Chilli Pepper Photo by pixel2013

The Wide World of Chiles

Chilli Pepper Photo by pixel2013

You could not count the number of chiles — fresh and dried, pickled and ground — that greet you when you enter a Mexican market center. The chile is ancient — evidence in Mexico traces it back to 3500 BCE. In the 16th century, the Portuguese explorers brought these fiery wonders from the Americas to Southeast Asia and China, and cooking the world over has never been the same.

Some chiles are hotter than others by nature, though there is no way to know if the mild-mannered poblano you hold is not in fact a fire bomb. In Mexico, chiles don’t just heat up sauces, they are also used as thickeners, pickles, vegetables, even as textile dyes and in traditional medicines. Chiles are hottest closest to the stem, and the heat carries down through the white fleshy part and the veins. A chile’s seeds, contrary to popular belief, are not its hottest part, but their proximity to the white flesh has made them guilty by association. Chiles are used fresh, dried, roasted, soaked, ground, and charred. Each procedure alters the flavor and heat of the chile, and brings a new voice to the dish. This is why when a mole sauce calls for four each of five different chiles, it is not merely an exercise in over-kill or intimidation!

Here’s a short list of some choice chiles:


a mellow, dried poblano, brown in color


thin and dry, also called Chinese hot peppers


plum-shaped, dried, and blood-red with a rich flavor and medium heat


when dried, it’s called a pasilla; it’s long, thin, and often twisted, turns from dark green to brown when mature, and can be mild or medium hot


dried and smoked jalapenos


a dried, deep red chile with a tough skin — it’s pointy and long and can be very hot


a generic name for yellow chiles


squat, orange chiles that are hotter even than serranos


large, deep green-black chile with a mild to sharp flavor that’s used for chiles rellenos


small, hot, and thin – its skin turns from green to red to yellow as it ages