An Introduction to Chile Culture

Excerpted from Sam’l Arnold’s “Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail.”

An old Mexican phrase says, “A la primera cocinera se le va un chile entero.” To the best cook goes the whole chile. Surely no kitchen can be without either!

According to ethno-botanists, chile, or “capsicum,” is a pepper indigenous to the Americas. One of the treasures Columbus brought back to Spain from his second voyage was a quantity of chile seeds. Later, Spanish and Portuguese explorers spread chile seeds around the world. Chile is erroneously believed to have been named for the country on the west coast of South America. Actually, the term derives from the Aztec names for various peppers: quauchilli, milchilee, zenalchilli and others.

There are roughly 200 different types of chiles in existence, with more than 100 varieties in Mexico alone. Chiles come in many forms, from tiny, round raisin shapes to huge, pointed pods called “Big Jims.” There are small pointed ones (chiles serranos), short, stubby fat ones (jalapeños) and the very long, narrow Italian variety, some light red and orange when ripe, others virtually black. On the Ivory Coast of Africa, one finds the tiny, immensely hot pili-pili pepper, and in Mexico, the habañero, a plump, light yellow-green chile found primarily in Yucatan. The habañero is so hot that most people handle it with gloves and only rub a cut piece of the pepper across the item to be flavored. Its chile oil is so potent that it blisters the skin upon contact.

Chile fans know that almost any pepper, if left on the plant until the end of the season, will change from green to red. Chile verde (green chile) is simply picked earlier. Green chile is not necessarily hotter than red chile; hotness of flavor depends upon the pod, the plant, the type of chile, the soil and the growing conditions. The seeds are often hotter than the pod flesh. Inside the chile, near the stem, a little blister of chile oil called capsaicin forms within a fine membrane. Until that blister is broken and the hot oil spills out within the pepper, every chile is as bland as an English bell pepper. The oil sack may be broken when the chile is bumped, picked or packed; even the wind blowing one chile against another can cause the oil sack to rupture. Since the seeds are nearest to the sack, they absorb most of the chile oil. So, by removing the seeds and the long stringers inside the chile, one may diminish the hotness, if desired.

It is a mistake to believe that eating chile is hard on the digestion. Indigestion following a Mexican meal often results from too much oil and the use of acidic tomato in the preparation. Using the pod itself with lean meat will result in a tasty, low-fat combination of flavors that is easy to digest. In fact, chile has long been considered a medicinal plant. In a medicinal compilation published in Rome in 1651, there were at least seven varieties of chile recognized by the Aztecs as having medicinal value. Chiles were prescribed for maladies such as kidney and brain inflammation, lung problems and heart pains. The Mayans also prepared chile remedies, such as boiling ground red chile mixed with honey and tobacco leaf to produce a tea that soothed an irritated throat.

Eager to begin experimenting with chile in your cooking? Green chile may be found fresh, dried, in cans or frozen. Many people add tomatoes to their green chile and meat in order to lessen the burn. The best red chiles in America (according to most chile connoisseurs) come from the area north of Española, New Mexico. The chiles grown there seem to have a richness of flavor and a piquancy that is widely beloved.


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