Mexican food and the chili pepper

Posted By on August 3, 2015

Aside from natural wonders and ancient culture, the Yucatan side of Mexico offers some of the best Mexican cuisine in the country. From Cancun all the way to Tulum and beyond, the food is primarily a fusion of indigenous Mesoamerican and Spanish cooking.


Local menus and home recipes consist of native foods such as corn, beans and chili peppers combined with a variety of meat – beef, chicken, port, sheep and goat – common dairy products such as heavy cream and cheese. Other common ingredients include tomatoes, squash, avocados, cocoa, edible flowers and vanilla, all adorned with numerous herbs and spices.

Over the centuries, regional cuisine became more prominent, particularly in places such as Oaxaca, Veracruz and the Yucatan Peninsula. Mexican cuisine is an important part of the local culture and social structure as well as traditions known to each region.

Once you’ve indulged in Mexican food a few times, you will likely realize that many dishes are defined by their sauces and, as importantly, their chilies. Only certain sauces contain certain chilies which are often considered more important than the staple ingredients of the dish. Even tamales are differentiated by their filling and what sauce – red, green, chili peppers or mole – is used. It is rare that a traditional Mexican dish is eaten without a sauce (salsa) or fresh chilies.

chiles en nogada

So what’s with Mexican food and the chilies? The importance of the chili dates back to the Mesocamerican period where it was considered as much as a staple as beans and corn. During the 16th century, Bartolome del las Cases wrote that without chilies, the indigenous people did not think they were eating. It is for this reason many Mexican people believe their national identity would be lost without the chili.

There are about a dozen different chili peppers used in traditional Mexican cooking:

Chile de Arbol is also known as either bird’s beak chile or rat’s tail chile. They are a very distinctive bright red color when mature. These peppers can be found either dried fresh or powdered and are often used to decorate wreaths because they do not lose their red color after they are dried. You can substitute Cayenne pepper with Chile de Arbol in most recipes.

Jalapeno is a medium-sized chili pepper, mature it is 2–3½ inches long and is commonly picked and consumed while still green, occasionally it is allowed to fully ripen and turn a beautiful crimson red. One of the most if not the most common chiles in the United States it is a staple of many tailgates.

Cascabel chile, also known as the rattle chili, is a Mirasol variety and gets it’s name from the tendency of loose seeds to rattle inside a dried cascabel when shaken. The pigmentation of the fresh chilis blends from green to red and darkens when dried.

Habanero: Unripe habaneros are green, and they color as they mature. Common colors are orange and red, but white, brown, and pink are also seen. They are the hottest commonly used chile in Mexican cuisine so be careful when preparing them.

The poblano is a mild chili pepper. Dried, it is called a chile ancho. The ripened red poblano is significantly hotter and more flavorful than the less ripe, green poblano. The flavor and heat can be unpredictable, occasionally they can have significant heat.

traditional mexican chilis for cooking

Pasilla or “little raisin” refers to the dried chilaca pepper. Many times grocers miss label these for Ancho chiles. The Pasilla chile is normally 8 -10 inches long and narrower than Ancho.

Anaheim: The mildest variety of chili pepper, also called California chili or Magdalena. Since Anaheim peppers originated from New Mexico, they are also sometimes also known as New Mexico peppers. Varieties of the pepper grown in New Mexico tend to be hotter than those grown in California.

Morita is a smoke-dried jalapeno, commonly referred to as a chipolte.

The guajillo chili is characterized by it’s thin, deep red flesh. It has a mild green tea flavor with berry overtones, only a small amount of heat. They are sometimes used to make the salsa for a sweet taste with a surprisingly hot finish.

Ancho is the dried form of Poblano chiles and the most widely available dried chiles. Different peppers from the same plant have been reported to vary substantially in heat intensity.

Puya: Very similar to the Guajillo, but smaller and hotter.  It may be soaked in water to pull out the flavor. It is often used more for its fruity flavor, rather than its flesh.

Serrano: A smaller version of the jalapeno, it is similar in color and matures from a dark green to reddish orange even yellow in color. It is a very meaty flesh pepper and is not suitable for drying. They are typically eaten raw but are usually best when roasted. Serrano peppers are also commonly used in making pico de gallo.

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