The role of chili in Mexican cuisine

Chili peppers are an essential component of the cuisine of Mexico in virtually every conceivable form: fresh or dried, on their own or in combination with other components, natural or artificially prepared.

The role of chili in Mexican cuisine
Mexico's chili is a staple of its culinary tradition. Photo by Mick Haupt / Unsplash

The chiles produced in Mexico are a sign of national identity, but they are also a food that is an important part of diverse cultures, thanks to their impact on international gastronomy.

The different varieties of chiles are adapted to different climates and soil types, which has contributed to their success and wide geographic distribution. Chili peppers and their derivatives have been used in many ways since before the arrival of the Spaniards. They are more than just a great condiment.

Whether habanero, chiltepín, piquín, de árbol, serrano, jalapeño, morrón, or chilaca, they are all part of our gastronomy; green or dried, alone or combined with other ingredients, natural or processed, chili peppers play a central role in Mexico's food culture.

In 2020, Mexico ranked second as a world producer of chili peppers, with a harvest of 3 324,260 tons, which represents an increase of 2.7% compared to 2019. There are more than one hundred varieties of chili peppers in Mexico, of which 25 are marketed fresh, with the jalapeño, poblano, and serrano peppers standing out, while 12 are sold in their dehydrated presentation.

The main chile-producing states are Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Sonora, and Jalisco. The cultivation of chiles generates competitive income for producers, and harvesting can last up to 150 days, generating jobs with a positive social impact.

According to trade figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Mexico is one of the main exporters of green chile and ranks sixth in sales of dried chile abroad.

Dried chiles are mainly used in Mexican cuisine, and each variety is considered representative of the geographical, cultural, and economic area of the people. Therefore, the production of dried chiles is of great importance in Mexico and is a fundamental part of its culinary complexity. Among the best-known varieties are chipotle, pasilla, and mulato chiles.

The jalapeño bell pepper (Capsicum annuum L. var. Annuum L.) is light or dark green, with an elongated conical shape and a rounded end. It is fleshy, with shiny skin, and measures on average 6 cm long and 3 cm wide. When these chiles are subjected to a smoking process, they become what is known as chipotle chiles. This smoking process dates back to the Aztec civilization, where jalapeño peppers were placed in large subway pits to be smoked as a way of preserving them.

The process for obtaining chipotle peppers begins with the selection of ripe jalapeños, which must have a bright red color; these are washed and dried before being subjected to the smoker, which has oak and walnut woods or fruit woods. Approximately 48 hours of heat are required to dry and smoke the chipotle chiles. When they are dried, they turn a dark brown color and get wrinkled. They also taste very spicy.

The pasilla chile originates from the chilaca or anaheim chile (Capsicum annuum L.), which is dark green, shiny, and elongated in shape. It is fleshy and can sometimes be very spicy. It is 15 to 23 cm long and 2 to 3 cm wide. In Mexico, part of the chilaca production is destined to be dried for the production of pasilla chili. This is mainly used in Mexican cuisine for the preparation of sauces and moles. Once dried, the pasilla chile has an elongated shape and a very dark brown, shiny and wrinkled surface. Its name derives from the fact that it wrinkles like a raisin.

The mulato chile comes from the poblano chile (Capsicum annuum var. annuum), which is dark green with shiny skin, although some varieties can be lighter. Its flavor is not considered very hot. The poblano chile is approximately 12 cm long and 6 cm at its widest part. It is used fresh for stuffing or to make slits, and, when ripe, it takes on intense red color that, when dehydrated, becomes an ancho chile. The mulato chile is also obtained from a variety of poblano chile that has a very dark green color when fresh. The main difference between the mulato chile and the ancho chile is that the former has a dark brown color, while the latter has a redder color.

Instead of disappearing during the conquest, chili consumption was strengthened when Spanish and indigenous customs were combined to form the current Mexican cuisine. Chili peppers are considered to have a wide use on the world stage, where acceptance, use, commercialization, and adaptation to the cuisine of many other countries are constantly increasing. For this reason, quality must be maintained in the collection, classification, and conservation of this food, which is part of the Mexican heritage.

Authors: María del Carmen Bermúdez Almada and Angélica Espinosa Plascencia, researchers of the Biological Analysis Laboratory of the Food Science Coordination of CIAD.