Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Mexican food has the bass and treble turned up. It’s rich, it’s full, and it’s exciting,” says Bill Phillips, associate professor in Culinary Arts at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. An important part of Mexican cuisine is its use of chiles. Experts believe that chiles originated in the Amazon jungles of South America as hot, berrylike fruits before coming to Mexico by way of Central America and the Caribbean. By some estimates, there are more than 200 known varieties of chiles currently cultivated in Mexico.
By Mark Caskie
Chiles are famous for the heat thy provide in dishes. Scoville units are a measure of this heat. At one end of the Scoville scale are bell peppers, which have a rating of zero. At the other end are the habanero chiles, which can have a heat factor exceeding 200,000 Scoville units.
Mexico has many distinct regional cuisines. In the Yucatán, for example, cooks make fruit salsas and spice pastes, or recados. They use hot habanero chiles in tandem with the recados and in the salsas. In Puebla, near Mexico City, tradition credits Spanish nuns with creating the first modern mole, the mole poblano, when they mixed New World and Old World ingredients in a single sauce. Mole poblano uses two dried forms of the poblano chiles, ancho and mulato, as well as the pasilla chile. In Oaxaca, called the “land of the seven moles,” many chiles used in regional dishes are only available locally, so to taste a true mole negro, for instance, requires a visit to the area.
You can reduce the heat of a chile, Phillips says, by removing the ribs and seeds. Plan on wearing gloves for this procedure. Roast fresh chiles and later peel off the skin. The roasting will give the chiles a smoky flavor. With dried chiles, toast in the oven for one minute at 300 degrees Fahrenheit to draw out the oils. Besides heat, chiles often have fruit flavors and give vibrancy to food. “A chile is also one of your tastes in a dish,” says Phillips, “not just heat.”