This Class Is Entirely Dedicated to the History of Mexican Chiles

“We realized that most customers had no idea of the names and varieties of chiles, so we decided to share our knowledge."

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Sep 14 2018, 7:03pm

All photos courtesy the author

Fernando Dávila greets us at the entrance of La Flor de Jamaica, a dry goods store in Mercado Jamaica, one of the largest and oldest markets in Mexico City. The earthy, spicy aromas of dried chiles rises in the humid air. The store is home to a workshop on the Mexican staple designed specifically to educate locals. A lifetime in the business makes him an expert despite his young age. He exudes confidence in both English and Spanish, and his enthusiasm is immediately contagious.

“We realized that most customers had no idea of the names and varieties of chiles, so we decided to share our knowledge,” says Fernando. “We consulted producers, chefs, and people in the world of gastronomy and designed a tasting workshop where we teach our visitors the gastronomic, social and cultural importance of chiles in Mexico.”

Fernando explains the difference between chiles de arbol grown in Mexico, China, and Jamaica—same name, different shapes and slightly different spice profiles. We learn that broken and torn Grade 3 chiles pasilla are best used for blended sauces, while the large and shiny Grade 1s are gorgeous and begging to be stuffed. He ask each of us in the class to pick a chile that we’d like to know more about and directs us to the back of the store where he’s reimagined a former warehouse as a warm, welcoming space to educate the public.

The low-lit room is outfitted with a couple of tables made from recycled wooden pallets, with places set with bottles of water and traditional stone molcajetes. Pottery and basketry from the adjacent market adorn the handmade shelves. “In Mexico, chile is an ingredient that is never missing from our tables,” Fernando starts as we settle on the stools. “Mexicans are recognized worldwide for our peculiar taste towards this ingredient. However, how much do we really know about it?”

I think I know plenty! After all I have been researching Mexican gastronomy for the better part of two decades. My cousin Jacqueline and her partner Sergio look a tad smug and skeptical. Our visiting friends, Kevin and Curt, both experienced chefs, listen intently.

“Throughout a life dedicated to the trade of dried chiles, I’ve discovered that most of us do not know the rich variety of chiles produced in our country,” he continues. “In fact, we are the country that produces the most varieties in the world, yet very few of us we know more than five. It may not seem like a very important fact, however, the lack of knowledge itself has led to the loss of different varieties important in our cuisine.” Fernando’s mission is to instill pride and passion amongst Mexicans for these ingredients, which have been a fundamental basis of our cuisine for centuries, by sharing their fascinating history.

After arriving in the New World, the Spaniards named this new ingredient pimiento, since the only similar taste they knew was that of black pepper; pimienta in Spanish. Eventually, the Nahuatl name chilli was transformed into chile by Mexican-born children of immigrants. In English, the new spice was introduced by a combination of the two: chili pepper.

Mexico is home to 65 varieties of fresh chiles, counting the dried and smoked versions, the number grows to an amazing 145 distinct types. However, 16 varieties are currently considered to be in danger of extinction. “There are several factors that generate this problem,” Fernando explains. “The lack of infrastructure and favorable conditions for production of some chilies, as well as the ignorance by the population in general. If a market can’t be generated for these varieties and the producers cannot sell them, they stop production.”

Adding to the problem is terroir. Despite efforts and best intentions, growing certain chile varieties outside of their endemic region has yielded disappointing results, with neither the same flavor nor the heat level of those grown in their native area. This is especially dire in Oaxaca, where the Mixe people of the Sierra Norte have so carefully guarded their unique pasilla Mixe that not even researchers know what they look like fresh, and the drying method remains a mystery.

Fernando brings out platters full of ingredients—tomatoes, tomatillos, garlic, onion, a variety of dried and fresh chiles, and xoconostle (the sour fruit of a native prickly pear cactus)—all lightly fried in olive oil. He instructs us to add a pinch of sea salt to the molcajete, pick our preferred ingredients, and blend our own salsas by hand. “People think using this ancient method is really hard, but it isn’t once you know how. And the salsas are so much tastier than those made in a blender.”

As we press and grind veggies into the stone mortar, Fernando shares more tidbits. Did you know that in pre-Hispanic times chiles were used as food and medicine, but also as a weapon of war and a method of punishment? (Anyone that has rubbed their eyes while making habanero salsa can certainly relate.) He brings plates with freshly-made tlacoyos, a pre-Columbian corn masa patty filled with black beans, on which to taste our impressive salsas. I glance at my group and they nod in agreement to one another, as if reluctantly acknowledging that they are learning.

Fernando works directly with producers in the community of Cuicatlán, Oaxaca, who are among the few that still grow black, yellow, and red chilhuacles. These chiles are key ingredients in the region’s famed seven moles yet are in serious peril of disappearing. “We promote these products here, working with fair trade policies with our suppliers,” he says, as we taste a black Oaxacan mole made by the wife of one of the growers—dark, complex, with layers of flavors and a light warmth that lingers on the palate. “This teaches our visitors the characteristics of this chile, especially its flavor,” says Fernando. I buy half a pound of the paste to bring home.

Lastly, we enjoy a chopped mango and lime juice popsicle with three chiles (guajillo, árbol, piquín) with a side of sipping mezcal as Fernando asks if we now feel prouder of our Mexican heritage. The group nods in agreement. I don’t think I could be any prouder, but I feel an increased urgency in my role as ambassador for our culinary culture—and to keep up demand by cooking with lots of chiles.