Monday, April 30, 2007

cascada post 8

Chile Extranjero

chiles extranjeros grown at 6000 feet near Xico, state of Veracruz, Mexico

Surely one of the great pleasures of life is to sit and eat a well prepared, well seasoned meal -- all the more so if you are with friends, family, and with a bit of beverage. One of the nicest flavorings comes from chile peppers. There are over a thousand named varieties of chile peppers. The flavors vary from the truly bland to fiercely hot. The ways to prepare them, and use them in cooking or raw is enormous and used well they contribute subtle and interesting flavors to many dishes and add real pleasure to life. Today they are a mainstay in the diets in the Americas, in Africa, in Asia, India, most parts of the world.

But it was not always so. When I was in Ethiopia, now more than 40 years ago, chiles were an essential ingredient of nearly every dish. Dried chiles, powdered chiles, fresh chiles, 'meet-meeta', 'caria'. These were in every market and in some if not most dishes at every meal. I think the Ethiopians would have been surprised (as would I back then) to learn that there was a time when there were no chiles in Ethiopia, nor in any part of Africa, nor in Thailand, nor in India or any part of Asia.

Why? Because chiles were only in the Americas: South America, Central America, Mexico, and the southern part of what is now the USA. It was only after the Spaniards and the Portuguese came to South America, Central America, and Mexico in the 1500's that chiles began to spread to other parts of the world.

The earliest evidence of chiles used for food dates to 7000 BC near what is now Tamaulipas, Mexico, and by 5000 BC chiles were being cultivated in Mexico. It is noteworthy that cultivation of chiles predates that of both corn and beans, two other crops originating in the Americas. In Mexico, as in the United States, the vast majority of chiles cultivated and consumed all belong to the same species: Capsicum annuum. This includes many (100's if not 1000's) of varieties, or cultivars. Sweet bell peppers, jalapeño, pasilla, poblano, Thai, Cayenne, and Anaheim are common varieties of Capsicum annuum. Here is a picture from an old 1793 book of a variety of Capsicum Annuum:

This book, Medical Botany, is also available (presumably in facsimile form) from the Missouri Botanical Garden, see this link.

There are four other cultivated species of Capsicum, of which only two are common in the U.S.A. These are C. chinense, of which the habanero is an example:

habanero portrait
habanero portrait

and C. frutescens, of which Tabasco (of 'Tabasco sauce' fame) is an example. If you have been keeping count, there are two more cultivated species of Capsicum, found mostly in South America: C. baccatum, and C. pubescens. Both of these had been cultivated for millennia in the Andes mountains of South America when the Spaniards arrived.

So what are "Chile Extranjero", the namesake chiles of this article? That is exactly what I wanted to know when I saw some unusual yellow chiles in the local market in Coatepec near where I live (in the state of Veracruz, Mexico). I bought a few and saved the unusual black seeds.

only chile extranjeros seeds are black
(see here for typical chile pepper seeds)

They grew quite readily and soon I had chile extranjero plants with nice purple flowers:

chile extranjero flowers
(actual size about 3/4 inch or less, i.e 1.5 cm)

To my disappointment no fruit was forthcoming. However, two plants survived till the next season, flowered again and produced fruit:

chile extranjeros growing

and (voila!) my first two ripe homegrown chile extranjeros:

hot, delicious, ripe chile extranjeros

In Spanish 'chile extranjeros' means 'foreign chile'. This seems to be a local name for a South American chile that was cultivated thousands of years ago and apparently not introduced into Mexico until the twentieth century. In any case it is a variety of the species Capsicum pubescens, the only species of chile with black seeds. It will not cross with other species of chile, and is native to the Andes mountains probably originating in what is now Bolivia or Peru. The seeds and interior pulp where the seeds are attached are very hot (pungent). The exterior pulp less so.

crossection of chile extranjero (=C. pubescens)

The name C. pubescens derives from the small soft hairlike structures on the stalks and leaves of the C. pubescens plant. You can see these 'hairs' in this closeup picture:

pubes on C. pubescens
(you may also see some ants, and another insect--I would like to know what it is)

Capsicum pubescens which seems only known as 'chile extranjero' here in this part of Mexico (near Xalapa in the state of Veracruz), is known as rocoto or locoto in its native Bolivia and Peru and as chile manzano or chile canario in some other places. There are several varieties, and here there are two: one which is yellow when mature (by far the most common) and one which is red when mature. Here is a photo showing these two types:

chile extranjero, the two red ones are a different variety

Pardon my Italian, but here is how C. pubescens fits into the hierarchy of living things:

There is much additional information about chiles on the web, caveat lector, there is a fair amount of mis-information. Here is a site that I would recommend:

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