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A Guide To Traditional Mexican Hot Peppers And Hot Sauces
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Published: May 4, 2020, 8:11 p.m.
Mexico’s cuisine wouldn’t be the same without hot peppers and the sauces crafted from them. There are over 50 types of hot peppers, from which 20 are widely used around the vast country.
The history of hot peppers in Mexico goes back at least 7,000 years, confirming the hot peppers we all know and love are native to the country. Mexican cuisine uses both fresh and dried chiles in their dishes each having unique names depending on if they’re used fresh, smoked, or dried.
It would take a lifetime to get to know all the Mexican hot peppers and sauces made with them, but these are the most popular. An excellent introduction to the Mexican Hot Pepper universe.
Traditional Mexican Hot Peppers
Jalapeño, Cuaresmeño, Chipotle
The most consumed hot pepper in Mexico is the jalapeño, also known as cuaresmeño. When smoked and dried, it takes the name of Chipotle. With a low heat level of 2,500 - 5,000 SHU, the jalapeño is easily enjoyable on its own and plays a vital role in the famous Salsa Verde.
This fist-sized Green pepper is one of the better-represented peppers in Mexico, mainly because it can be stuffed with all kinds of fillings, from minced meat to cheese, to make the remarkable “chile relleno” or stuffed pepper. Mildly spicy, with 2,500 - 5,000 SHU, it’s also often cut in thin strips to make stews, creams, and many other dishes.
Slightly larger and spicier (5,000 - 15,000 SHU) than jalapeño, Mexicans also consume the Serrano Pepper Green or dried, but holds on to its name in both cases. This hot pepper is as versatile as the jalapeño and can be used as a substitute in most recipes.
Chile de arbol
Meaning ‘tree hot pepper,’ this thin pepper is widely used fresh, both green and red, and dried. Noticeably spicier with 15,000 to 30,000 SHU, it gives flavor to many sauces and adobos.
Fresh, this long yellow-hued pepper is called chilaca, and it’s quite mild with only 1,000 - 1,500 SHU. It’s used in stews for added flavor, and dried, called pasilla, it’s part of some of the most famous sauces used to top anything from slow-cooked beef to pork.
The Yucatan peninsula is home to this hot, spicy, small pepper that packs 100,000 - 150,000 SHUs. People in the region will nibble on it during the meals, but for most people, this pepper is quite aggressive. The traditional way of using it is by mixing it with finely minced onion, and it’s cured with Bitter Orange juice for a pickled sauce perfect for dishes like the pulled pork ‘cochinita.’
Meaning ‘green sauce,’ salsa verde is a simple but tasty sauce. Always homemade, this fresh sauce comprises green peppers, either jalapeño or serrano, green tomatoes, garlic, white onion, Cilantro leaves, and a pinch of salt. Perfect for all kinds of tacos, this sauce can either be served raw, or it can be cooked for a distinct new sauce, the cooked salsa Verde.
There’s no recipe for any Mexican sauce, only similar flavor profiles under the same common name. Every family and every cook has its recipe, and they’re all delicious.
Meaning ‘red sauce’; this is the second most common Mexican sauce, and it’s based on tomatoes rather than green tomatoes. The rest of the ingredients are remarkably similar to the green sauce elements, and all kinds of hot pepper combinations can be used.
Pico de Gallo
The famous chunky Mexican sauce is made with diced tomatoes, white onion, and Serrano peppers, mixed with chopped cilantro leaves and livened by a splash of Lime Juice and salt. Simple but delicious, this sauce is perfect for grilled meat tacos but goes well with everything.
Guacamole is a sauce and not just a dip. Actually, ‘mole’ is the native term for sauce. Thick in consistency thanks to avocados, this sauce is transformed by adding cilantro leaves, onions, and minced green peppers, most commonly jalapeño or serrano peppers.
Amongst many regional sauces, all made with unique ingredients and flavor combinations, some are distinct enough to be worthy of a special mention. That’s the case with the ‘drunken sauce’ made with pasilla dried chiles, Orange juice, onion, garlic, and a unique ingredient: pulque — fermented Agave sap with a thick and foamy texture that makes this sauce something special.
Pulque used to be the most common fermented drink in Mexico before Beer came around.
This is Just a Drop in the Bucket
Dozens of hot peppers and salsas make Mexican food unique, and there’s always a spicy element on the table.
For the real thing, you must visit this gorgeous country, but we can all take inspiration from the country’s hot pepper mastery, colorful sauces, and cuisines. Mexico is the hot peppers’ birthplace after all.
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