The Mysterious History and Variety of Chiles

"A day without chile is a day without sunshine" Sarah Moulton, Executive Chef, Gourmet Magazine

Chiles are members of the Nightshade family- a diverse family of plants which includes potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant, tobacco and petunias. Nightshades all evolved in the Americas—however, the exact origin has been debated. Some experts have claimed chiles were first discovered around the equator; however, some have theorized the first chiles were small berry-like fruit that grew under the mantle of the forest. No one knows for sure.

No one knows the exact date when chiles were discovered; though we do know it was many thousands of years ago. There are several ancient references to chiles in Egypt, all of Africa, Hungary and the rest of Europe, and in China and they were well liked in those past civilizations. Chiles were taken back to China and Tibet by the Chinese and Tibetans that were the first settlers in the Western portions of the Americas.

There are thousands of different varieties of chiles but it could be argued that there are fewer varieties of the Mexican types. Mexican chilis have different names for the different stages of their growth. For example, Poblano chiles (a green chile) are called Ancho when they turn red, and the same variety grown in Southern Mexico is called the Pasilla.

Most chiles varieties were developed or created in Mexico until World War II, when New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, NM, became the leader, followed by California State at Davis, CA. There are now over 7,000 varieties of chiles.

Types of Chiles

Chiles can fundamentally be broken down into the following types:

* Small, very slender chiles—usually the hottest, such as: Pequin, Arbol, Thai chiles

* Medium, slender chiles—not quite as hot: Chilaca, Oaxacan water chiles, Caribe

* Large, hybridized chiles—generally the mildest: these include the Anaheim types, New Mexico types

Chiles can vary widely in heat units even on one plant at any given time. Dr. Jim Nakayama, (often called the Father of chiles and the former head of Chile Research at New Mexico State University) found through research that chile plants can have up to 35 different piquancies (a pungent taste or flavor) on one plant at any given moment. So it pays to learn identifiers that show the relative heat of a chile:

The hotter chiles will have more pointed tips, and narrower shoulders (part of the chile that attaches to the stem).

The milder chiles will be less pointed, more bluntly tipped and have broader shoulders.

Some people feel that, within a chile type, those of lighter color are the milder ones—however, that is not as consistent a classifier as the shoulders and tips.

The color of chiles reflect a seasonal variation that affects the nutrition of each chiles. In the summer, at the onset of chile production; all the chiles are green. As the days become shorter, and the angle of the sun becomes more oblique, the chiles turn red. Essentially the starches in the green chiles become sugars in the red chiles. As the chiles turn color, the prevalent Vitamin C in the green chiles becomes Vitamin A in the red ones. The amount of spiciness mellows as the color changes, and the sweetness of the red chiles makes for a milder flavor. The amount of the healthful substance or capsaicin is basically unchanged.

In commercial applications, the capsaicin is separated from the flesh of the chile and the color is extracted as well. Then for flavored uses, the chile is basically "reconstructed", so that the flavor will be uniform and consistent. In red chiles, over 50% of the red color is used as the safe red for makeup.

Chiles in Mexican Cooking

In Mexican cooking, chiles are almost always used in pod form. They almost never use powders as they are just not available. With almost no exceptions, Mexican cooks do not add raw ingredients to a dish they are preparing. They generally parch or roast the onions, garlic, tomatoes and chiles on a comal—which is similar to our griddles, or over an open fire.

They prepare the green chiles by parching and peeling, then marinating in an acid for at least two hours or overnight. The acid is often freshly squeezed lime juice or is sometimes vinegar—and sometimes even tequila or beer, depending on the dish. The acid marination serves to make the chiles milder. This tip works well for any chiles that are hotter than desired.

Red chiles are usually also warmed over a comal, however sometimes they are fried in a bit of oil or baked in a moderate oven (350 F) until the color heightens and an aroma has developed, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Then, when warm they are generally stewed and then strained for making sauces and for adding to stews and the like. Occasionally they are added to a complex dish and the entire amount is blended or pureed and then strained.

The chile flavor in Mexican food is more mild, seldom as hot as in New Mexican foods. The marination of the green chiles makes them milder as well as the fact that their sauces and dishes are more complex, possessing many more ingredients, which serve to make the chile flavor less pronounced.

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