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Chile stacks in the market, photo by Megan Frye

If Mexico had to choose a national flavor, the chile pepper would without a doubt be the winner. The only issue might be which chile would take the top spot in such an honor.

The country is home to more than 200 variations of chiles, stemming from some 64 distinct varieties. Almost no meal is eaten without some form of chile-based salsa. And while the variety of chile ranges from eye-twitchingly spicy to robust, sweet and smoky, seeking out a dish in Mexican cuisine that doesn’t incorporate at least one type of chile would be a difficult – if not futile – venture. When FIFA held the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the official mascot was Pique, an anthropomorphized green chile pepper wearing a sombrero. The meaning was not lost on the world, and least of all on Mexico itself. Let it be known: Mexico is home of the chile.

“The chile is the flavor of Mexico,” says Germán Cobián, a chile vender for 38 years at Mercado de la Bola on Mexico City’s south side who we recently visited. “It’s the seasoning of our foods. It’s part of the national identity. A lot of times you’ll see places where a chile wearing a sombrero is meant to represent a Mexican person. That’s how we are characterized on an international level in terms of flavor. The chile is one of the greatest components of our cuisine.”

Cobián’s stand is a whirl of scents and colors that composes the circular aisles which wrap around the core of the market like a snail’s shell. Customers come by every few minutes asking for the prices of different dried goods: mole (a mix of chiles and spices used as sauce), candy, cooking oils and – of course – chiles. Mercado de la Bola is in a working-class neighborhood of southern Coyoacán, and many customers come daily or weekly depending on their economic situation, Cobián says. The overwhelming afternoon sun is diffused by the semi-opaque ceiling above as you move from the outward circle – where hardware, household items and clothing are sold – and head inward to where fresh fish and castles of chicharrón (fried pork skin) engulf the senses.

Cobián believes that chiles were once used as a form of currency and exchanged throughout Mexico in pre-Hispanic times. He says it’s a very ancient story that has formed a fundamental aspect of Mexican culture. “In Mexico, we are taqueros, so we revere any kind of chile that makes a salsa that would be added to a taco; which is basically anything that will fit in a tortilla,” Cobián says. “On every corner, on practically every street in the city, you’ll find places selling suadero [flank steak], cabeza [roasted head] and al pastor [spit-roasted pork] tacos, and the customers have certain expectations. For example, the al pastor has to be made with chile morita.”

“Our chile flavor is so registered with people, that it’s noticeable when it’s not authentic.”

There is significant archaeobotanical evidence that the chile pepper was first cultivated in Mexico, with traces of it found in east-central regions of the country as far back as 9,000 C.E.  Chile itself is a word that comes from Nahuatl (possibly borrowed from Otomí), an indigenous language in Mesoamerica still spoken by nearly 2 million people today. Wild varieties were cultivated, and in some cases crossed, to provide the chiles that we know today, including the infamous scorcher: chile habanero.

“The chile is one of the five basic ingredients in Mexican cuisine; it’s primordial,” says chef Daniela Cañas who teaches at Mexico City’s Colegio Superior de Gastronomía. “Corn, tomato, chile, squash and beans. From those ingredients, all native to Mexico, come an incredible number of foods. They are the five most important and fundamental foods in pre-Hispanic gastronomy, which continue to be well-represented in contemporary and traditional Mexican cuisine today.”

Beyond its use across the board in Mexico’s culinary world, the chile pepper also has a strong place in the country’s cultural identity as well as medicinal, and even magical values. “If you tell someone ‘Háblame al chile’ it’s like telling someone to tell it to you straight,” says Cañas, adding that “chile” is used in double-entendre jokes known as albures. “In Mexico, we are a bit like the chile itself: spicy and bold.” Used traditionally as medicine by the Aztecs to clean out the respiratory systems, according to Cañas, chile functions like an expectorant when inhaled. “When you eat a spicy chile, that’s why your nose runs,” she says.

