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Chiles: a hot addiction

The hot little numbers were probably first grown in the Equador/Peru area before finding their way to Mexico, making chiles one of the oldest cultivated crops in the Americas.

I once got into a heated discussion about chiles with a friend of mine.

He lived in Albuquerque, where the New Mexico green chile is heaped on everything from burgers to pizzas, and I lived in Dallas, where the jalapeño is king.

"The jalapeño — it's nothing but heat with no flavor," my friend said. "The New Mexico chile is just wimpy," I said in defense, not really meaning it, but I wanted to stand up for my great state's favorite chile. "The jalapeño is hot, but it has a distinct, wonderful flavor," I added.

Strangely, not long after that, he and I lost contact with each other.

Now let me just say that when it comes to chiles, I do not discriminate. In fact, I've never met a chile — anywhere in the world — that I didn't like. In my kitchen pantry right now I have dozens of cans of jalapeños, New Mexican green chiles, and more cans of chipotles than you can imagine.

There's also a jar of Moroccan harissa, a bottle of sriracha sauce, two bottles of hot sauce (Tabasco and Louisiana), and four different kinds of salsa. There is also a bag of green and red Thai chiles in my fridge.

Buddy Mays/Corbis

My name is Ellise and I am a chile-holic.

Turns out, so were the ancient Aztec, Maya, and Inca. These civilizations used jalapeño, serrano, pasilla, and ancho mulato chiles in their cuisine as a medicine (Aztec drawings show them using chiles to ease the pain of toothaches, which we still do today), in religious ceremonies, and as a talisman worn around the neck to ward off evil spirits.

And we're talking a long time ago. Chile consumption goes back at least 6,100 years, according to a Smithsonian team. The hot little numbers were probably first grown in the Equador/Peru area before finding their way Mexico, making chiles one of the oldest cultivated crops in the Americas.

And like all things worth plundering, chiles were spirited back to Europe after the Spanish invaded Mexico in the early 1500s. Catholic priests warned that chiles were dangerous — an aphrodisiac! — so naturally, chiles caught on, and consumption spread to Asia and Africa.

It's no wonder. Chiles do have a tremendously powerful effect. When you bite into one, whatever type it may be, a cascade of chemical responses in the body and the brain is triggered. Body: "Brain, I'm on fire." Brain: "Dude, let me help you out. Here's a big old rush of endorphins to ease your pain."

This, by the way, is why chiles are sometimes used in treating patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, amputation, cluster headaches, and the effects of chemotherapy — chiles disable the body's pain-recognition system.

That heat isn't your brain imagining things. It's real enough that there's something called the Scoville heat scale to measure just how hot a chile is, from the New Mexico green chile, which is on the low end of the scale, to the super-hot Bhut Jolokia — the world's hottest — at 1.001 million units, about half that of common pepper spray.

For those of us who haven't been pepper-sprayed, it's simple. Eating chiles produces a high. The more you eat, and the hotter the chiles, the bigger the rush. It's what keeps us eating nachos heaped with jalapeños, with our hearts racing, sweat on our upper lip, and lips burning. And it's what makes us crave more the next day.

And the capsaicin in chiles (which is what makes them hot) also increases the body's receptiveness to the flavors of other foods, making everything else taste better. The perfect setup for addiction.

Good thing then that chiles are good for you. As a fruit — part of the nightshade family that also includes tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, eggplants, and petunias — chiles are loaded with vitamins.

Fresh green chiles have as much vitamin C as oranges. And when chiles turn red — as green chiles do when left longer on the vine — the vitamin A content increases. In fact, a teaspoon of red chile powder has the daily requirement of vitamin A. Chiles also contain high amounts of vitamins E, B, B2, and B3.

But let all die-hard chile fans admit the attraction. It's not vitamins and the strong antioxidant properties. It's the heat. Which comes in all forms, according to Paul Bosland, director of The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which has the largest and only research program specifically dedicated to chiles in the world.

With 25 faculty members researching chiles, Bosland's probably not exaggerating when he says, "We are the center of the chile universe."

As part of the program's mission to "educate the world about chiles," Bosland has come up with five characteristics to judge a chile's heat:

1. HOW FAST DOES THE HEAT COME ON? Is it quick or delayed? Asian chiles can come on very quickly, whereas habaneros can take up to 20 seconds.
2. HOW QUICKLY DOES THE HEAT DISSIPATE? Asian chiles dissipate as quickly as they come on, but habaneros have lots of hangover heat and can stay on your tongue for up to a half-hour.
3. WHERE DOES THE HEAT HIT YOUR MOUTH? Jalapeños hit the tip of the tongue and the lips; the New Mexican chile is midpalate, midmouth; and the habanero is back of the mouth or throat.
4. IS THE HEAT SHARP OR FLAT? Is the heat like pins sticking in your mouth, or is it like a paintbrush? Asian chiles are prickly, whereas New Mexican chiles have a broad, flat heat.
5. IS THE CHILE'S HEAT LOW, MEDIUM, OR HIGH? Bosland says these characteristics are all subjective. Chile eaters around the world tend to lean toward chiles they grew up with. Asians like Asian chiles, Texans are keen on jalapeños, and — you know where I'm going here — people from New Mexico tend to favor their own chiles.

