How Chili Became a Cultural Icon in Mexican Cuisine

Discover the history and significance of chili in Mexican cuisine. From the Mexica to the present day, learn about the different types of chili and their influence on world gastronomy.

How Chili Became a Cultural Icon in Mexican Cuisine
A steaming bowl of spicy chili con carne, a classic Tex-Mex dish made with ground beef, beans, and a variety of chili peppers for a bold flavor.

Chili, a staple ingredient in Mexican cuisine, has been used for the past 8,000 years to add flavor and spice to a variety of dishes. It is difficult to describe the sensations that chili can awaken in the palate, especially when it is made with love. From the humblest street taco to the most elaborate mole sauce, chili is a fundamental food base in Mexican gastronomy.

History of Chili in Mexican Cuisine

Chili has a rich history in Mexico. The ancient Mexica (Aztecs) valued chili so highly that they required people subdued by them to pay a high tribute to this product. After the Spanish conquest, chili remained an important commodity, and the Spaniards also charged tribute in kind, including chili. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish historian, wrote in the XVI century: "Without chili [Mexicans] do not believe they are eating". Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan friar who lived in Mexico in the 16th century, described in detail the varieties of chili he found in the ancient market of Tlaltelolco.

Types of Chili

Sahagún's writings reveal the great variety of sauces that were sold in the tianguis (market). The chili came in many forms, from smoked chili to hot chili, yellow chili, mild chili, green chili, and even chili that was described in superlative tonnes of spiciness, such as "very spicy" and "brilliantly spicy". Some of the most prized delicacies of the time included white fish prepared with chili and tomatoes, and ajolote (a type of salamander) seasoned with yellow chili. Chili stews were also popular, with variations made with red chili, yellow chili, and tomatoes.

Chili's Influence on World Cuisine

The Spanish brought chili to Europe, where it gained acceptance and soon became indispensable in many different gastronomic dishes. Today, chili is used in various parts of the world, and you cannot imagine some Spanish meals without the participation of ingredients derived from the bell pepper called ají pimiento. Interestingly, this fruit was not known in Europe by the name of chili, but by the name of aji, which was how it was called by the Taino Indians, who inhabited several Caribbean islands.

A colorful assortment of fresh chili peppers at a Mexican market.
A colorful assortment of fresh chili peppers at a Mexican market, showcasing the diversity and vibrancy of this beloved ingredient.

How to Use Chili Peppers in Mexican Cuisine

Chili peppers can be used in a variety of ways in Mexican cuisine. They can be added to dishes fresh, dried, or smoked. They can also be used to make sauces, salsas, and moles.

Here are a few tips for using chili peppers in Mexican cuisine:

  • Start with a mild chili pepper and work your way up to hotter peppers.
  • If you are using fresh chili peppers, be sure to wear gloves to avoid getting capsaicin on your hands.
  • When cooking with chili peppers, add them gradually to taste.
  • If you are making a sauce or salsa, be sure to let it cool before serving so that the capsaicin can dissipate.


Chili is a beloved ingredient in Mexican cuisine, and its rich history and influence on world gastronomy make it an important cultural icon. Whether you prefer mild or hot, green or red, chili adds depth and complexity to a variety of dishes. So the next time you enjoy a meal with chili, remember the rich history and cultural significance behind this humble ingredient.

In-Text Citation: Rosita Sánchez, Rosita and Estado de México. Conversación En La Cocina, Gastronomía Mexiquense. 1st ed., Mexico, Estado de México, 2006.