The ubiquitous chile jalapeño is popular all over Mexico and the world, at points north, south, east, and west. The jalapeño measures anywhere from 2" to 3" long and rates between 10,000 and 20,000 units on the Scoville scale. We usually see it in markets when it's green, but in some markets we also see it red--like the one on the bottom left of the photo. The jalapeño is the chile most people outside Mexico think of when they think of what we use to prepare Mexican food.
Chile--hot, savory, wonderful chile--has been part of Mexico's food culture for literally thousands of years. The Nahuatl name is chilli. Chile, corn, squash, avocado and beans formed the indigenous dietary base for thousands of years before the Spanish first sailed into the bays of what they called the New World--it was, of course, a new world only in their eyes. The earliest chiles in Mexico have been carbon-dated to approximately 11,000 years ago!
Here in Mexico, we've learned to distinguish the qualities of different types of chile not only by their colors and forms but also by the degree of heat they impart to our foods and palates. Picor (heat), as subjective an experience in the mouth as one's experience of sweetness or sourness, ranges from a disappointed shrug to holy Moses, bring the fire hose!
Chile poblano, usually mildly picante (heat-producing), has a distinctive, rich flavor to match its deep inky-green color. The poblano usually measures about 6" to 7" long, 1,000 to 2,000 Scoville units, and is most commonly used to prepare chiles rellenos. Once in a while a poblano will surprise you with more heat than you expect! One of the most delicious preparations using chiles poblanos is the seasonal Chile En Nogada--stuffed chiles poblanos in walnut sauce.
Wilbur Scoville, an early 20th Century American chemist, quantified the heat factor of various chiles and left us all with an approach to picor more scientific than simple subjectivity. His objective scale of heat ranges from 1 (the sweet red bell pepper) to a possible 325,000 (the chile habanero). What Scoville didn't quantify was flavor; chile is substantially more than a mere fire in your mouth.
Chile güero (blond chile, about the size of a jalapeño) is only slightly higher on the Scoville scale than chile poblano. These chiles, like jalapeños or serranos, are often hand-rubbed to loosen the seeds, oiled, grilled, and served as chiles toreados, alongside an order of tacos.
Chile chilaca, grown extensively in Queréndaro, Michoacán, is widely used in Michoacán but is not quite as well-known outside this region. It measures between 8 and 10 inches long and is 2,500-5,000 Scoville units. In color and flavor--and heat--it is very similar to the poblano.
Chile de árbol (tree chile, although it's not grown on a tree) is picked green to use as a fresh chile and allowed to mature to bright red for different uses as a dried chile. It's usually 3" to 4" long. It's a good bit hotter on the Scoville scale than previous chiles: 15,000-30,000 units.
Chile manzano (aka chile perón), a bit bigger than a golf ball, packs a punch: 30,000-60,000 on the Scoville scale. The manzano is hot, but also very floral in flavor. It's usually used in encurtidos (pickled vegetables with chiles) and salsas, but also seasons broths and other dishes.
The small but infamous chile habanero (Havana chile) is arguably the hottest fresh chile grown in Mexico, ranking as high as 350,000 Scoville units. Merely slit open and passed through some salsas, the habanero leaves just a hint of its tremendous heat after it's removed from the salsa. In spite of its name, this chile originated in southeastern Mexico, not in Cuba.
This is the latest wrinkle in chile habañero: the very small chile habañero chocolate. It's named, as you might guess, for its deep brown color, and cultivated in the state of Michoacán. The flavor, on the other hand, has nothing to do with chocolate. It's hot. Fiery hot. MORE than fiery hot. Go here with caution, unless you really love heat.
Chile serrano, about 3" long, is not the hottest chile in Mexico (Scoville ranks it just a tiny bit hotter than the jalapeño), but it may well be the most-used. The serrano is known by other names: chile verde is the most common of these. Generally it's eaten green; the red ones have been left to mature on the bush.
Next week in Mexico Cooks!: a collection of dried chiles you'll want to know!
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