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What is Chile?

About Chili Peppers

We have discovered that a lot of people in the upper Midwest of the United States don't really know what chile is.  Most people immediately think of the popular stew-like dish, chili con carne, which is often made (horrors!) with no chiles at all!   We thought we'd put together some basic definitions for you, and we went to what we consider one of the ultimate sources for information on chile - Mark Miller's The Great Chile Book.

In The Great Chile Book, the author (who is a leading chile expert, restaurateur and author of Coyote Cafe cookbook) explains that even the spelling of the word can be confusing. Some folks spell it chile, others spell it chili, and still others spell it chilli.   It all depends on how it's used, where you are, and as Miller puts it, "personal whim."  According to him, the word chile refers to the plant or the pod itself; the word chili is actually the dish which consists of meat and chiles and oftentimes beans. Chilli is the name of the spice powder that is made from ground dried chiles and mixed with other seasonings.

The other confusion is the fact that chiles are not actually peppers at all, even though we commonly refer to them as "chile peppers."  We have Christopher Columbus to blame for that (he obviously had a real problem with naming things!).   Thousands of years ago the first chiles were actually berries which grew in South America - seeds were spread by migrating birds, and the chiles developed into a plant domesticated by ancient cultures as a main staple along with beans, corn and squash.

We highly recommend Mark Miller's book, The Great Chile Book, for a lot more information - it's published by Ten Speed Press.  In it you'll find gorgeous pictures of every chile imaginable, with really great basic information about each variety including the level of heat on a scale of 1-10. 

New Mexico Red Chile, according to Mark Miller, is the ripe form of the New Mexico Green Chile and is grown only in New Mexico. Also referred to as chile pasado in its roasted/peeled/dried form, these chiles have a dark and intense color as well as a dark, rich flavor unique to no other chile.  In his book, Miller rates their heat as 3-4.

New Mexico Green Chile is medium to hot in flavor (3-5), and is roasted in huge quantities every fall at harvest time.  Frozen varieties are much better in flavor than the canned chiles, and they are exceptional when used in sauces, stews, salsas, for chile rellenos, as well as many other non-New Mexican dishes such as casseroles and quiches.

Another word about New Mexican cuisine - many people assume that it's the same as traditional Mexican cuisine, which is incorrect.  While most Mexican food is based on tortillas, rice, beans, tomatoes, etc., the food of New Mexico is actually a blend of Spanish and American Indian cultures.  New Mexican food is served either in a range of intensities from mild to knock-your-socks-off hot, while traditional south of the border Mexican food is much milder in intensity.

By the way, another  book that we've discovered that has a lot of really interesting recipes plus some good "educational" information about chiles is The Chile Pepper Book by Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger - it's just a small book, but it's packed with information about chiles.  It's published by Interweave Press. 


About Chile Peppers

Scoville Heat Scale
Green Chile Recipes Quick & Easy Green
Chile Chart - Chileplants.com  

Did you know that chiles are a wonderful source of Vitamin C?


Dorothy & Jay Harris - Copyright 2004-2010