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The Taste of Mexico - Chiles

"Chili eaters do not adapt to the burn; except for extreme cases, the burn threshold for the spice is the same for American chili novices as for experienced Mexicans."

---Gabriela Braña---

The Respectable Lady of the "Small Red Chili Pepper", the Pre-Hispanic goddess of chili peppers, sister of Tlaloc, the god of water was called Tlatlauhqui-cihuatl-ichilzintli. Her name is as complicated as the names of chili peppers in Mexico.

Although modern classification of the chili peppers cultivated in Mexico can be reduced to five species, in popular language, the number of names is endless. The same kind of chili pepper is called in different ways according to the place where it is grown, ripeness and color; and it changes its name when it is dry.

In Mexican cooking, chili peppers are a main element: their taste, aroma and burning sensation give them personality and vigor. Chili peppers were the first plants to be cultivated in Mexico, even before corn.

Why do people over the world enjoy burning their mouth out, something that is initially rejected by almost everybody? Chili eaters do not adapt to the burn; except for extreme cases, the burn threshold for the spice is the same for American chili novices as for experienced Mexicans. Aficionados savor that burning sensation, and feel that chilies improve the appetite and spark up otherwise bland food.

One interesting theory holds that human beings come to like chilies as a result of the pain they cause. The pain, though essentially harmless, sparks an exciting defensive reaction. Like other sought-out dangers, such as riding a roller coaster, eating a hot pepper is "benignly masochistic". Since so many of us crave that mouth flare-up, it is encouraging to find that modern science recognizes the hidden health benefits of chili peppers. Recent discoveries suggest that chilies may loosen congestion from a cold, burn up excess calories, thin the blood to prevent heart attacks, prevent some types of cancer, supply essential vitamins, and literally keep heads cool. The painful bite of a chili pepper may trigger the release of endorphins, which might explain the euphoria we feel after a fiery meal. Ironically, the highest consumption of hot chilies is in hot climates. At first glance it may seem strange that people could think of eating hot chilies when the mercury climbs into the hundreds. Yet chili-spiced foods can actually help us stay cooler. The hot foods trigger massive amounts of sweating-especially in the head and the face. As the sweat evaporates, it draws away heat from the body, producing the sensation of a cooler head. Chili peppers may also benefit your health by lowering cholesterol levels.

Chili peppers can be used fresh or dried and can be distinguished as follows:


Chile Habanero-It is small and resembles a tiny lantern. It is light green in color and when it is ripe it turn orange. It has a soft surface and is extremely fiery, probably the hottest. It is used fresh or roasted mainly in Yucatecan food.

Jalapeño-One of the most popular chili peppers. It is green, long, with a narrow tip. They can be mildly hot to very hot. In Veracruz they are eaten stuffed with cheese or fish. They can be found fresh or canned.

Poblano-They can vary in shape, size, and color according to the time of year and place of cultivation. They are similar to Anaheim chilies, although due to the difference in weather condition, Anaheim chilies are not as hot and have a different texture. They are generally used stuffed with cheese, fish or minced meat, or in rajas, sliced thin with onions, cheese and cream. They have to be roasted and peeled before use.

Serrano-Small, green chili pepper, usually pointed at the end. It has a fresh, strong taste. It is used fresh, cooked and roasted. It is an essential ingredient in most sauces and guacamole.


Ancho Chilies-Probably the most widely used in Mexico. It is a poblano chili which has been dried. It can be stuffed or used in sauces.

Cascabel-It sounds like a rattle, hence its name. It is small, round and reddish brown, its skin is soft as the guajillo. It is generally not as hot and has a delicate nutty taste when it is roasted. It is very good in salsas.

Chipotle-It is light brown, has wrinkled skin and a smoky flavor. It is really a ripe jalapeno, dehydrated and smoked. It is usually used whole in soups and stews and can be found canned .

Guajillo-It is long, pointed. soft-skinned and reddish-brown. It can be very hot. It is used to season seafood soup and for a wide variety of salsas. For the cook, chilies have two qualities, taste and strength. If excessively hot, it can sometimes overpower taste. We can say that the secret of Mexican cooking is the control and dominion of chilies, being able to balance taste and strength.

* * *

Here is a recipe for Rajas de Poblano.


6 ripe poblano chilies
2 large onions sliced
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup shredded cheese
oil for sautéeing


Roast chilies in the oven or on a frying pan and put them in a plastic bag to sweat for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile slice onions. Using rubber gloves peel poblano chilies, discard the stems, ribs and seeds and slice them.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or casserole and sautee the onions until they are transparent, add the poblanos and stir until they are softened. Add cream and cheese and stir until cheese melts. Season with salt.

Serve very hot on tortillas.

November 2000

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