Enchiladas, chilaquiles, salsa verde, salsa roja, chiles rellenos… if there is a staple in Mexican food that is recognized around the world, it is its variety of hot peppers or chiles. In fact, evidence shows that this has been true for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found seeds and other related items in Puebla which show the domestication of several species of chilies in sites that date back as far as 6,500 B.C. It is no wonder then, with so many years of study and experimentation of these wonderful fruits (yes, chile is a fruit!), that Mexico has such a close relationship with it.
Of course we use it for food, who hasn’t tried a delicious salsa Mexicana with Serrano chilies, a black mole with a rich mixture of chile ancho, chile mulato, chile pasilla, and chipotle, or a fiery habanero sauce? However, we also use it for its various medicinal properties. They stimulate circulation, and can therefore highly increase the effect of other medicinal teas and ointments. Add a couple of drops of chile tincture to equinacea and licorice, and you have a highly effective potion against sore throats. Grab some chile ointment to reduce the pains of rheumatism, arthritis, and aching articulations. Their antimicrobial and circulation increasing properties work well in hair-loss treatment shampoos. There have also been very recent studies showing that capsin, the substance that make chilies spicy, can increase the anti-carcinogenic properties of green tea about a hundred times. Regularly eating any variety of chile will give a boost to your metabolism and your circulatory system.
There are a lot of traditions regarding chiles in Mexico. As anyone who has had too much chile in a table full of Mexicans will know, you will probably have as many recipes for how to get rid of the heat as there are people there: salt, milk, tortillas, and ice all are supposed to magically put out the fire in your mouth.
The fascination with this tiny little fruit extends far beyond Mexico and the rest of Mesoamerica. Although all chili peppers come from the New World, and did not start their spread across the globe until after Columbus mistook the continent for the Indies, they are very important, and now even considered traditional ingredients in places like Italy, India, China, and Thailand. In fact, they are so ingrained in those cultures that most of their inhabitants call it sacrilege if you suggested it to them that their loved curries, siracha and arrabiata sauces, ghost peppers, kimchee, and Szechuan spicy dishes are all descendants and new uses of an ingredient that did not even exist in their continents just 500 years ago.
So think about your chilies the next time you are savoring that guacamole, or asking the street vendor for some extra tajín on your freshly cut coconut, and embrace that spicy little of bit of history and tradition you are about to enjoy!
By Minerva Zamora