Chili peppers are next to corn and beans one of the three most important foods in Mexican cuisine. They are present in nearly every traditional Mexican dish forming part of the national identity. Not surprisingly, one of the first words that may come to mind when you hear Mexican food is ‘spicy’.
While there is some truth to this cliché, Mexican gastronomy spans a very wide spectrum of rich flavors and spices, many of which are not necessarily spicy. Whether you like your food spicy or not at all, you’ll find this article very beneficial to spice up your life as well as your knowledge about chiles in Mexican gastronomy.
Chili peppers show up in up to 90% of Mexican dishes
Chili peppers or chiles as they are called in Mexico show up in up to 90% of Mexican dishes and make their appearance in many different forms. They can be eaten directly, whether raw, stuffed, chopped, pickled, or roasted, or indirectly as a key ingredient to make sauces, marinades, moles, and dressings.
In Mexico alone, we can find 64 species, in addition to over 200 other creole species. Perhaps you are already familiar with some of the most common ones such as: jalapeños, chiles serrano, or habaneros.
Mexican chiles are not created equal. They each come in different shapes, sizes, colors, and can vary significantly in spiciness. Most importantly, chiles can be found in their fresh form or their dehydrated form, which greatly extends their shelf life.
However, once they have been dehydrated not only do their flavors and aromas change, but most of them also receive a whole different name. In fact few people know that a dehydrated jalapeño pepper is renamed a chipotle pepper, but a dehydrated habanero is actually nothing more than a dehydrated habanero.
Chiles: Before and After
What does it mean to be spicy?
In general, the smaller the type of chili pepper, the spicier it is. But contrary to what most people think, what makes chiles very spicy is not their shape or the color of their skin, but their seeds, which are generally removed prior to cooking.
It is the seeds that contain the organic compound capsaicin, the same substance that makes them so addictive and which create the burning sensation that we feel when we eat them. When we consume this active component, our brains produce the endorphins responsible for creating feelings of pleasure, happiness and well-being.
The higher the concentration of this compound measured in Scoville Heat Units, according to the Scoville scale, the spicier the chili pepper. Whether a chile is fresh or has been dehydrated does not make it spicier.
At one end of the spectrum, a bell pepper contains zero SHU. At the other end, the chile habanero, the spiciest of all Mexican chiles, with an SHU score between 100,000 – 350,000 may be about 12 – 140 times hotter than the jalapeño with an SHU score between 2,500.- 8,000.
A fruit rich in Vitamin C and Vitamin A
It may come to you as a surprise to learn that like tomatoes which have seeds, chili peppers are considered fruits. Not only can they be addictive, but they are also extremely healthy, rich in vitamins and minerals.
While fresh chiles are very high in Vitamin C, even more than oranges, dehydrated chiles are rather rich in Vitamin A, even more than tomatoes. Additionally, they provide a great source of magnesium, iron, and thiamin or Vitamin B, however as we only eat them in small quantities their dietary contribution is not significant.
Mexican chiles at Mexicana
You may have experienced more than five varieties of chiles without even noticing it if you have ordered from us before! Our signature vegetarian dish, rajas, is created using chiles poblanos, one of the lighter chiles when it comes to spiciness. But watch out for our selection of salsas spanning from chipotle to chile habanero when it comes to spicing up your tacos or burrito. Don’t forget that you can now also purchase your own bottles for your home.
Bonus: Where do Chili Peppers get their name from?
Chili: In the Spanish language there are multiple names used to refer to chili peppers such as chile, ají, or pimiento. Chile or chili in English actually comes from the nahuatl word chilliy, the language spoken by the Aztecs and many other Mexican indigenous tribes today.
Pepper: When the Spanish conquistadors first arrived in the Americas, the closest taste that they knew was pepper or pimienta in Spanish. Hence, we also know them as pimientos or chili peppers.