For the common cold, Cañas recommends mixing two chile de árbol peppers with mint, cinnamon, anise and Mexican cacao with hot water as a home remedy. Mexican traditional medicine views certain foods as being hot or cold not as much for their temperature as for their properties. Unsurprisingly, chile is considered a hot food and can cause one to sweat, whether consumed warm or not, meaning that it is good for someone suffering from a “cold” type of illness. Loaded with vitamin C and antioxidants, chiles can help with respiratory conditions as well as strengthen the immune system. They also are used commonly to cleanse homes of negative vibes, says Cañas, with the belief that burning a chile pepper in the home can scare away bad spirits.

Chile can be eaten fresco (fresh) or seco (dry), depending on the type of chile and the flavor desired. The chile poblano is the same as the chile ancho, however the latter is the dried version. The poblano is the national pepper of choice for chile relleno, stuffed with cheese and/or meat, fried and doused in tomato-based sauce. Both the poblano and the ancho are used in a number of moles, with chile ancho being the preferred pepper used to prepare the salsa for red enchiladas. One plant can also produce three different types of chiles, such as the case of the chipotle meco, mora and morita. “The plant is developed and they do a first cut (meco), a second cut (mora) and the third cut (morita),” says Cobián. “They all have very unique flavors. The mora tends to have the flavor of both.”

Oaxaca is the state that boasts the highest variety of chiles today, says Cañas. Chile de agua and chilhuacle are two of her favorite Oaxacan chiles. “It’s not a Oaxacan mole if you don’t use chilhuacle,” she says. “Mole is essentially a mix of dried chiles, with other types of spices added of course, but the most integral ingredient is the chile…. They have so many varieties [in Oaxaca]. Sometimes they are varieties that are only found and used in Oaxaca. The people there have great knowledge in how to use them, dating back to pre-Columbian times.”

Chile producers nationwide mostly come from the interior – be they from Veracruz, Oaxaca or Zacatecas – and come to Mexico City’s massive Central de Abasto to sell their goods, where they are often purchased in bulk by restaurants and market vendors like Cobián or individual shoppers looking for the best price and most variety available. The market on the city’s east side spans 810 acres and is home to more than 2,000 businesses that manage more than 30,000 tons of merchandise per day. “You go to Central de Abasto and see all the variety of chiles; it’s like you realize you don’t know any of them,” says Cañas. “There are chiles that you have never even dreamed of. Both fresh and dry.”

Chiles are still dried in the traditional way in small villages: Carefully lined up on sheets under the blistering sun. “The chile is probably the least industrialized ingredient in Mexico,” says Cañas. “The preparation is still artisanal in most cases. In terms of dehydration, we have these incredible machines now that make it so easy, but I don’t think it has really reached the chile process because people are afraid that it might not taste the way that we have become used to it tasting.” From the vendors’ side, Cobián says he has noticed an increase in imported versions of the Chile Serrano.

“There are imported chiles here from Sri Lanka, India or maybe even China, I don’t really know exactly,” says Cobián. “There’s one called ‘Japanese,’ but I don’t think it comes from Japan. They come with the intention that they are a bit cheaper overall. The Mexican chile pepper has a firmly identified flavor, and when you make Mexican food with chile that is not from here, you really notice that it lacks the essence. These imported chiles are quite spicy, but they are often tasteless. It doesn’t compare because our flavor is so registered with people, that it’s noticeable when it’s not authentic.”

Like the producers themselves, Cobián says he takes great pride in the chiles that he sells. He is at the market nearly every day of the year, chatting with customers and preparing orders. His son works with him, though the younger fields almost all questions from passersby to his father. There is little room to walk behind the counter with both men working, and Cobián squeezes past his son to get closer to a customer to explain politely that the mole de cacahuate (peanut mole) she’s looking for won’t be in stock for another few days.

“People come here to buy their chicken or their vegetables, and we provide what is the compliment,” he says, adding that the chile guajillo is the most commonly requested pepper while the chile costeño and chile piquín or chile chiltipín are the most rare of what he carries. “We consider ourselves to have an important role in the neighborhood’s nutrition.”

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Megan Frye

Published on June 14, 2019

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