Hot and spicy in Mexico: the chili experience
In Mexico it’s the chili that defines the dish, its color and even its name. This voyage around the country will help you choose your favourite – or, for the chili-shy, which ones to avoid.
Chilies originated in Central and South America where humans have been eating them since 7500 BC. From Mexico, Spaniards (and then Portuguese) spread chilies to the rest of the world: it’s hard to imagine that before this there was no Indian vindaloo, Thai green curry, or paprika for Hungarian goulash.
Test your luck with a chili that is sometimes mild and makes good comfort food, but sometimes scorching.
Heat Rating: Mild to very hot. 1000-10,000 Scovilles.
Tasting: Long, fat poblano chilies are enjoyed green for their light capsicum flavour. They’re usually almost spiceless, but some rebels will pop up in dishes that are eye-watering.
Dishes: Chiles en nogada is a patriotic dish from Puebla just to the east of Mexico City that uses plump, poblano chilies to stuff with meat and cover with bright red pomegranate seeds, and a walnutty white sauce. The red, white and green colours of the chiles en nogada match the Mexican flag, making it a traditional Mexican Independence Day dish.
To really taste the poblano chili, Mexicans turn to chile relleno. Poblano chilies are stuffed with a mild, white panela cheese and fried in an egg batter. As you cut into it, the cheese melts out and that simple green flavour emerges.
Since originating in Jalapa (also spelled Xalapa), capital of Veracruz state on Mexico’s central-east coast, the jalapeño has become quite the international traveller, spreading as far as Vietnam where it often crowns pho soup. It’s also the chili of choice for Tex-Mex food.
Description: A gentle, full-flavoured chili with a little zing.
Heat rating: Fairly Hot. 2500-9000 Scovilles.
Tasting: Jalapeños have a thick, crunchy skin, medium spice (though this can vary) and a green capsicum flavour. They are chopped up into chunky salsa verde, a thick, green sauce made with juicy tomatillos (green tomato-like fruit) found on the tables of most fondas (small family restaurants) and eateries in Mexico. The salsa has a way of bringing to life the flavours of the food it graces. It’s well balanced and lets the cilantro/coriander sing through.
Dishes: Pickled jalapeños en escabeche liven up street snacks or antojitos (‘little cravings’) such as tortas (avocado, tomato and burger-worthy fillings in a hefty bread bun). It teams with refreshing onion to cut through any greasiness. Heap as many jalapeños as you like into your tacos or quesadillas (folded over pan-fried corn tortillas filled with mushrooms or meat and oozy cheese).
Jalapeños are sometimes used in chileatole a hearty, spicy corn-kernel soup that warms you up on Jalapa’s famous cold evenings. And cheese-stuffed jalapeñosmake good finger food to accompany local coffee from Jalapa.
Tip: If you’re shopping for jalapeños in Mexico, go for ones with markings that look like wood grain. This ‘corking’ is caused by rapid growth, but Mexicans believe that it reflects a top chili.
Try it: La Fonda, Jalapa or at almost every street stall in Mexico.
Description: Similar to the jalapeño and used to make the salsa pico de gallo.
Description: Smoky, warm flavours that round out the spice.
Heat Rating: Fairly hot. 3000-10,000 Scovilles.
Tasting: You would hardly recognise that chipotle is just a jalapeño chili in a smoking jacket and a tan. Out are the juvenile grassy notes and crunch. Instead the flavours are deep, smoked and a touch sweet. Mature, red jalapeños are wood-smoked for days until they are shrivelled and pack a concentrated earthy taste.
Dishes: Chipotle makes a dark, tasty salsa, and works especially well in an adobo (a marinade of oregano, cumin and other spices), infusing chicken with chipotle’s rich flavour and comforting spice.
Chile de árbol
Chile de árbol (literally: ‘tree chili’ although it grows on a bush) is a long thin chili with bite that comes from Oaxaca and Jalisco along the south coast. It’s eaten red and stays bright red even when dried.
Description: A practical everyday chili with complex flavours.
From: Oaxaca and Jalisco
Heat Rating: Hot enough to hurt. 15,000-30,000 Scovilles.
Tasting: Usually found dried or powdered, chile de árbol can also be used fresh and is just as nicely spicy either way, with a natural smoky flavour.
Dishes: It’s the chili of choice, seeds and all, in salsa roja (‘red sauce’), the twin to salsa verde for street food antojitos and on restaurant tables. It’s also a good choice to make pozole, a hominy (they look like bloated corn kernels) stew that combines the magic Mexican flavour combination of corn, chili and lime. Watch it get ladled into a bowl and just try to stop your mouth watering. Adding chile de árbol will make pozole red and change the name from pozole blanco to pozole rojo. Using a salsa verde (of jalapeño fame) will make it pozole verde.
Originally from the Amazon region, this little firecracker has been consumed for over 8500 years. The variety we know as habanero today is grown in the Yucatán and widely eaten across the whole of Mexico, though it gained fame – and its name – from intense trade in Havana, Cuba.
Description: When you’re done playing it safe with other chilies, this is the concentrated good stuff.
Heat Rating: Extremely hot. 200,000-350,000 Scovilles.
Tasting: Habaneros are lip-searingly hot. The ones you’ll usually be served in Mexico are a cheery orange and just one tiny slice can give the unprepared the chili hiccups. So why do it? Under that scorch is a bright citrus flavour and aroma that gives food a nice tang.
Dishes: You’ll find habaneros finely sliced with onion to add punch to quesadillasand tacos, but it’s best with the Yucatán classic, cochinita pibil – pork, marinated in woody spices such as clove, cinnamon and achiote (annatto spice), bitter oranges and habanero, wrapped in banana leaves and slow-roasted.
Poc chuc (citrus-marinaded, char-grilled pork) is another great Yucatán dish and tastes delicious with a generous lashing of habanero salsa on top.
The Holy Trinity of mole sauce: ancho, pasilla and guajillo
Mole poblano is Puebla’s famous chocolatey and deliciously spiced sauce used mainly with chicken. The holy trinity of chilies used in mole are ancho (a slightly sweet, dried chile poblano), pasilla (an almost black, dried chilaca chili great with fruit) and guajillo (large, dried chilies with a hint of fruit).
Adding cascabel (small balls with dry seeds inside that rattle) is just one of the many variations on mole.
Heat: Mild to nicely spicy. 1000-5000 Scovilles.
Phillip grew up in Sydney on traditional spicy Australian food – Vietnamese bánh mì with slivers of chili, plus hot, sour and minty Thai papaya salads. This conditioned him to later live in Mexico, the chili motherland. More of Phillip’s Mexico articles and gifs are on philliptang.co.uk, and you can follow him @philliptang. Google+: plus.google.com/+PhillipTang1