Chili peppers in mexican cuisine

Chili peppers in mexican cuisine

Learn about the role chili peppers play in Mexican cuisine.

By Heleigh Bostwick

Chili Peppers in Mexican Cuisine

Native to Mexico, chili peppers (Capsicum spp.) have been used for thousands of years as an ingredient in Mexican cuisine. The indigenous populations of Mexico first collected chili peppers from the wild, and later cultivated them for use in cooking or used them as a preservative for meat and fish because of their anti-microbial properties.

Chili peppers, which are technically a fruit (berry) but classified as a vegetable, are high in vitamins C and A (as beta-carotene), as well as potassium, iron, and fiber. There are more than 150 varieties of chili peppers in an amazing number of sizes, shapes, colors, flavors, and degrees of hotness–from mild to very hot. A chili pepper when fresh may even have a different name when it is dried.

Mexico is a large country with many diverse regions. In turn, each region has its own specialty dishes. Accordingly, chili peppers are used in different ways. Contrary to popular belief, chili peppers are used in Mexican cuisine for the subtle flavors they impart to the dish–not to make it hot and spicy.

For example, chili peppers can be used as an ingredient in meat rubs or dry marinades for meat or fish before roasting or barbequing or they are roasted and blended with cream to make a sauce for meat. Chili peppers are also used raw in salsa or as pickles or condiments.

Types of Chili Peppers

1. Poblano peppers are the largest peppers used in Mexican cuisine. They are mainly used to make chili rellenos (chiles stuffed with cheese and then deep fried) or mole poblano, a sauce that is served with meat and poultry. Poblano peppers can be either mild or hot and are dark green in color with an earthy flavor that comes out when they are roasted.

2. Serrano peppers are bright green with a hot fiery taste and are mainly used in salsas.

3. Chipotle peppers are dried jalapeno peppers that have been smoked. They are often used in sauces to add a smoky flavor.

4. Ancho peppers are dried poblano peppers. They are reddish-brown in color with a mild flavor. They are typically used in sauces, and are the most commonly used chili pepper.

5. Fresno peppers look like a smaller version of the sweet green pepper. They are mainly used as an ingredient in guacamole and dishes featuring black beans.

6. Jalapenos are very hot peppers that are often pickled or used in salsas. They turn from green to dark purple, and finally to red when they are ripe. Jalapeno chili peppers are probably the most well known of the chili peppers.

7. Habanero peppers are the hottest of all the chili peppers. Except for their bright orange color, they look like miniature versions of sweet green peppers. Habanero peppers are used as an ingredient in salsas.

Typical Dishes Made With Chili Peppers

Chili peppers are an essential ingredient in salsas, along with tomato, cilantro, onion, and spices. Salsa can be mild or hot depending on the type of chili pepper it is made with. Some salsas are made with a mix of several different chili peppers.

Mole sauce is made from poblano chili peppers, nuts, spices, fruits, vegetables, and chocolate. It is used as an accompaniment for beef and chicken dishes mainly for special occasions and holidays.

Chilis en nogada or green chili peppers are stuffed, fried, and topped with cream and topped with pomegranate seeds.

Chilaquiles are a breakfast dish made with eggs and pieces of fried tortillas, topped with cream and salsa.

Chilate is a drink made from chili peppers, raw chocolate, and toasted corn ground into a powder, and water.

How to Buy

When buying fresh chili peppers, look for firm ones with intact skins. They should not be discolored, spotted, or shriveled. Store fresh chili peppers in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. They can also be frozen to use later. First remove the seeds, and cut into small pieces, and then freeze. Dried chili peppers should be stored in a cool dry place out of direct sunlight. Canned chili peppers are also used in Mexican cuisine.


Wear rubber gloves when cutting up chili peppers and avoid touching your eyes. The capsaicin, responsible for the “heat ” in chili peppers, can irritate skin and mucous membranes and cause severe pain.

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