“For the birds” was an expression borne out of frustration by members of the U.S. military during World War II. The phrase was meant to convey that something was useless or meaningless, and by the 1960s it was used worldwide. Well, if it weren’t “for the birds,” New Mexico would not benefit from its quarter-of-a-billion-dollar chile industry. According to the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico University, chile peppers originated in the lowlands of Brazil, where birds developed a symbiotic relationship with the peppers. Unlike mammals, birds don’t have receptors in their mouths, so they don’t taste the heat of the chile. The bird’s digestive tract is also unaffected by the heat, which makes birds the perfect vessel to sow the chile pepper seeds. Birds consume them with no adverse effects and then disperse them, creating new plants.
The South American chile pepper is a fruit, not vegetable. With help from the birds, the fruit made its way to Central America between 5200 and 3400 BC and slowly crept up to Mexico. Christopher Columbus introduced the rest of the world to the peppers. The explorer took chile seeds back to Spain, where their popularity quickly spread to the rest of Europe, followed by Africa and Asia. When Columbus sampled chile for the first time, its heat reminded him of black pepper, and that’s where it got the name chile pepper.
Some believe that in 1598 chile found its way to what is now New Mexico: Tlaxcalan (Mexican Indian) guides of Spanish colonists from South America brought the seeds with them. Another theory is that the Pueblo Indians traded produce with the Toltec Indians of Mexico, and that’s how the seeds made it here. Both scenarios are plausible, but what is certain is that from the first encounter between Europeans and Native Americans to the present, chile has been an ideal mediator between peoples and cultures.
The Chile Pepper Institute notes that in addition to chile being a $240-million-dollar industry, New Mexico is the nation’s premier producer of hot chile peppers. Capsaicin is the active ingredient in chile that produces the sensation of heat in our nerve endings. The sensation triggers the release of endorphins, which act as natural opiates in the body. Many people claim that this sensation is addicting, the reason we continue to crave chile once we sample it. The more capsaicin, the hotter the pepper.
The chile industry uses Scoville units to quantify the capsaicin heat level of each pepper. The Scoville unit was created by Wilbur Lincoln Scoville. He was an American pharmacist working for Parke-Davis Pharmaceutical company when he devised the Scoville Organoleptic Test in 1912, the year New Mexico became the forty-seventh state.
In 1921 New Mexico’s chile industry was transformed when Dr. Fabian Garcia, a pioneer horticulturist at New Mexico State University, bred several strains of the Mexican pasilla pepper that became commercially successful. Garcia became the father of New Mexico chile when he developed and introduced a milder, meatier chile perfect for roasting.
There are three types of New Mexico chile: green, pintado and red, and each has its own distinctive flavor. Chile pintado which means “painted chile” in Spanish, is plentiful toward the end of the harvest season in late September. The green chile begins to ripen and is mixed with reddish-orange peppers. Green chile is primarily eaten fresh, with a portion frozen for later consumption. Virtually all of the red chile is processed. The growing season is longer in southern New Mexico where the temperature stays hotter longer, so seventy-five percent of the state’s chile comes from Doña Ana, Luna and Hidalgo Counties. A chile’s heat isn’t related to its color. For instance, a green chile can be hotter than a red one, and because of overbreeding, some chile varieties simply have less heat. Ask your vendor at the time of purchase about amount of the heat to expect from a particular type of chile.
Locally grown chile is harvested in autumn, so that’s when “los chilleros,” or roadside chile vendors, begin to appear. From El Paso through New Mexico north to Denver, chile roasters dot the landscape. The green chile is roasted and then frozen for use throughout the year. (Prior to the advent of refrigeration, green chile was dried for future use.) The rest of crop is allowed to ripen and then dried for red chile dishes. It has become a New Mexico tradition to adorn buildings and homes with red-chile ristras or wreaths. These cheerful decorations consist of drying chile pepper pods, with garlic bulbs sometimes included as well. Ristras hung in the kitchen make it easy to keep chiles at hand for cooking.
The Spanish colonists who settled in this region more than four hundred years ago had no inkling that one day New Mexico would become the chile capital of the world. And all because of flocks of birds who liked chile, too.
Recipe: Chile Caribe
Courtesy of Ana Pacheco
If you’re making a chile dish that has several competing flavors such as enchiladas, then commercially prepared chile powder will work just fine. However, if the focus of your dish is the red chile, then puréeing the chile pods is absolutely the best option to ensure the most-flavorful taste. Referred to as Chile Caribe, this chile purée is the single malt scotch of red chile. No one knows for sure how it got its name, but some old-timers say it’s because the chile is hot, like the climate in the Caribbean. What is certain is that the extra effort you put into preparing the chile yourself will be well worth the time.
To avoid capsaicin residue burning your eyes or other parts of your face, it’s best to wear latex gloves while preparing the chile. The “heart” of the chile, the inside part the seeds are attached to, is found at the base of the stem (see picture). Chile hearts can be dried and stored in a jar for use in the Lenten dish quelites, a well-known Mexican preparation of herbs and greens, or in other recipes you want to enhance with red-chile flavor and heat.
Chile Caribe is best for meat marinades, in dishes such carne adobada, a classic New Mexico pork dish. The marinade also goes well with chicken, and some vegetarians use it on tofu.
- 1 lb. red chile pods, stems and seeds removed
- 4 large garlic cloves
- salt to taste
- oregano or/or clove (optional)
After removing the stems and seeds of each pod, rinse the pods and place them in a pot of water. Heat them until they soften, but do not boil. Turn off heat and leave the pods in the covered pan for thirty minutes. Next, purée the pods in a blender or food processor, adding water from the pot as needed to achieve the desired thickness of the purée. Add the fresh garlic and salt during the blending process. Once puréed, the chile is ready to use as a stand-alone marinade or as a base for a marinade.
If you wish to eat the chile right away, add one cup of water to the purée and cook it over medium heat in a covered pot for at least thirty minutes. (Use this same process at any later time when you use the purée.) Many cooks add oregano during the cooking process. My family always throws in a couple of whole cloves, which adds a subtle twist to the taste.
Chile Caribe can be refrigerated for 7-10 days, or it can be frozen.
Recipe from Las Comidas de los Abuelos (Foods of Our Grandparents), by Ann Pacheco, Gran Via, 2003.