I live in Arizona very near to the border of both Old Mexico and New Mexico. Chile peppers are a way of life here but figuring out what’s what can be a bit confusing. Some look the same but have different names. Some don’t look at all the same and have the same name. The dried version can have different name than the fresh. I’m going to attempt to clear up some of this confusion. It’s such a big subject I have to do it in two parts. I’m going to confine this discovery to chiles that we can easily get and grow here in North America. In Part One I’m going to talk about common mild chiles and Part Two I’ll talk about hot chiles. I won’t be able to discuss every last chile in the world. This would take a book and there are good ones!
A (Very) Brief History of Chiles
Chiles have been domesticated since pre-Columbian times. The word “pepper” comes from the Sanskrit pippali. Pepper, as we all know, is the, well, peppery dried berry from the Malabar coast of India. Later on in the 16th century, people added the term pepper to the unrelated New World chile and this combination has been confusing us ever since. The name “chile” comes from the Nahuatl word “chilli.” The Nahuatl peoples were native to southern Mexico and Central America. This group includes the Aztecs.
Mild Chile Peppers
Let’s start with a few common mild chile peppers that fall on the least heat end of the Scoville heat index*.
Scoville Heat Units: 0
A bell pepper does not contain any capsaicin. Capsaicin is the component in chiles that give them their spicey qualities. So, bell peppers have no heat. They are bell shaped, and come in a variety of colors; most commonly green, yellow, and red. They are used about any way you can think of.
Scoville Heat Units: 100-500
Pepperoncinis are sweet, mild chile peppers, usually sold pickled. They originated in Italy and Greece but are grown the world over including the Americas. You’ve most likely encountered a pepperoncini on an antipasto platter, Italian salad, or served up on a pizza or sub sandwich.
Scoville Heat Units: 100-500
Pimentos (pih-men toe) are also referred to as pimiento (pih-mee-en-toe), which is Spanish for pepper. You may not realize how often you eat products that contain pimento peppers due to its sweetness and low heat.
Anaheim/New Mexico/Long Green and Red Chile
Scoville Heat Units: 500-2,500
This is where the chile pepper world gets complicated. The original Anaheim was developed in Anaheim, California by a rancher who had traveled to New Mexico and brought seeds back. In New Mexico they were developing chiles, too. From this came, for example, the Hatch chile from Hatch Valley, New Mexico and the Chimayo from Chimayo which is near Taos, New Mexico. They are all mild to medium hot with loads of flavor. They can be used fresh, charred over an open flame, or roasted. They’re perfect for classic chile rellenos. From the green New Mexican type you make chile verde. From the red you make chile colorado.
Poblano (fresh)/Ancho (dried)
Scoville Heat Units: 1,000-2,000
Here’s a story of how chiles can really get you confused: I wanted to make Culichi chicken tacos. The recipe called for poblano peppers which are a large, mild pepper. In the produce aisle I spied what looked like poblanos but the label said “pasillas”! I bought them anyway, suspecting a mistake, and the meal was delicious. Dried poblanos are called ancho chiles. Don’t ask me why. These chiles are used to make a delicious enchilada sauce, for example.
Chile Chilaca (fresh)/ Pasilla (dried)
Scoville Heat Units: 1,000-2,500
Here’s another one where the fresh has one name and the dried another. Fresh chile chilaca are long, thin and very dark green, almost black in color. They are used mostly in the dried form and then are called Pasilla (puh-see-ya). They add a distinctive, slightly astringent flavor to dishes, making them well suited to balancing out heavy stews and rich sauces. They are also used in Oaxacan-style moles (mo-lays) to create a perfect blend of color, sweetness, and a little spice.
Scoville heat units: 1,500 – 2,500
The rocotillo (ro-ko-tee-yo) is just a wee bit hotter than the poblano and a little sweeter. It’s almost, but not quite, a hot chile. Identifying this pepper can be difficult because two different varieties share the same name. There’s the Capsicum baccatum that originates in Peru and the Capsicum chinense which is of unknown origin. Also, the two different varieties look nearly identical and are very similar in overall heat! But it doesn’t end there. Local variations of the names of rocotillos are different in different parts of the world. Lastly, the term rocotillo has been used to describe peppers that aren’t rocotillos. Rocotillos are very popular in Caribbean jerk meat dishes. You can find them in Miami, Florida grocery stores.
Stay tuned for Part Two: Hot Chile Peppers!
*The Scoville scale is a measurement of the “heat” of chile peppers, as recorded in Scoville Heat Units, based on the concentration of capsaicinoids, among which capsaicin is the predominant component. The scale is named after its creator, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville.
Renée Benoit lives in southeastern Arizona. She can see Mexico from her living room! She and her partner Marty are in the process of transforming their property into a sustainable homestead. Right now they have 2 dogs, 2 horses and 1 cat to keep them company. She also enjoys traveling to new places to discover native foods as well as wildlife. She writes creative non-fiction and gardens, hikes, reads, sews, cans, ferments, bakes, cooks and needle felts in her spare time.
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