When Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, he carried a sample of black pepper with him, hoping to find new sources of supply supply sources of this valuable spice. This helps to explain why, upon the discovery of the spicy capsicum family, he referred to Mexican chillies as a pepper.
To this day, both true pepper from the Piper nigrum vine and chillies are referred to as peppers in America and many parts of Europe, which often leads to confusion.
The history of chillies
Unknown to the rest of the world at the time, there is evidence that ‘aji’ (Spanish for chilli), were eaten by the Mexican Indians as early as 7000 BC and possibly cultivated sometime between 5200 and 3400 BC, making them among the oldest plants cultivated in the Americas. Upon their discovery, the world then warmly embraced chilli as a ‘poor man’s pepper’ as for the first time, even the poorest of people could have a ready supply of this easily propagated, prolific fruiting and appetite enhancing condiment.
By 1650, the cultivation of capsicums had spread through Europe, Asia and Africa. In Europe, hybridisation along with changed soil and climatic condition led to a bias towards the milder varieties within C. annum, while in the tropics various hotter types of C. annum and C. frutescens were popular. One explanation for the desire for hot chillies in the tropics is that they raise the body temperature, resulting in perspiration which creates a cooling effect as it evaporates.
Given that chillies originated in Mexico, it’s no wonder that Mexican chillies remain quite unique in their appearance and flavour profiles when compared to many that have hybridised around the world, and in India in particular. This makes the unique flavours of Mexican chillies essential when making any regional recipes, and of course they are highly desirable in many other dishes.
When you see some of these almost black, wrinkly dried chillies you may think they look pretty dodgy. Think again, smell them and become aware of delicious notes of dried fruits like raisins, sultanas and figs! These are not blistering fiery numbers to satisfy the chilli addict, who derives pleasure from a masochistic capsicum burn. These are warm and friendly.
Which Mexican chilli should I choose?
Here are some of the most unique and popular varieties of Mexican chillies.
- Ancho chilli
Ancho chilli is a large, dried poblano chilli about 8 cm long and 4 cm wide. Deep-purple to black in colour, it has a mild fruity flavour with notes of coffee, tobacco, wood and raisin. When you think of combining chocolate and chilli, such as in a Mole Poblano or chilli chocolate drink, defer to ancho chilli.
As a kid, my favourite chocolate was Fruit and Nut. The fruity notes in Ancho chilli marries perfectly with chocolate. Ancho chillies are arguably the most used dry chilli in Mexican cooking. They are quite mild with a heat level of around 4/10.
- Chipotle chilli
Chipotle chilli (pronounced che-pote-lay) is a large, smoked, dried jalapeno with a smoky, deep well-balanced heat. Chipotle Chilli Powder is a little like an extra smokey, slightly hot smoked paprika.
Chipotle is delicious when added to pumpkin soup, is used in many Mexican dishes, and by vegetarians in stews, soups and casseroles as a substitute for bacon bones. They are quite mild with a heat level of around 5/10.
- Guajillo chilli
Guajillo chilli (pronounced hwa-hee-yo) is very similar in appearance and taste to New Mexico chillies. Because of the large amount of flesh relative to seeds, guajillo chillies add a pleasing rich, red colour to food. They are about 15 cm long, and have an earthy, cherry-like flavour and distinct yet mild heat.
Guajillo chilli Powder is a convenient way to add this unique flavour to soups and casseroles, and to sprinkle on chicken and pork when barbecuing, roasting or grilling. Guajillo is an ideal chilli to use with pork as it’s in one of my favourite Mexican recipes for Pulled Pork Tortillas. Guajillo Chilli Powder has an agreeable heat level of around 4/10.
- Mexican chilli powder
Mexican chilli powder is generally a blend of medium heat chilli powder, paprika and ground cumin seed, with oregano and salt sometimes included. This is what you would sprinkle on your tacos and use as a condiment whenever you are looking for that characteristic ‘Mexican’ taste. Heat level is around 6/10.
For a milder, family friendly taco seasoning with no artificial ingredients, use Herbie’s Mexican Spice Blend.
- Mulato chilli
Mulato chilli is very similar to ancho, being another type of dried poblano chilli. It’s dark-brown in colour and with a similar taste that is somewhat smokey. Heat level is only 3/10.
- New Mexico chilli
New Mexico chilli is also referred to as ‘Colorado’ and ‘dried California chilli’. A New Mexico chilli is very large, about 15 cm long, with an earthy, cherry-like flavour and distinct yet mild heat. Use in stews containing chicken, seafood and beans. Heat level 4/10.
Pasilla (pronounced pas-ee- ya) is a dried chilaca chilli and is sometimes called ‘chile negro’. The flavour is similar to ancho and mulato chillies with fruity, herb-like notes and faint licorice tones.
This makes pasilla an ideal chilli to use with guacamole, as in Kate’s recipe for Cashew Guacamole with Pasilla Pepitas. Pasilla chilli is also used traditionally in making the famous ‘mole’ sauce. Heat level of pasilla chilli is around 4/10.
How do you use dried Mexican chillies?
Dried chillies may be used whole in Mexican stews, curries and almost any other kind of slow-cooked liquid, as the flavour and heat will seep out and blend into the dish. Often sauces will call for a whole chilli to be soaked in hot water for 15 to 20 minutes, cut open to remove the seeds, and then pounded using a mortar and pestle or blended with other ingredients in a food processor. Ground chillies (chilli powders) of varying heats are used in a wide range of curries, sauces, pickles, chutneys and pastes.
Almost any meal you can think of will be enhanced by the flavour of a Mexican chilli. From exotic crustaceans to humble scrambled eggs, the level of extra taste to be derived from a discreet sprinkling of chilli is limited only by one’s imagination.
For more information about chillies, and herbs and spices in general, look for The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian Hemphill with recipes by Kate Hemphill. Published by Robert Rose Inc. Toronto, Ontario, Canada.