Present in Mexican gastronomy, identity, and even language, the hot and spicy chiles have become one of the most representative elements of Mexican culture. It is such that every lover of Mexican food knows that this small but flavorful ingredient is essential in any Mexican dish; who doesn’t love that special spicy kick that they provide to a dish? But did you know that there is a wide variety of types of Mexican chiles? Let's explore a little of this vast world.
Chiles offer up both heat and flavor, though the best Mexican recipes focus on a balance of the two, without a specific emphasis on spiciness, or heat level. Currently, it is known that chiles are present in up to 90% of the dishes that make up the national cuisine. For this reason, it is obvious to think that there are several kinds of Mexican chilies, but exactly how many? According to the National Institute of Geography and History, there are more than 60 different types of chiles in the country alone.
Today, and after thousands of years of use, chiles have become the great differentiator of Mexican cuisine. In a few words, we can say that it has become a national symbol and a—if not the—distinguishing seasoning of our cuisine.
Chile, Chili, or Peppers?
Let’s get a little technical to better understand the difference between chile, chili, and pepper. When he arrived in America, Christopher Columbus encountered these chiles, calling them “peppers” because of the similar spicy taste like the familiar peppers in Europe. Which is why people often refer to chilies and peppers as the same thing, even though they are not. Technically, chili refers to members of the genus Capsicum. Peppers, on the other hand, are from the genus Piper. There are several plants in this genus that produce berries that also produce a biting sensation, though not as much as the capsicums, making chilis spicier than peppers. Chile, from the word “chilli” in Nahuatl, is the Spanish word for what is known in the US as “chili peppers”. Being from Texas and Mexicans, we at Lolo use “chili” to refer to the delicious stew of meat and “chile” to differentiate between the two, as you will see throughout this article.
Infographic with overview of some of the popular fresh chiles and their dried version.
Importance of chile in Mexican gastronomy
The delicious chile was a product of great importance among Mesoamerican culture because, just after corn, it became the food base for millions of people and their diets. Additionally, this product was also used by many communities who based their diet on hunting and gathering.
It is important to clarify that the origin of chile was not in Mexico, but rather it was born in South America, specifically in the Andean zone or the southeast of Brazil. Various studies agree that their arrival in Mesoamerica was due to migratory birds that left traces on Mexican soil while they were looking for other types of fruits in the region.
Over time, chiles were positioned in various cities such as Teotihuacán, Tula, Monte Albán, among others, introducing themselves into everyday cuisine, to the point of being portrayed in codices and hieroglyphs. Its uses were quite varied, even becoming medicinal, commercial, and educational.
Types of fresh Mexican chilies
To begin knowing Mexican chiles clearly and specifically, it is necessary to mention their two main categories: fresh and dried. As its name suggests, we are talking about a simple classification based on its consistency.
We have gathered a list of the most used chiles in Mexican cooking. It is not an exhaustive list, but the variations that can be used with each one allow for an infinite number of flavors and dishes, typical of Mexican cuisine. You’ll notice that many fresh chiles have different names when they are dried. This is because dried chiles offer a completely unique flavor compared to the fresh version.
According to data from the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the jalapeño is the most consumed chile in Mexico. It has a bright green color and thick skin. It is the most used to prepare pickles and to be stuffed with certain foods.
Along with the jalapeño, it is one of the most consumed chiles in the country. It is usually grown in the mountainous region of the state of Puebla, and is widely used in raw sauces such as the typical pico de gallo, guacamole, or ceviche, but it is algo used in other cooked or stewed sauces.
One of the largest chiles grown in Mexico and is the go-to chile for stuffing. It has a fleshy, light skin and a conical shape. It is mainly used in the preparation of traditional stews, and is the main ingredient of the famous chile en nogada and chiles rellenos (recipe here!).
Chile güero, translated as blonde, gets its name from its characteristic pale yellow color. It is very common in the region of the Yucatan Peninsula, and has a medium level of spiciness. It is usually used as a garnish, in sauces, and in chicken, fish, or beef stews.
It has a dark green color, a thick skin, and a wavy shape. It has a mild and slightly spicy flavor, which is why it is widely used in various dishes. It is also usually consumed directly in slices or squares.
It is one of the most popular chiles in the country due to its tiny size and high level of heat. Its green color changes to yellow and later to red thanks to its degree of maturity. It is typical of the state of Yucatan, and is very common in sauces or curtidos to accompany the typical cochinita pibil and sometimes soaked in tequila or mezcal bottles for days or even weeks in order to make drinks even more fiery. It also has a Denomination of Origin since 2010.
Chile de Árbol (fresh)
A thin chile with a thick and shiny skin. Contrary to what its name indicates, this chile does not grow on a tree; chile de Árbol means “tree chili” in Spanish, a name which refers to the woody stem of the pepper. It has a similar structure to the serrano chile but with a higher heat. It is mainly used in sauces, it only takes a few of these added for significant heat.
Types of Dried Chiles
Now that we have explored the varieties of fresh chiles, let’s turn our attention to what is known as dried chiles, or chiles secos. Most of them are derived from fresh chili peppers after a drying process. Their shape, color and size vary, and most are usually mixed in various stews or to give an extra touch to certain dishes.
The dry version of the mirasol chile. It has an elongated and conical shape, and is widely used in broths, soups and, above all, adobos (marinades). It is often mistakenly called the cascabel chile in certain parts of Mexico.
The width is the dry form of the poblano pepper. It is usually called colorado, Chinese ancho, parrilla rojo, among others. It is very common in adobos (marinades), moles, and enchilada sauces.
Despite being a dry variant, the chipotle chile is one of the most consumed in Mexico. Its fresh version is the jalapeño, and it has a special drying process. They are manufactured mainly in canned as sauce and this can, can be used on their own as a sauce.
The pasilla is the dried version of the chilaca pepper, and it has a dark, wrinkled skin. It is soft to the touch and has a somewhat fruity and smoky flavor. It is used in moles, sauces, and stews.
Chile de Árbol (dried)
One thing that won’t change is the name of this chile, as it has the same name as its fresh version, but this one is characterized by having a thin and shiny red skin. The same as the fresh one, this one is widely used to add heat to sauces.
There are, of course, other peppers that are used in Mexican cooking. As mentioned, this is not an exhaustive list, but meant to introduce you to the more commonly used chiles. Whether you prefer it fresh or dried, mild or hot, chile is without a doubt the perfect ingredient to complement any Mexican dish preparation. For us, nothing is the same without the taste of chile.
Tel us, what is your favorite chile? Where do you use it most? Is it hard to find them where you live? What other uses do you have for chiles? Is there a chile that you like that didn’t make the list? Would you like a recipe for each of these? We’d love to hear what you have to say and every single one of your insights!
Also, if you are preparing a salsa or any other Mexican dish, don’t forget to check the wide variety of serverware we have!