Everyone who seeks a fine meal in any Mexican restaurant San Diego knows Mexican cuisine depends on chile peppers for their zest and spirit but not everyone realizes there are a wide variety of peppers that answer to the name of chile, or is it chili? Even the spelling is open to question.
The Nahuatl, or Aztecs, preferred chili but the Spanish when they discovered the amazing pepper spelled it chile. While this building block of Mexican cuisine was new to Spaniards, the Mayans had been boiling them with beans and mixing them with cacao since 7500 BC. The Mayans may have been engaging in the first form of organic gardening, or perhaps it was just a coincidence that they planted the hot peppers alongside tomatoes but the end result was that, the capsaicin, responsible for the burning effect of chile peppers, served as a mammal repellent, allowing the tomatoes to thrive, with minimal destruction of the pepper crop.
While there are many facts to learn about chile peppers, the most important is that all chile peppers are not created equal – in heat, that is. The hotness of any variety is dictated by the amount of a compound called capsaicin inherent in it.Their heat index is measured in Scoville units, and is expressed as a range since heat intensity can vary from pepper to pepper.
The best way to get a feel for Scoville units is to look at some of the most popular peppers in light of the Mexican dishes they flavor.
Anaheim is the mildest at 500 – 2,500 Scoville units. It’s the pepper that puts the green in salsa.
Poblano, at 1,000 – 2,000 units is considered mild. It is commonly used as the receptacle of a chile relleno.
Chile Ancho is the dried form of the poblano, and the most widely available of dried chiles. It is used in moles
Jalapeno varies from 2,500 – 10,000 units .Usually picked while still green, it can ripen into a deep crimson color. Jalapeno is the most popular chile pepper and what gives nachos their wallop.
The bright red Chile de Arbol weighs in at a spicy 15,000 – 30,000 units and is ground into powder to flavor sauces, soups, and stews. Dried whole, it is the decorative pepper mounted on wreaths or in flower arrangements.
At the top of the scale is the Habanero with a whopping heat index of 150,000 to 300,000! Habaneros are mainly used in bottled hot sauces.
There are actually a few chile peppers that score even higher – like the Scotch Bonnet and the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T but they are confined to fiery Jamaican and other West Indian recipes.