The use of Chillies in Mexican cooking

The History Of Chillies in Mexico

The fact that we call chilis, chiles or chillies (in UK English)   stems from the word “chilli ” from the  Nahuatl language, says it all. This was the language of the  Aztecs  prior to the  Spanish conquest of Mexico.  When considering that Nahuatl   had been and still is  ( in certain parts)  spoken there  for 1000's of years prior to the Spanish invasion of Mexico  , shows just  how close the Mexicans are to the very beginnings  of the story of the chilli.

The Aztecs, who were the dominant tribe in Mexico  at this time had taken the Chilli from an undomesticated native plant  and elevated it to a cultivated crop. Their  use of  Chillies  as a vegetable ,  food seasoning , ingredient for drinks and  also as a medicine, meant  collecting enough in the wild became impossible.  The only way to keep up with the demand for chillies was to grow them.

While maize played a significant role in the Aztecs diet, chillies and salt were never far behind.   One can only imagine  that, in addition to the known Aztez use of  the chilli to make a spicy tomato sauce for Tamales, they  would have also used chillies as a roasted vegetable, to season the Acocils ( type of crayfish), wild fowls, gophers ( a burrowing rodent) and deer that they were so fond of eating

Although the modern Mexican identity has evolved into a different culture from that of the Aztecs , one thing has indeed remained – the love of chillies. Most Mexicans will happily confirm that they are indispensable in their cooking. Chillies are so popular that in excess of 150 varieties (from the very mild to explosively hot) are available for just about every single culinary purpose. Almost every single Mexican meal contains chillies in some form or the other, whether as a key ingredient or just when  used as a hot sauce, seasoning or in a salad.

How Chillies are used in Mexican cooking

There is no doubt that chillies are an extremely important part of Mexican culture. No meal would be complete without them. Chillies are used fresh, pickled, fried, stuffed, dried, and smoked, in pastes, hot sauces, roasted, as a vegetable and as a spice and flavouring for hot dishes.  In these broad categories; the following are Mexican favourites.

Image: Ingredients for guacomoleFresh chillies are used to make dishes like Guacamole Verde (Avocado with tomatillos and chillies) and Salsa de jitomate (Tomato sauce with serrano chillies), Salsa Mexicana (tomatoes with serrano chillies, coriander, and onion) and Ensalada tricolor (three colour salad with Jalapenos)

Pickled:  Serrano’s and jalapeños  are made into  great pickled chillies like  Chile’s en vinagre (chillies in vinegar)

Roasted:  Chillies are roasted in dishes like Roasted Poblano peppers, Salsa de Chile Fresco Adsado (roasted chillies with garlic and lime), Chiles Toreados (roasted chillies with lime and onion) and Huevos ahogados (eggs with roasted poblanos and tomatoes)

Pastes: Great tasting chilli pastes like Ancho- Guajillo paste and  Chipotle Chili paste

Stuffed:  Chiles poblanos Rellenos (cheese-stuffed  Poblano's), Chiles Rellenos de Carne (meat stuffed chillies) and Chiles en nogada (Chillies stuffed with meat in a walnut sauce)

Image: MetateHot sauces and moles: Besides great hot table sauces, great tasting sauces are made to include with poultry, seafood, and meat. Examples include Mole poblano (turkey with chillies tomatoes and spices), Tortas de Cameron enrevtijo (prawn cakes in chilli sauce) and Tamales Rojos de Pollo (red chicken tamales with chilli, onion and tomato sauce. Examples of homemade table sauces include Salsa de chile Pasilla (Pasilla chillies with tomatoes and garlic) and Salsa chimalistac (ancho chillies with onion and garlic)

As a flavouring and spice in hot dishes: Frijoles puercos (Beans with pork and habanero chillies), Frijole churros (beans with bacon chorizo, pork and green chillies) and Pizotl in chiltexitjl (pork tenderloin with shrimps and chillies)

Smoked:  Jalapenos are smoked to make Chipotle. These are used to make Adobe sauce (Chillies, tomatoes, sugar vinegar and spices, which is used as a marinade for meat poultry and seafood.

