As a teenager in Texas, I skipped school and explored the countryside looking for arrowheads. One time I was on a bluff looking for arrowheads when I found some "corn grinders." I went below the bluff to where there was a small overhang and found, to my disbelief, a chile plant growing. It was a special moment for me, a direct contact with the native Americans who had once populated south Texas.
Chiles (Capsicum spp.) are also called chili peppers in English and both chile and chili are correct spellings. In Spanish it is just chile and in Nahuatl chili. The chile plant originates from Mexico from the region of "southern Puebla and northern Oaxaca to southeastern Veracruz." Capsicum annuum, which includes jalapeños, has been found in the Tehuacan Valley that has been dated to around 4000 BCE. Another source states that capsicum annuum have been domesticated and cultivated before 6000 BCE. The image to the right or above is of chiles secos or dried chiles. Click here for a larger image of dried chiles.
Chiles, fresh and dried, are frequently used as a spice in Mexican cooking. Chiles contain capsaicinoids which are responsible for the burning sensation and the pungent flavor of the fruit. The Scoville heat unit (SHU) rating is a measurement of the spicy heat of chile peppers. Habenero is probably the hottest chile you will find in a Oaxacan market.
Peppers and chiles are major export crops for Mexico; peppers are the largest agriculture export crop and chiles are Mexico's third largest agriculture export with a value of 985 million dollars.[4a]
Bell Pepper is known as pimiento morrón in Spanish. Bell peppers come in a variety of different colors, including chocolate-brown, red, yellow, orange, green, white, ivory and purple, but in Mexico count on seeing them in green, orange, yellow and red. Bell peppers are rated at 100 - 500 on the Scoville scale.
Some people get sick from eating green bell peppers. Typically, green bell peppers are not ripe and red ones are ripe, with yellow and orange ones in between. (Some types of green bell peppers remain green when ripe.) Unripe green bell peppers have a more bitter flavor and contain solanine which some people are more sensitive to than others.
Chiles árboles are rated at 32,000 on the Scoville scale. Click here for a larger image of chiles árboles. Click here for a larger image of chiles árboles secos.
Chiles de agua. A popular chile from Oaxaca and among Oaxacans in particular. Oddly, chiles de agua are sold by the piece and not by the weight as other chiles are. Click here for a larger image of chiles de agua.
Chiles güeros are also known as chiles guetos and look a lot like chiles de agua but they are a little longer, wider and lighter in color than chiles de agua. Chiles güeros are rated at 700 on the Scoville scale. I have stuffed them with spiced ground beef, topped with a tomatoes sauce and then baked them until done, tastes great. Click here for a larger image of chiles güeros. Dried chile güero is known as chilhuacle negro, rojo or amarillo.
Chiles habaneros are, I think, the hottest chile you will find in most Mexican markets. Chiles habaneros are rated at 100,000 a 350,000 on the Scoville scale. Click here for a larger image of chiles habaneros.
Chile Manzano is rated at 22,000 on the Scoville scale. Chile manzano is dried out to make chile cascabel. Cascabel is the Spanish word for rattle in English. When you shake a dried chile cascabel it makes a rattling sound. Click here for larger image of chiles manzanos and here for a larger image of chile cascabel.
Chiles mirasol are dried to make chiles costeños, chiles guajillos and chiles pullas (also spelled chiles puyas). The flavor of the the dried chile will be influenced by the variety of the chile mirasol and when it was harvested. Click here for a larger image of chiles costeños. Click here for a larger image of chiles guajillos. Click here for a larger image of chiles pullas.
Chiles chilacas are dried out to make chiles pasillas, which are my favorite type of dried chiles. There are two types of chiles pasillas, chiles pasillas (sometimes called chiles negras) and chiles pasillas oaxacaños which are dark red. Click here for a larger image of chiles pasillas and click here for a larger image of chiles pasillas oaxacaños.
Chile piquín is rated at 32,000 on the Scoville scale. Click here for a larger image of chile piquín.
Chiles poblanos are rated at 18,000 on the Scoville scale. Click here for a larger image of chiles poblanos. Dried chiles poblanos are called chiles anchos. Click here for a larger image of chiles anchos.
Chiles serranos also known as chiles verdes are perhaps the most utilized chile in Mexico. Chiles serranos are rated at 40,000 on the Scoville scale. Click here for a larger image of chiles serranos. Dried chiles serranos are called chiltepe or chiles serranos secos.
Chiles tustas are a popular chile of coastal Oaxaca. Click here for a larger image of chiles tustas.
Jalapeños are rated at 24,000 on the Scoville scale. Dried jalapeños that have been smoked are called chile morita and chipotle. Chile morita are smoked for less time than chipotle leaving chile morita softer and with a fruitier flavor. Click here for a larger image of jalapeños and here for chipotle.
Medusa is an ornamental chile that is not well known in Mexico but deserves being mentioned. I bought my first medusa chile plant at a nursery near the market not knowing anything about it; the plant just looked cool. As it turns out, the coolest thing about the plant is its chiles. The chile medusa looks like chile árbol, a very spicy chile; the chile medusa, however, is a sweet chile, not spicy at all. Eating these sweet chiles in front of Mexican friends is entertaining, they are impressed that a gringo can eat chile árbols like candy.
For those of you who make your own salsa and have never used dried chiles, you are really missing out. Add a chile pasilla or two to your salsa. Remove the stem and the most of the seeds, if you want you can dry roast the chile over a pan for 15 seconds, just enough so that you start to smell the chile. Blend in the blender and add it to your salsa. Give some time for the dried chile to absorb the salsa and you are good to go. Chile pasilla is not spicy but it will give your salsa a whole new rich flavor.
Photos taken by Marc Wilkinson. I, the copyright holder, hereby publish these photos under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0).