Eating Fire Without Getting Burned

In almost every Mexican family there is someone whose love for hot spontaneous combustion-inducing chile peppers surpasses belief. And in my family, that distinction belongs to my sister-in-law who I will call María, a woman whose love of hot chiles is downright infernal. She cannot leave the house without carrying in her purse a baggie of fresh chiles de árbol or some habañeros, two of the deadliest little chilitos known to man. Whenever I see her pop them into her mouth like candy, I feel the same horrified fascination that one feels when one watches a fire-eater at a circus. You know, she looks terribly smug and oh-so-cool—never breaking into a sweat or clutching her throat while crying out me enchilé! me enchilé! She simply looks at me with that beatific smile of hers. . . .
Really, her secret is no gran misterio. Just start with the mildest chile and build on from there. In time, you will taste the seductive sweet flavor lurking just beneath the searing heat of the chiles. You will feel it calling to you, enticingly beckoning you to eat and eat and eat while savoring every delicious bite. Only then will you understand why it is possible to eat fire without getting burned.
Los Chiles

Although many of the world's cuisines use chiles in their dishes to delicious effect, it is in Mexico where the chile is given its fullest expression. One can honestly say that it is the heart and soul of Mexican food. Whether fresh or dried, roasted over a comal, or blended with other ingredients, they create an explosion of taste that I could only liken to an exciting rollercoaster ride of flavor. With almost 200 varieties of chiles, it is impossible to list them all, but please give these a try and start eating a little fire of your own.

RED BELL PEPPER (not pictured): Very Mild. With a Scoville Unit (heat index) of zero, this is the perfect "training wheel chile" for little kids and nervous adults who don't eat chiles. More popular in Spanish and Italian food, it nevertheless deserves a spot in Mexican food because of its great color and its lovely sweet flavor. And besides, it is a chile after all, ¿no qué no?

ANAHIEM: Mild to Medium. A firm fleshed chile about 5 to 6 inches long, it is excellent for chiles rellenos and other dishes. A nice, not too sweet green flavor. It turns red and is sweeter to the taste when it is ripe. There are two kinds of Anahiem chiles: The mild Anahiem is still mild enough for those who want a little heat in their chiles without having to call the paramedics. When ripened and dried, it is called California Chile. The hotter dried version is called New Mexico Chile.
GÜERO (Goo-eh´roh): Mild. This is the chile my mamá used in her salsas for us kids. When I was a child, I thought it was hot, but tolerable. Now, this light colored and rather small chile hardly makes a dent. It is mild, but spicy enough to compliment Mexican food.

POBLANO (Pob-lah´noh): Medium-Mild. Fat and dark green, but pointy at the tips, this is the traditional chile for chile relleno. Although it is comparatively mild, its spicy and flavorful flesh will make you want to roast it and add it to almost any Mexican dish, whether it is a soup or a salad, a taco or almost anything you can think of. When roasted, it doesn't hold its shape as well as the Anahiem chile, but I think you will agree that its flavor more than makes up for the extra care that goes into making an authentic chile relleno.

JALAPEÑO (Hah-lah-peh´ngoh): Medium. This is the chile most Americans associate with Mexican food. It is a good all around chile for salsas, chopped up in soups, casseroles, with cheese. The list goes on and on. Smoked jalapeños are called chipotles.

SERRANO (Sehr-rah´noh): Medium-Hot. This dark green and rather thin chile is about 2 ½ inches long has the same basic uses as the jalapeño. Do not think that it is just a hot version of the jalapeño—it has a taste all its own. I sometimes like to put one
in the pot while I am cooking my beans.

DE ÁRBOL (Deh Ahr´bohl): Hot. Don't be fooled by its shrimpy size. It carries a hot little sting that is tantalizing and addicting. Do as my sister-in-law does and kick your food up a notch by nibbling on this little stick of dynamite. It makes an excellent dried chile for fiery hot chile salsas and other sauces.

MANZANO (Mahn-zah´noh): Hot. This lovely orange or red hottie is almost apple-like in appearance and in flavor. Only no Granny Smith can burn you down to the ground as deliciously as this one. About 2 ½ in length and almost as wide, its firm, thick flesh is perfect in salsa fresca and in cooked salsas.
HABAÑERO (Hah-bah-ngeh´roh): Extremely Hot. Beneath its innocent bell-like face lays the heart of a killer. This muy matón of chiles with the sweet, fruity taste is very high in beta carotene--and an excellent truth serum if you suspect that you have a no-good mentiroso (liar) of a boyfriend. Just drop this little bomb in his salsa to find out. It is also available dried.
(Note: All chiles vary in heat intensity, even within the same variety. What is mild to me may not be mild to you. If you are not used to eating chiles, then please have some dairy product handy, such as milk, sour cream or yogurt, in order to smother the heat. Rice or bread can help, too. Don't drink water. It just doesn't help.)


Monna said...

Hi there! My name is Monna McDiarmid. I am a Canadian teacher living in Barcelona, Spain.

This is a quick note to let you know that I have written about your lovely blog in the newest edition of my blog project. Slow Blogs is a celebration of original blogs and their blog authors/photographers.You can find the blog at

You might be interested in reading the Slow Blog Manifesto in the right sidebar... and the explanation of how I came to start this project in a post called "Read Slowly".

Please do link to Slow Blogs if you wish!

Thanks for your beautiful blog.

La Traductora said...

Hola Monna!
You live in one of my favorite cities in the one country, besides Mexico, that I love the most!

Thank you for writing about my blog. It is truly a labor of love, and like good cooking, it is better to take it despacito muy despacito (nice and slow). . .

I'd be very happy to link your blog to mine. I've been reading it since its inception and it is not only enjoyable, but kind as well. And don't we all need a little kindness?

EL CHAVO! said...

Good write up on the variety of fresh chiles, truly the basis of Mexican cooking. Maybe you'll do part 2, an intro to all the different dried chiles? That's gonna be some work! ;) I've been experimenting with all the ones available at my local Big Saver, but it's all random. Maybe you have some insights?

You have some good posts on this blog, gonna get to reading them!

La Traductora said...

Hola El Chavo!
As a matter of fact, I am planning to pot some comments on dried chiles, but I'd thought I'd do some taste testing first. In the meantime, I'm going to cook up some chiles rellenos.
Gracias for visiting, y que viva el chile!

Rachel said...

Well look at you with all your beautiful photos! I want to put your blog link on my foodgeek blog. I'm a white chick from Iowa with Dutch immigrants for grandparents, so cooking with flavor and fire doesn't come naturally to me. My family thinks I'm crazy. :) I like sites like yours because you EXPLAIN. Thank you for EXPLAINING!

La Traductora said...

Hi Rachel!
Thank you for the compliment. I find that once you explain what a chile or a chayote or anything else is, or how something is done, then more people are less afraid to try the food.
Thank you for putting me on your blog-link! I must say, anyone who hates radio active cheese poison on their enchiladas is great in my book!

Heather said...

I've read that the more scarring a pepper has, the higher scoville units it has. For example, a scarred up jalapeno is hotter than a smooth one. Have you found any validity to this?