The first evidence of chillies in Mexico and Central America dates back to 7500BC, and they are everywhere in Mexican life. Christopher Columbus first found chillies in the Caribbean and brought them back for the Spanish court. Portuguese traders took a liking to the spicy Mexican specialty and soon the plants made their way along the spice trail to South East Asia, India and even Japan.
The chilli plant will grow pretty much anywhere its seeds happen to fall. Conveniently, birds don’t feel its heat, which has helped spread the plant across great distances. Birds eat a ripe chilli plant, fly off, and wherever the bird deposits the leftover chilli seeds, new plants will emerge. You may often hear them referred to as “chilli peppers” or simply “peppers”. There are thousands of types of peppers in the world and they come in all shapes, sizes and heats. Of these, we domesticate about 30 from five different species, and they can be divided into three groups: bell peppers, sweet peppers and hot peppers.
Hot peppers, or chillies, contain a substance called capsaicin. When you bite into a chilli, capsaicin affects the pain receptors in your mouth and throat, which tell your brain you’ve eaten something hot. This causes your heart-rate to increase, which is why many people sweat when eating chillies. I found a few different types used throughout Mexican cooking. Here’s a good guide for you to start heating up your own Mexican fiesta.
Dark green, thick, medium-sized and mild. Good in marinades and sauces.
Dry a green poblano chilli and it becomes a red ancho chilli. It is slightly hotter than the poblano with a mild, sweet flavour.
Typically green, but turns red when ripe. They are medium in heat with a delicious fresh taste.
A dried, smoked jalapeño. This is a mysterious, rich chilli – just wait, you’ll hear more about them soon.
Small, brown, dried and spicy. Often used in salsas.
A thin, medium-sized chilli that can be harvested and eaten green or red. They pack a little more heat than a jalapeño.
Chile de arbol
A small, thin, hot red chilli, often substituted with cayenne pepper.
A dark, thin, long, dried chilaca pepper. Pasillas have similar flavour traits to the ancho and are generally used in sauces and moles.
This is the big one. It has a burning heat that grows more painful from the first bite. This little lantern-shaped chilli is easily cultivated and, once you bite, there’s no going back. If a Mexican ever challenges you to a habanero eating contest, watch out... and bring a big, big glass of milk.
The heat of chillies is measured on the Scoville scale, with each chilli given a SHU (Scoville Heat Units) rating. A standard capsicum ranks 0 on the Scoville scale, jalapeño ranges 2,500-8,000 SHU, while the world’s hottest known chilli was discovered in 2013 at a fiery 2,200,000 SHU. They call it the Carolina Reaper.