Chilies are actually a fruit that belong to the genus Capsicum. Most of the chilies found in Mexico are of the Capsicum annuum species, save for the chile manzano (C. pubescens), and the chile habanero (C. chinense). Based on archeological remains, we know that chilies were being consumed over 7,000 years ago in Oaxaca's Guila Naquitz cave. For millennia, chilies have provided a valuable source of vitamin A and C in the daily Mexican diet. Upon arriving in the New World, the Spanish conquerors and priests observed the important role that chilies played in pre-Colombian society—as a tribute, medicinal remedy, weapon and versatile condiment. Early explorers and ethnographers like Alexander von Humbolt and Fray Bartolome de las Casas noted and compared the use of chilies in Mexico to the use of salt in Europe, i.e. used to season everything.
When discussing chilies in Mexico it is important to talk about terroir. Chilies are as much a part of their environment as they are of the cuisine. Whether dealing with a dry and arid climate or one that is hot and humid, all of these factors have an impact on the particular flavor profile of a chile. There are many microclimates throughout Mexico that produce unique and rare chilies. Oaxaca serves as an example, as it is home to more chile microclimates than anywhere else in the world. The chile chilhuacle, chile chilcostle and the chile pasilla Oaxaqueño are not grown outside their native Oaxaca and are essential in some of the state's well-known moles. Other chilies, like the chile manzano, can be grown only at higher elevations of at least 5,500 feet.
Chilies play an essential role in almost every ethnic cuisine, not just Mexico's. In addition to savory and traditional applications, they have recently made their way onto the pastry scene with great success. Culinary professionals should possess a basic understanding of chile varieties, preparation techniques and applications in both ethnic and regional U.S. cuisines.
Tips for cooking with chilies
Most cooks who are working with large batches of chilies should wear impermeable gloves to prevent the sting of capsaicin, an oil from the chile which produces a stinging sensation in the mouth, eyes, skin or affected area. Press a sliced tomato firmly to the affected area until the stinging subsides. Miraculously, the acidity of the tomato seems to combat the stinging qualities of the capsaicin oil. Some people also recommend washing hands in a solution of bleach and water to remove the oil from the hands.
The oils produced by capsicum fruits facilitate the production of saliva in the mouth and make a person thirsty when eating hot or spicy foods. However when your eyes and nose begin to water incessantly from eating too much chile, you have become "enchilado." Most Mexicans use salt to combat a good chile heat. Contrary to U.S. practices, Mexicans do not use dairy-based foods for this purpose.
Although chorizo was brought to Mexico by the Spanish, the product that arrived was a different specimen, as the Spanish did not have access to paprika or chilies prior to the conquest. Mexican chorizos are also different in that they are raw, not cured and dried.
Depending on the region, distinctive chilies, spices and meats are used for the adobos that are added to chorizos. In central Mexico you'll find both red and green chorizo. The red chorizo is most often made with an adobo of dried ancho and guajillo chilies.
Chorizo is served in everything from tacos, queso fundido, soup, guisos, to an array of antojitos. One regional variety is the green chorizo from Toluca made with leafy greens, green chilies and peanuts or pecans.
The chorizo from Oaxaca traditionally was made with the spicy, native chile chilcostle but now uses the milder, inexpensive chile guajillo. Oaxacan chorizo is made from pork butt and is very lean in comparison to the chorizos commonly found throughout Mexico.
Salsas can be served on the side, as a garnish or as a sauce. Typically, they combine fruits or vegetables and almost always contain chilies—from fresh to dry to ones that are dry-smoked.
Tomatoes and tomatillos are the most common bases for salsas and can be used raw, cooked, charred and dry-roasted or fried. There are also salsas made exclusively with chilies, lightly seasoned with onion or garlic. Fresh and dried herbs, spices, nuts, vinegars, beer, lime juice and oils can also be added to salsas.
In some regions of Mexico, edible insects are popular additions. For example, the salsa de gusanito in Oaxaca is made with the prized gusano rojo, a red worm harvested from the maguey plant; escamoles or ant eggs are added in the Valley of Mexico. There are also dish-specific salsas, like the salsa borracha, made with pulque or beer, that is served with barbacoa in central Mexico.
Shades of red and green
Salsas generally fall under the categories of green and red and varying shades thereof. Green salsas should have a pleasant acidity from the tart tomatillos and are made with fresh green chilies. Red salsas can be made with tomatillos and dried red chilies or with tomatoes. Darker salsas are usually made with smoked chilies like the chipotle meco or the chile pasilla oaxaqueno; or dark dried chilies like ancho or pasilla.
Blending vs. stone grinding
Salsas can be pureed in a blender or ground in a molcajete—a volcanic stone mortar and pestle.
Why use a stone molcajete
- To produce a salsa with complex flavors and textures.
- To bring out the earthy flavor of stone-ground garlic, as opposed to the biting flavor of raw garlic.
- To achieve a chunkier texture.
Regional moles of Oaxaca and Puebla
In contemporary Mexico, the word "mole" refers to a thick sauce seasoned with chilies, spices, herbs, nuts, seeds, dried fruit and other ingredients. Everything is painstakingly toasted, dry-roasted, ground and then fried. When making a mole, let it stand on its own, free of competing flavors. For that reason, mole is usually accompanied with proteins that are poached, not seared or grilled.
Looking at the cornucopia of pre-Colombian ingredients that were being consumed at the time of the Spanish conquest, we know that essentials like maize, tomatoes, tomatillos, dozens of varieties of Oaxacan and Pueblan chilies, peanuts, pepitas (squash seeds) and of course chocolate (albeit in a different form) were an integral part of the pre-Hispanic diet. However, after 500 years of mestizaje, Mexican cuisine has prospered through its marriage of indigenous ingredients with those of Europe, the Middle East and Asia.