Under the ever-changing Sonora Desert sky, straddling the Arizona-Mexico border, an unassuming little fruit called the chiltepin pepper has kept cool in the shade of cliff sides for millennia. And while it thrives in these protected enclaves of the high desert, it packs heat matched only by the noonday sun.
Last week I set out with friends to find the people who harvest the wild chiltepin and to sample its uses among the descendants of those who first picked the tiny berries thousands of years ago. We traveled south from Sonoita, Arizona across the border at Nogales to the tiny town of Magdalena, where the church of Santa Maria de Magdalena was holding its annual festival to celebrate the harvest. Just as many of these festivals have become north of the border, this one too has devolved over the years into a bizarre combination of sacred and profane. Nevertheless, thousands descend upon the little village every year for the food and the spectacle surrounding the humble little chile.
We met farmers who were trying to cultivate this wild capsicum, and while they have successfully raised some very tasty, very hot chiles, they are not – strictly speaking – chiltepin. This is due in part to the promiscuous tendency of the entire capsicum genus to crossbreed when given the opportunity, which the chiltepin does when brought in from the wild. This scarcity along with a powerful punch and piquant flavor makes the chiltepin prized among chileheads (of which I am one), but it’s also why you’re unlikely to find it in the typical grocery store produce section.
What you will find in today’s markets, however, is a far greater range than even five years ago. Where once the cook with a passion for the endorphin rush of capsaicin (the chemical in chiles that produces the burning sensation) might find only the ubiquitous jalapeño at any given grocery store, today most will be able to find five or six varieties of fresh chiles, and even more in dried form. Each type varies in flavor and intensity and each have their own individual best uses.
Rating the Heat
All chiles are measured for heat intensity using something called the Scoville Heat Unit, which measures the amount of capsaicin present in a chile. A sweet bell pepper is a zero on this scale. At the other end sits the downright dangerous Indian chile called Bhutt Jolokia or Naga Jolokia (“death” or “ghost” pepper) at a little over one million SHU or roughly three to ten times hotter than a commercially available habañero. Our humble and elusive chiltepin? A respectable 100,000 SHU.
A Chile Pepper Primer
Poblano/Ancho (500 – 2.5K SHU) — These are the same pepper, with the poblano the fresh form and the ancho the dried version. Each is famous in the two most well-known dishes of their Mexican region of origin – Puebla. The poblano, like a meaty full-flavored bell pepper, is most often stuffed with cheese then battered and fried as a chile relleno. The ancho, with a deep chocolaty flavor and low-hum of heat, is a key ingredient (along with about two dozen other spices) in the intense sauce called mole (and yes you pronounce that last “e,” this is not a small rodent).
Pasilla (1K – 2K SHU) — A pasilla is the dried form of a chile chilaca, and is most commonly found either whole or powdered. Like its cousin, pasillas too are featured in moles from their native region of Oaxaca in Southern Mexico. Their flavor is deep and complex with a lingering tartness.
Jalapeño (2.5K-8K SHU) — The most ubiquitous fresh chile available in the US, the meaty, tapered jalapeño tops the heat scale for most consumers. Above here, you find mostly masochists and true connoisseurs (and sometimes they’re one and the same). This is the chile you’ll find, usually pickled and sliced, on top of your nachos at the local Mexican chain restaurant, but fresh they have a bright heat to them.
Serrano (10K – 23K SHU) — This is the first pepper that sits on the other side of that line drawn by the jalapeño. A touch hotter than the jalapeno, it has a distinct bite that gives way to nice, full flavor.
Chipotle (10K – 50K SHU) — A chipotle is the smoked and dried version of the jalapeño and can be found dry or packed in cans in a sauce called chile adobo. The regard for this one is on a steep rise in the US due in no small measure to the popularity of the burrito chain of the same name. They lend a sweet, smoky, full-flavored heat and are quite versatile in the kitchen, at home in anything from chili to vinaigrettes.
Cayenne (30K – 50K) — Cayenne is most commonly available in powdered form, where it packs plenty of heat but very little discernable flavor or character. It gets its name from the city in French Guiana.
Habañero/Scotch Bonnet (100,000 – 350,000 SHU) — These are not for amateurs. In fact even the most devoted chileheads are wary when approaching these bell-shaped beauties. They look like miniature bell peppers and come in a variety of colors, but don’t be fooled; they’re a very powerful heat source. If you get past the whopping, eye-watering bite, habanero’s finish is bright and tangy.
Taming the Heat
There are three ways to calm a chile’s intensity. First, remove the seeds; they are by far the hottest part of the chile. Second, you can temper the heat by dousing it in vinegar and a touch of sugar in a marinade, a sweet-sour salsa or a salad. Third, you can cook it; chiles are always hotter raw.
Once your mouth is afire there are varying opinions on the best method to douse the heat, but I’ve found that a combination of cold water and starchy food (like rice or bread) works best.
Remember to always wear gloves when handling hot chiles and wash your hands after handling them. Not doing so and then touching your eyes, nose (and, or shall we say certain other sensitive parts) is a lesson you will need only learn once.
Kurt Michael Friese is the founding leader of Slow Food Iowa, serves on the Slow Food USA National Board of Directors, and is editor and publisher of the local food magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He’s also Chef and co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay, a freelance food writer and photographer, and author of A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland.