Suitcase and World: Chili.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


When I think of Mexican cuisine, I think of tomatoes, chili, corn and cilantro. I think of tacos and tortillas and chicken smothered in wonderful mole. I have a very narrow and stereotypical view of Mexican cuisine and I know my palate is going to get a whole new education when I get there. I'm going to happily stuff my face and gain a gazillion pounds in the process :-)

Regardless of how ignorant I am about the finer aspects of Mexican cuisine, it cannot be denied that the chili pepper, in a multitude of varieties, forms and heat intensity, plays in integral role in the cuisine.

In Bhutan, the chili pepper is also an integral part of their national dish, ema datse, which is eaten at every meal. It's a fiery hot dish and the hotter, the least in Bhutanese eyes.

In Mexico, chilies are eaten fresh, cooked, roasted, dried, powdered and pickled. Mexicans have also perfected the art of integrating the flavors of different types of chilies to create complex flavor profiles such as you would find in a good mole. The Mexicans have perfected the art of taking one, very humble ingredient and manipulating it to extract as many flavors out of it as possible.

The Mexicans use a lot of different types of chilies in their cuisine but here's a short list of the commonly used ones.

Poblano peppers are the largest peppers used in Mexican cuisine.  The poblano is really a comparatively mild chili pepper though it can pack some heat.  Originating from the Mexican state of Puebla, poblanos are most commonly used  to make chili rellenos (chilies stuffed with cheese and then deep fried) or mole poblano, a sauce that is served with meat and poultry.

Poblanos are generally used when the are darkish green in color. 

When they ripen, they turn red, ultimately to a shade that is so dark, it virtually looks black.  The skin of the poblano pepper is abnormally thick which makes them great for stuffing.  They are the chili of preference for chili rellenos, i.e., peppers stuffed with cheese, then battered and fried.

Poblanos have an earthy flavor that comes out when they are roasted.  A roasted poblano is referred to an ancho chili.

Ancho peppers are typically used in sauces, and are the most commonly used chili pepper.

Serrano peppers are bright green with a crisp and hot fiery taste.  They are notably hotter than the Jalapeno pepper that  they resemble.  Serranos are typically eaten raw and for that reason are a key component in pico de gallo which is not to be confused with salsa. 

Serranos originated in the Mexican states of Puebla and Hidalgo and it is said that the name of the pepper is a reference to the mountains (sierras) of these regions.  Unripe serrano peppers are green, but the color at maturity varies. Common colors are green, red, brown, orange, or yellow.

Jalapeño peppers are the Mexican chili pepper that Americans are most familiar with.   The jalapeño is named after the Mexican town of Xalapa (also spelled Jalapa), Veracruz  where it was traditionally cultivated.  Jalapeños turn from green to dark purple, and finally to red when they are ripe.

Not as fiery hot as the serrano, jalapeños are very versatile peppers and are used  fresh, roasted, filled, as well as pickled.  A roasted, smoked jalapeño pepper is known as chipotle pepper.

Chipotle peppers are dried jalapeño peppers that have been smoked. They are often used in sauces to add a smoky flavor.

Chilaca peppers are long and narrow, dark to blackish-green chili with a shiny surface formed by undulating vertical ridges.

Chilacas have a slightly sweet flavor and varies from mildly hot to hot. Commonly used in Mexico City, they are charred, peeled, seeded, shredded and used in tamales, vegetable dishes, soups, tomato sauces, and other sauces. Chilacas are most often used in  its dried form, when it is referred to as a chili pasilla or chili negro.

Habanero peppers, sometimes misspelled and mispronounced as habañero, is one of the hottest of all the chili peppers. Typically, I see orange colored habaneros in the supermarkets but they also come in a red form as well as white, brown, and pink.

Not surprisingly, the largest producer and consumers of this famously fiery pepper is Mexico where the Yucatan Peninsula can claim itself as the home soil of the hanbanero.  Though the habanero has become known the world over, in Mexico, habaneros can be found in many of the dishes in Yucatán, served either whole or in salsa.

The more I learn about Mexican cuisine, the more I realize that what comes across to many as a very simple, peasant inspired cuisine is actually the opposite. The chili pepper plays an important role in Mexican flavors and now that I know a bit about the varieties used, I'm eager to train my palate to a appreciate the influence it has on the flavors of Mexico!