The capsicum probably originated in the area we now call Brazil or Bolivia and was being farmed in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean when Europeans first found the New World. Descendants of the original two indigenous varieties morphed into all the other peppers in the world. Peppers are now benchmark ingredients in Hungarian, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Northern Mexico and the Caribbean island cuisines. Raw peppers provide more vitamin C then any fruit; they increasing saliva to swallow and swell the level of gastric juices in the stomach stimulating the digestive process. Prior to the Colombian exchange the only pepper known in the Old World was the hard black variety, long pepper, that needed to be ground even though it does have a great flavor when it is used green or brined.  The local Arawak peoples called these plants aji but since Cristobal thought he’d made landfall in India he called it pepper and its exportation to the old world has enlivened many a culture’s boring fare ever since.

There are many different varieties of Mexican chilies and they often hybridize from one area to another so it’s extremely difficult and really unnecessary, to make a thorough examination since here in Panama there are only a few types. Usually dried varieties are roasted/toasted lightly over an open flame or in a heavy pan, they are then deseeded and the vein like structures, called the placenta, removed because it’s here that the bitterness and heat reside.  The toasted chilies are then either ground into a powder or placed in water or stock to rehydrated and then blended for sauces and moles. Dried types can be stored for a really long time as long as they’re not contaminated with anything wet and, like many dehydrated products you might want to stick unused portions in the freezer.  Fresh chilies are usually peeled by charring over an open flame, then wrapped to steam for about 15 minutes to loosen the skin for peeling, then the placenta and seeds removed like dried chilies.  Probably the most well known chilies is the pickled (escabeche) jalapeño you get with ersatz nachos and is available in either cans or glass jars sometimes with carrots and onions included.  Furthermore Mexican chilies of the same type vary greatly in size and heat so you’ve really got to taste as you go and the quantities in your recipe packets are just a reference point.


The Ghost Chili … the hottest pepper in the world

Some relevant Mexican chilies include but are certainly not limited to:

Anaheim; hybridized in California, mild

Poblano-fresh or Ancho-dried, medium

Cascabel, hot and pungent

Cayenne, not cultivated in Latin America, dried, hot

Chiltecpin, bird chilies, fresh and dried, hot

Fresno, fresh, mild

Mirasol yellow–fresh or Guajillo red-dried

Habanero, Scotch bonnet, fresh very hot

Jalapeno fresh, chipotle dried, hot

Pasilla usually dried, mild

Serrano, fresh, hot

And, although the texture is wanting, the addition of a few non processed Mexican types like Greek, Thai, pepperoncini, roasted red, wax and the like can often give your dish that unexpected John Hancock.