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Oaxacan Chiles: Report from the 2000 Fiery Foods Test Garden PDF Print E-mail

Story and Photos by Dave DeWitt

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During the taping of my video series, "Heat Up Your Life," one of our shoots was in the mercado in Oaxaca in southern Mexico. With my friend Jose Marmolejo translating, I interviewed one of the chile vendors, Eliseo Ramirez, who told me that about sixty varieties of chiles were grown in Oaxaca and nowhere else in Mexico.

Eliseo Ramirez and Jose Marmolejo

Eliseo Ramirez (left) and Jose Marmolejo

 

As he showed me his chiles, I became fascinated with the varieties and learned that many of them were used in the famous mole sauces of the region. One of the chiles, the ‘Chilhuacle Negro’, is one of the main ingredients in mole negro, one of Oaxaca’s seven mole sauces.

Chilhuacle Negro

Chilhuacle Negro in Oaxacan Market

 

Needless to say, I devoted a large portion of my time in Oaxaca to devouring as many of those moles as I could. I remember that my favorite one was mole amarillo, which is a yellow mole that is made with ‘Costeño Amarillo’, a yellow- orange chile, 2 3/4 in. long, 3/8 in. wide].

Costeño Amarillo

Costeño Amarillo

 

Fast forward a few years to the 2000 New Mexico Chile Conference in February, where I met Janie Lamson, the owner of Cross Country Nurseries and chileplants.com. I also met her husband, Fernando, who grew up in Oaxaca. During our discussions, they told me that they would have a number of Oaxacan chiles in their collection of 325 varieties of seedlings they were offering for the 2000 growing season. Fernando had obtained the seeds from his relatives and although not all of them were exclusively Oaxacan, they were representative of the kinds most commonly used in the area. Following are the Oaxacan varieties that I grew and my notes about them.

Chile de Agua, Erect

Chile de Agua, Erect

 

Chile de Agua, Pendant 

 

Chile de Agua, Pendant

I brought back seeds from my trip to Oaxaca and grew out ‘Chile de Agua’, which apparently means ‘irrigated chile," and it was an erect pod about 4 inches long and one inch wide. But the variety with the same name from Cross Country Nurseries was much different. The pods were pendant and measured 2 ½ inches long and one inch wide. Now I know that sometimes pods grow smaller when the plants are in containers, as mine were, but that didn’t explain the change in pod orientation. I suspect that there is a lot of variation in the pods because of the tendency of chiles to cross-pollinate.

Pasilla de Oaxaca

Pasilla de Oaxaca

 

In Oaxaca, I was told that the ‘Chile de Agua’ was smoked and then became known as ‘Pasilla de Oaxaca.’ However, some people insisted that ‘Pasilla de Oaxaca’ was a variety of pasilla ("little raisin") that is smoked. The ‘Pasilla de Oaxaca’ from Cross Country resembled a short pasilla and it measured 2 ½ inches long by one inch wide.

Chilhuacle Negro

Chilhuacle Negro

 

Chilhuacle Rojo  

 

Chilhuacle Rojo

Two of the Oaxacan chiles most commonly used in moles are the chilhuacles, black and red and both smaller than the ones I saw in the market. ‘Chilhuacle Negro’ measured just 2 inches long and 2 1/4 inches wide, while ‘Chilhuacle Rojo’ was 2 3/4 inches long and 1 ½ inches wide. The word "chilhuacle" seems to mean "crate chile," as "huacal" or ‘guacal" is a vegetable crate. They appear to be related to anchos.

Xigole

Xigole

 

Del Diablo 

 

Del Diablo

As might be expected, the piquin pod type is well-represented all over Mexico and Oaxaca is no exception. The two here probably began their existence as wild varieties that were later domesticated. However, birds probably still spread some of the seeds, as they have for millennia. The ‘Xigole’ was a typical piquin, measuring 1 1/4 inches long and 3/8 inch wide, but the ‘Del Diablo’ ("from the devil") was one of the smallest piquins I have ever seen, a mere1/4 inch long by 1/8 inch wide. And it was devilishly hot.

Onza

Onza

 

Pulla 

 

Pulla

Also called ‘De Onza’ (by the ounce), this ‘Onza Roja’ had attractive yellow pods that eventually turned red. The ‘Pulla’, also spelled ‘Puya", is related to the ‘De Arbol’–indeed, its pods are nearly identical. Both of these chiles are used in Oaxacan moles.

 

Plant Source:

Cross Country Nurseries, P.O. Box 170, Rosemont, NJ 08556-0170; www.chileplants.com
Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Additional Reading and Recipes:

The Food and Life of Oaxaca: Traditional Recipes from Mexico’s Heart, by Zarela Martinez. New York: Macmillan, 1997.

Seasons of My Heart: A Culinary Journey Through Oaxaca, by Susana Trilling. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.

 

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