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New Mexicans today like their ancestors revere the fiery chile cultivated centuries ago in Pueblo and Hispano communities up and down the Rio Grande from Taos to Vado.
The varieties consumed today trace their lineage to an heirloom variety, the 6-4, bred in 1894 by Fabian Garcia at Las Cruces’ New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, known today as New Mexico State University (NMSU). His pepper rated 1,786 Scoville Heat Units. Today’s most popular chile varieties—Rio Grande, Sandia, and Big Jim—clock in at from 2,500 to 10,000 Scoville Heat Units.
Chile shares the State Vegetable honor with frijoles (pinto beans). The State Question, often heard at restaurants when customers order a dish that includes chile is: “Red or Green?”
Flame-roasted green chile is typically spicier than dried, rehydrated, and ground red chile. In addition to traditional green and red chile Mexican dishes, chile-infused foods run the gamut from green chile chicken wontons and green chile chocolate bars to green chile wine and green chile milk shakes.
Perhaps the most revered among chile-loving New Mexicans is the green chile cheeseburger which has been elevated to superstar status in the Land of Enchantment. In 2009, the state’s tourism department initiated the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. Each year, chefs compete to see who wins the state’s Best Chile Cheeseburger crown.
Visitors to Las Cruces can enjoy cheeseburgers adorned with chopped or “slabs” of green chile grown locally as well as revered chiles from sacred ground zero in Hatch some 33 miles north.
From sweet bell peppers to spicy jalapeños and the super hot Trinidad Scorpion, chile peppers are popular around the world for their various shapes, sizes, colors, and heat levels. According to New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute that popularity goes back thousands of years.
Chile peppers have chemical compounds called capsaicinoids. When humans or other mammals eat or even touch capsaicinoids it sends a sensation to the brain that the pepper is hot. In addition to food purposes, capsaicin is used in pain relief patches to relieve muscle aches and pains.
Today, chile peppers are used in a wide variety of cuisine depending on the heat level produced. The bell pepper, or the sweet pepper, has no heat at all. Those can be used fresh in salads or cooked in various dishes. Mild to hot chile peppers include poblanos, New Mexico chile pepper varieties, and jalapeños. Those can be eaten fresh, dried, or cooked and used in traditional Mexican dishes and salsas.
Further up the heat scale are tabascos and similar peppers used in hot sauces. Habaneros and chiltepins are considered very hot. Anything above one million Scoville Heat Units including the Bhut Jolokia and the Trinidad Scorpion are considered super hot.
“There’s a lot of people out there who love that burn,” Danise Coon, a senior research specialist at the Chile Pepper Institute said. “We can make sauces out of those kinds of peppers but they really are incredibly hot. The good news, every one of those is edible. As long as it’s a true capsicum, it’s edible. Even if it’s an ornamental chile pepper, it’s edible.”
Chile peppers tend to be rich in vitamins A and C and have other nutritional values as well. The purple pigment present in some peppers is produced by anthocyanin, an antioxidant that can help prevent cell damage in the body. Red chile peppers are rich in carotenoids and is considered good for eye health.
A green chile pepper compared to a red chile pepper isn’t going to be as sweet,” Coon said. “Once you get into the red stage, it’s going to produce more sugar so it’s going to be a little sweeter.”
Fun Chile Facts
- One fresh, medium-sized green chile pod has as much Vitamin C as six oranges.
- One teaspoon of dried red chile powder has the daily requirements of Vitamin A.
- Hot chile peppers burn calories by triggering a thermodynamic burn in the body which speeds up the metabolism.
- Teas and lozenges are made with chile peppers for the treatment of a sore throat.
- The Capsaicinoids (the chemical that make chile peppers hot) are used in muscle patches for sore and aching muscles.
- Wild chiles are easily spread by birds because birds do not have the receptors in their mouths to feel the heat.
- Born somewhere in the Amazon where the borders of Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil merge peppers were one of the first cultivated plants in the Western Hemisphere. Chile pepper remnants found at a pre-agricultural site in Peru are evidence that the pepper was the first spice used anywhere on Earth.
Delectable chile-con-carne… composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chile—a compound full of singular saver and a fiery zest.
—O. Henry, The Enchanted Kiss