Take away a chile's heat, and you're left with a flavor profile that's not unlike wine, Bosland says. "Chiles have floral tones and notes of fruit, such as apricot or raisins. A bad jalapeño will have a grassy taste to it."

Bad jalapeño? Is there such a thing?

Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef. Watch for her food stories, recipes, and cooking tips in C&I.


George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew them. Here's more you didn't know about chiles.

According to Paul Bosland of The Chile Pepper Institute, there are more than 5,000 different types of chiles in the world.

Here in the United States, only a few are readily available. Even so, expect your grocer's shelves to become more devoted to chiles as the USDA reports that America's annual chile consumption has doubled in the last 20 years, to nearly six pounds per person.

Before we get to the main types of chiles, a couple of tips.

Handling: The best way to keep your fingers from burning when handling chiles is to wear gloves; Bosland says that first dousing your fingers in vegetable oil may also help. Cooling down:

To put out the fire after you've eaten an especially hot chile, Bosland suggests drinking milk or eating something sugary. You might also try eating a flour tortilla. And now for the hot stuff ...

ANAHEIM A sister to the New Mexican green chile, but with less heat. Used like poblanos in chiles rellenos, or diced and puréed and added to sauces and soups. (Poblanos have a thicker, tougher skin and must be charred before using.) Scoville rating: 500–1,000 units.
ANCHO The dried version of the poblano, anchos are deep reddish-brown and are the sweetest of the dried chiles, with a slightly fruity flavor. Used to make sauces for enchiladas and meats, they can be ground into a powder as a seasoning. Scoville rating: 1,000–1,500 units.
CHIPOTLE The smoke-dried version of fully mature, red jalapeños, chipotles are widely available, often canned in adobo sauce, and can be used as a substitute for jalape"os in salsas for a smokier, deeper chile flavor. But be careful: They're hotter than jalapeños. Scoville rating: 5,000–40,000 units.
GUAJILLO Along with the ancho, the guajillo is the most popular dried chile used in Mexican cuisine. It can vary from medium to hot and has a sharp flavor. Often called the cascabel (rattle) because it resembles a rattlesnake's tail, the guajillo is used in sauces for enchiladas and meats. Scoville rating: 2,500–5,000 units.
HABANERO Very hot with a fruity flavor, the habanero is used at the discretion of the cook, who should warn whoever plans to partake. Scoville rating: 100,000–350,000 units.
JALAPEÑO The chile for all things Tex-Mex, jalapeños can be either green or red and can be eaten fresh or pickled. Jalapeños have a rounded tip and are about 2 inches long. They're used in salsas and as a garnish for soups. And if you live in Texas, jalapeños are widely available on pizzas and hamburgers, too. Scoville rating: 2,500–5,000 units.
NEW MEXICAN GREEN CHILE A truly versatile chile, the New Mexican green ranges from mild to hot. Outside of New Mexico, where these chiles are harvested and available fresh, they're most commonly found in cans, and may be added to queso, used as a sauce for enchiladas, stuffed as chile rellenos, and used in the state's famous green-chile stew. Scoville rating: 500–5,000 units.
POBLANO Blackish green and about 4 inches long with wide shoulders and a deep ridge at the base of the stalk, the poblano ranges from mild to hot but usually falls on the milder side of chiles. Normally charred and peeled when used in recipes, the poblano can be stuffed for chiles rellenos, cut into strips and fried with onions and potatoes, blended with cream for a sauce, or used as a garnish for soups. Scoville rating: 2,500–5,000 units.
SERRANO A small green chile with bright, shiny skin, the serrano is much hotter than the jalapeño. Use when you really want a lot of heat. Scoville rating: 5,000–15,000 units.


The word chile is Spanish derived from the word chilli, which in the Aztec language, Nahuatl, refers to all plants — pepper, chili, chile, chilli, the Peruvian aji, paprika — in the genus Capsicum. Chile is correctly spelled with an e ending; chili is the Texas bowl of chile-spiked meat and beans (and best enjoyed with Fritos, grated cheese, chopped onions, and sour cream heaped on top).

— E.P.


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