Fried: Chillies are fried to soften them and release their aromatic oils. An example, where this is done, includes Huevos jalapenos (Jalapa style eggs made with Jalapenos)

Besides the above,  ground chillies and powders are used to season and flavour a host of other Mexican dishes


As previously mentioned, more than 150 varieties of chilli are used in Mexican cooking. It would be impossible to include them all, so only the most well-known are listed below:

Image: Variety of chilliesJalapeños: Perhaps the best known and most used of all Mexican chillies. It is a medium-sized chilli that grows to between 4 and 5 inches (50mm to 60mm) with a width of approximately an inch (12mm). It is generally picked when still green but will turn red if allowed to ripen. It has a Scoville rating of between 5000 and 8000 SHU. Uses include pickling, stuffing and as a fresh ingredient in fresh sauces and guacamole.

Serrano: The Serrano is widely used in Mexican dishes where a nice bite (without being too hot) is required. It has a Scoville rating of 10000 to 23000 SHU, which compared to the hot Birds-eye chilli at 50000 to 225000 SHU and the mild Jalapeño at about 8000 SHU, puts it on the scale of being medium hot. It grows to a length of 2 to 3 inches (50mm to 75mm) with a width of slightly more than an inch. They are typically picked when green but will turn red, brown, orange or yellow. It is typically used in dishes like guacamole, salsas, and dips. It also makes a fantastic pickled chilli.

Image: HabenerosHabanero: With a Scoville rating of 100000 to 350000 Shu, the Habanero is definitely one of the hotter chillies used in Mexican cooking. They mature from a green colour to typically red or orange, but white, brown, yellow or purple varieties may be found. They grow to a length of 3- 5 inches 36mm to 60mm) and in the region of 2 inches wide. They are typically used in making table hot sauces and salsas like Chile Tamulado which is an extra hot Yucatán style roasted sauce.

Poblano:  A mild chilli that is only slightly hotter than a bell pepper that has a Scoville rating of 1000 to 1500 Shu. It is typically used more as a vegetable than as a flavouring or seasoning. It grows to a length of between 3 to 6 inches long (36mm to 72mm) and attains a width of roughly 2 to 3 inches (25mm to 38mm). Its thick dark green flesh is ideal for roasting and stuffing with cheese, poultry or seafood to make  Chiles Rellenos and  Chiles en Nogada. They may also be added to stews and chilis. In its dried form, it is called an Ancho chilli. Ancho’s are good for spicing up dips and sour cream sauces but need to be reconstituted by soaking before use. They are also used in making a sauce for enchiladas.

Cascabel:  Literally the little bell chilli is also known as the Chile Bola due to its resemblance to a ball. It is a mild chilli with a Scoville rating of between 1000 and 2500 Shu.  The Cascabel is mainly used in a dried format with a delicate nutty flavour that works well in soups, salsa, and marinades. It flakes easily and can be used as a seasoning to add exceptional depth of flavour to foods. A favourite in Mexico is a salsa made with this chilli by the name of Cascabel taqueria chile sauce.

Chilaca:  This mild chilli is similar to the Poblano in that it has a Scoville rating of only 1000 to 2000 shu. It is a long chilli that attains a length of 6 to nine inches. It is slightly curved with a flattened appearance. Whilst they can be picked and used when still young and dark green in colour if they are allowed to ripen, will turn a dark brown. When this chilli is dried, it becomes a Pasilla chilli. In its fresh form, it is roasted or diced and added to sauces. It is also pickled.   In its dried (Passila) format, it is used to make hot sauces and used in stews, moles and adobe sauce. In this format, its taste has notes of raisins and liquorice

Other popular Mexican chillies include the Guajillo, Morito, Mulato, Piquin, Chile de Arbol, and Puya.


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