“Con picante or sin picante,” spicy or non-spicy, that is the culinary question here in Mexico. Staples in the national diet along with corn, beans and squash, chilies are everywhere. You’ll see them chopped up with tomato, onion and coriander and served as salsa mexicana, fried, stuffed, roasted, pickled, dried for sauces and spice mixes and even served whole for seasoned chili eaters. Yet if you are expecting every chili to explode in your mouth, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Some chilies are actually quite mild, others have a subtle and sophisticated smoky taste and the diversity of flavors, colors and shapes is astounding.

A spicy history

All the chilies we use today originated in the tropical regions of the New World and were spread throughout the world by birds and animals that dispersed the seeds and later carried far and wide by humans. Most Mexican chilies originate from a wild plant called Capsicum annuum, traces of which have been found in the Tehuacán Valley dating from 7200 to 5300 B.C. The tiny chilies gathered by early Mexican cultures resemble the chiltepin and piquin varieties that are still popular today.

The habanero chili of the Yucatán and its Caribbean cousin, the Scotch bonnet, evolved from the Capsicum chinense, found in Brazil and Bolivia. Several years ago, archaeologists unearthed a 5,000-year-old habanero in southern Brazil. The spread of habanero chilies from the South American mainland through the Caribbean gathered pace as the Amerindian tribe known as the Taino colonized the different islands from Trinidad to the Lesser Antilles and north to Cuba. From there it was a short hop to the Yucatán Peninsula, where the chili was christened “habanero,” because it came from Havana.

The ancient Maya and Aztecs consumed vast quantities of chilies and also used them for medicinal purposes, as a dyestuff, to fumigate their homes and as weapons or instruments of torture. Women discovered the versatility of chilies and that they could change their flavor by toasting or drying them. The Aztecs even had words to describe different groups of chiles: cococ (spicy), cocopatic (very spicy) and cocopalatic (fiery, watch out)

The first Spaniards to set foot in Mexico described the variety of chilies they saw on sale in Aztec markets and the methods of preparation. They soon realized that chili could enhance the flavor of food in a similar way to black pepper from the Orient, which was so expensive that only the rich could afford it. They began to send plants back to Europe and cultivation soon spread through the Mediterranean. The famous English herbalist John Evelyn remained unconvinced, however, in 1668 he wrote, “a very little will set ye throat in such a flame.”

Where does the heat come from?

Chilies are rich in Vitamin A and C and in Capsaicin, the chemical that gives the fruit and seeds the distinctive hot taste. The heat factor of chilies was first measured with a test invented by Wilbur Scoville in 1912. A committee evaluated how many parts of sugar water it took to neutralize the heat of different chilies. Peppers are measured in multiples of 100 units on a scale from 0 (bell pepper) to 350,000-plus (habanero or chili de arbol). Nowadays, high-pressure liquid chromatography tests also measure the potency of chilies.

Chilies have been used in Mexican folk medicine since ancient times to treat everything from respiratory and digestive ailments to swollen joints. Scientists can now confirm that Capsaicin does indeed have medicinal properties and it is used in several pain relief drugs for arthritis and neuralgia.

Your Guide to Chilies

Serrano



The most famous chili is medium-hot with a fresh flavor. It is used raw in salsa mexicana, also known as pico de gallo, and in cooked sauces. It may also be added whole to rice and casseroles.

Jalapeño

chile serrano

This medium-hot chili finds its way into salsas, escabeche or pickles and is stuffed with tuna or cheese and cooked.

Habanero


Yucatecans claim that their chili is the hottest in the world, although new competitors for this title have emerged in recent years. Nevertheless, packing between 250,000 and 350,000 Scoville units, the habanero is definitely for serious chili eaters! The Yucatán’s famous heart-shaped chile has a fresh but fiery taste and connoisseurs say that it is kind on the stomach. It is often used raw with lime juice and onion in a sauce called xnipek. In the Mayan language xnipek means “dog’s nose” and this salsa will literally make your nose run!

Poblano


A larger, dark green chili with a rich flavor that varies from mild to medium. Poblanos are stuffed with cheese or minced beef (chiles rellenos), roasted or sliced into rajas (strips) and served in a cream and melted cheese sauce. Poblanos are also used in Chiles en Nogada, the famous Independence dish also featuring a creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds which is served in September.

Chili piquin


Tiny and mean, chili piquin is one of the hottest. Ground piquin is often sprinkled on jicama, cucumber, orange and mango.

Xcatik


Found in the Yucatán, this long, pale green or yellow chili has a mild flavor.

Manzano

A hot red or yellow chili found in the Mexican highlands. Unlike other varieties, it has black seeds. When dried it is known as chili cascabel.

California


Also known as Anaheim or chili dulce, this long thin chili has a very mild flavor and is popular in northern Mexico where it is added to beef dishes and even salads.

Pimienta verde


Not the green pepper we are used to, the Yucatecan variety is much smaller and is used in the popular sopa de lima or lime soup.

Chili de árbol


This one will have you reaching for water! It is fiery whether you use the fresh green or the dry red variety.

Chipotle


Reddish-brown, these are dried and smoked jalapeños that acquire an earthy, slightly sweet but hot flavor. They are often marinated in a vinegary tomato sauce called adobo.

Guajillo


Also known as Mirasol, chile guajillo is a reddish brown, fairly spicy dried chili used in sauces.

Ancho


Dark purple, the ancho is actually a dried chili poblano. Mild and with a rich flavor, chili ancho is cut into thin strips and added to soups, sauces and marinades. It is also used in classic Mexican mole.

Pasilla


Almost black, this dried chili has a fiery and sharp taste. Used in sauces and mole. In its fresh state it is the dark green chilaca.

Mulatto


Similar to the ancho, chili mulatto is used in sauces and also to obtain a natural dye.

Too much heat?

Enchilarse is the Spanish word for the moment when a chili brings tears to your eyes and you feel as though you are just about to go up in flames. Just lick a few grains of salt and the sensation will gradually disappear. Other people swear that by eating bread, rice or milk they can make the burning sensation go away.

Always wear gloves when preparing chilis and avoid touching your face or eyes. Removing the seeds and the veins from chilis or soaking the dried varieties in water before you cook them also reduces their piquancy.

A vacation in Mexico wouldn’t be the same without sampling traditional dishes or salsas featuring chilies. Hacienda Sisal restaurant next to The Royal Sands is a good place to start and the Mexican Dinner Show staged twice a week includes a mouthwatering buffet, open bar (domestic brands), a folk dance show and music from the mariachis. The Royal Resorts store, The Royal Market, also stocks a selection of tasty bottled sauces.