400 different varieties of chiles are grown the world over, the principal producers being India, Japan, Thailand and Mexico. Chiles come in a vivid variety of shapes, sizes, and colors – ranging from yellow, orange, red to various shades of green. They can be small and slender – as in the birds’ eye chile – or large and conical – such as the poblano – or even small and rotund – such as the habaneros. Obviously, apart from the varieties of shapes, sizes and colors, chiles also come in different grades of heat. The substance that gives the chiles this notorious heat is known as capsiacin, which has the ability to produce hot and burning sensations both when ingested and when applied topically. In fact, capsaicin is one of the primary ingredients in pepper sprays! The heat contained in a chile is measured by the scotville unit. This measure is named after its developer, Wilbur Scotsville, who devised a method of measuring the quantity of capsaicin contained in different pepper varieties, usually by diluting and tasting them. To give you an example, bell peppers measure in at a scotsville unit of 0, a jalapeno between 2000 and 8000, and the habanero between 100,000 and 325,000 units! There have been various claims as to the hottest chile in the world. While results, on the whole, remain inconclusive, there was a claim by four Indian scientists that the hottest chile in the world is the Naga Jalokia from Assam, India, which measured at 855,000 on the scotsville scale.
Chile is a nauhatl word, that was subsequently adapted into Spanish and finally to English where the spelling changed to chili. It has been, and continues to be, amongst the most important ingredients in Mexican cooking, alongside other staples such as frijoles, or beans, and corn tortillas. Chiles are perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Mexican cuisine, and are also amongst the most inexpensive foods available in Mexico, in addition to the price-controlled tortillas. In fact, the poorest in Mexico can be seen frequently dining on fresh hot corn tortillas from the tortilleria, eaten with a few fresh chiles. Apart from providing heat to a meal or a dish, chiles add a depth of flavor to food that can be subtle and very appealing. Mexico boasts a great variety of chiles which are used fresh, dried and smoked. A visit to any market in Mexico provides one with a crash course on chiles. As you walk past the stall, you will see a myriad of chiles, ranging in color from red to brown ad some are almost black. Chiles are used to make or flavor salsas, in moles, in seasonings (such as a generous sprinkle of chile piquin over fresh fruits) and as cases used to enclose stuffing. It is the one common thread that runs across all manner of Mexican foods, and is relished by all irrespective of class or regional differences. The most commonly used chiles in Mexico are the serrano, the jalapeno, the poblano, the pimiento, the tabasco and the habanero. In northern Mexico, the use of chiles is a little restrained compared to the central and southern parts. The habanero is native to the Yucatan peninsula, where it is served in an escabeche, pickled with sliced red onions, in vinegar. The jalapeno too, most frequently appears on the table sliced into an escabeche that includes carrots and onions in seasoned vinegar. The fresh serrano is an essential ingredient of both cooked and raw salsas. The poblano is frequently charred, peeled, seeded and sliced into rajas, which are then mixed with cheese to stuff empanadas, or cooked with onions and creama mexicana to form a delicious rajas con crema. Poblano is also one the chiles of choice for stuffing, and is the principal ingredient of chiles rellenos and chiles en nogada.
The dried chiles of Mexico can be further categorized into dried or smoked, and this usually depends on the region. The drying is done either in the sun or by commercial dehydrators, while smoking is usually done over small, artisanal wood fires. The most frequently used varieties of dried chiles include pasilla (which is a dried chilaca chile that provides heat and is an essential ingredient in the mole poblano), the ancho (which is a dried poblano and imparts a lovely dark red color to dishes), the guajillo, (which is a slim, dark reddish brown chile frequently used in cooked salsas for its rich and mild flavor), and the chile de arbol (which is usually powdered and used in table sauces, and to sprinkle over fruit). Amongst the most popular smoked chiles are the justifiably famed chipotles. A chipotle is made by wood smoking, over several days, a vine ripened red jalapeno. The state of Chihuahua is the largest producer of chipotles, and the name given to this Chihuahua variety is chile morita. Chipotles have a wonderfully earthy, haunting flavor and mild heat levels, and are an essential ingredient in adobo style marinades.
The humble chile that traveled from Central America – and from Mexico – to the rest of the world roughly 600 years ago now finds itself firmly entrenched in most world cuisines. Nowhere else in the world, however, are chiles used in so many different forms and ways as in Mexico.
–originally published in November 2007