Navigating Mexico: Mexico’s Own Red, Hot Chili Peppers

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There is no question in almost anyone’s mind (or palate) as to just how essential chili peppers are to Mexican cuisine.

But are chilies really indigenous to Mexico, or is that just a myth?

Just about anything so associated with a cultural identity will no doubt have plenty of myths and legends linked to it.

Chilies, which most people consider as essentially Mexican as tequila and mole, are no exception.

Serious anthropological studies trace the origin of the use of these capsicum peppers in traditional cookery back to east-central Mexico over 6,000 years ago.

As political division of countries did not exist at that time, and while there is some evidence of these peppers being found in a few other parts of Latin America, what we know as chili peppers being consumed in other parts of the American continent today seems to have come about after the Colombian exchange, the years of European explorers moving in and out of different Latin American regions.

Like tomatoes and potatoes, chili peppers are definitely considered a New World plant, differing from Old World European plants such as apple and onion.

And the general consensus is that they are Mexican in origin.

Having lived most of my life in Mexico, I only know my chili names in Spanish. Maybe some of these have an English translation, but my guess is that some are neither known nor translated outside of Mexico.

A walk down a Mexican market’s aisle will expose you to what the Mexican government’s office for food and agriculture, the National System of Phytogenetics for Food and Agriculture (Sinarefi), classifies as 64 types of chili peppers.

The southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, one of the most biodiverse in the country, can boast of producing 25 of the 64.

The cultural mix comes into play with Mexico’s salsas, supposedly more popular in the United States than ketchup or other condiments.

While some U.S. conversations revolve around the family secrets of barbecue sauce, what capsulizes chilies are those same conversations in Mexican kitchens on how “I like to make my green salsa with just a little extra dash of such and such a chili pepper.”

In Mexico, almost any food, roll, sandwich or even tortilla has some sort of salsa on it, if not a chili itself.

For the die-hard chili lover, the 64 indigenous Mexican chilies in alphabetical order are: amarillo, achilito, ancho, apaxtleco, blanco, bolita, chile de árbol, chile Morelos, cascabel, chawa, chilpaya, chocolate, copi, cora, costeño, coxle, de agua, del árbol, de chorro, del monte, de onza, dulce, dulce blanco, escuchito, gallo-gallina, garbanzo, gordo, guajillo, habanero, hacle, jalapeño, lajoyero, loco, manzano, miahuateco, mirador, miraparriba, mirasol, mulato, manche, ojo de cangrejo, parado, pasilla, pasilla Oaxaca, pico paloma, pico de paloma, piquín, puya, rayado, serrano, simojovel, shirunduu, shuladi, soledad, solterito, soltero, sucurre, tabaquero, taviche, tecomatlán, tecpin, tusta, xcat’lk and zacapaleño.

If you only know a few of these, you are in good company, since even Mexicans usually are familiar with just a handful of different chilies.

But it does leave the door open for a lot of potential culinary exploration.

So the next time you have to give away a prize, this can be your contest: “The prize will go to the person who can name the greatest number of Mexican chilies.” Or even better, “to the person who has tasted the greatest number of Mexican chilies.”

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