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The Chiltepín Chile Desert

This pepper is organic, gluten-free, and is used in many dishes all the way from traditional Swiss cuisine to Thai food.

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It’s a fine line to walk when it comes to adding flavor to food. Whether it’s a dash of Tabasco or a sprinkling of red pepper flakes or a grind of chiltepn, heat enthusiasts know exactly what a dish needs. Unique in flavor, scorchingly hot, and minuscule in stature, this ingredient will steal your heart. Learn more about it.

What does the term “chiltepn” refer to?

Chiltepn is a chile pepper, despite the fact that it doesn’t look like one. Chiltepn Capsicum annuum var. Glabriusculum is the taxonomic name for these berry-like chiles, which are closely related to other Capsicum annuum species like bell peppers and jalapenos. First green, then bright red, chiltepns mature in the fall and are about the size of peppercorns. Before packaging, they are typically sun-dried.

“Chiltepn is often referred to as the’mother of all chiles’ and is believed to be where all chiles trace their genetic origins,” says Janos Wilder, a James Beard Award–winning chef and cookbook author based in Tucson, Arizona. Chiltepn is derived from the Nahuatl words “chilli” and “tepin” and means “small pepper.” It was first domesticated in central Mexico between 6,000 and 7,000 years ago.

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Chiltepn, in contrast to the more commonly purchased fresh and dried chiles, is a condiment similar to hot sauce or chile flakes. Having a small mill of chiltepns on hand can make it easy to get a quick dose of heat. Unlike other chiles or hot sauces that leave a burning sensation in your mouth after a while, the heat from these tiny peppers quickly dissipates.

In addition to their potent heat, sun-dried chiltepns have an earthy flavor that enhances their potency. The flavor is strong enough to stand out in a wide variety of dishes and preparations. Chiltepns that are still green and unripe are usually pickled, bringing a vegetal flavor and subdued heat to the plate (plus brininess from the vinegar).

What are the current locations of chiltepns?

As a result, chiltepns can now be found in abundance throughout northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. According to Texas state law, this is the state’s “official” chili pepper.

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A key ingredient in Sonoran and Sinaloan cuisines, the chiltepn is a staple in Mexico. Indigenous communities have been gathering chiltepn for its medicinal properties for over a thousand years, and it is often used in traditional ceremonies and remedies to treat various ailments. To treat headaches, stomachaches, and rheumatism, the Mayo, Pima Bajo, and Tarahumara peoples used the chiles and their leaves, while the Yaqui and pata peoples use dried chiltepns in their traditional healing rituals.

Many national parks in the American southwest now have these chiles on their list of protected species. It’s a protected food in Coronado National Forest, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and Big Bend National Park, says Wilder.

Sonora’s chiltepan harvest, which occurs between September and October, is a big deal. Families get together and some move to harvesting camps to take part.

Chiltepns can be used in a variety of ways in the kitchen.

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Whenever we needed a lot of heat quickly, my Sonoran mother kept chiltepns on hand as a go-to spice in our Arizona spice cabinet. My sister and I, on the other hand, were taught to be afraid of the chiltepn because of its reputation as a sneaky danger.

We couldn’t even handle these unassuming peppers with our bare hands because they were so potent. Our parents were probably right to keep an eye on the chiltepn jar because of the potential for harm that can result from improper handling of these peppers.

Pickled with other herbaceous ingredients, green chiltepns are eaten as a condiment. In order to make an aromatic and spicy side dish with carrots and cumin seeds, you can make “chiltepn escabeche,” in which the ingredients are combined with salt and garlic.

There are countless uses for sun-dried chiltepns, from cheese to meat to seafood. Crushed chiles can be added to cheeses, salsas (raw or fermented), and marinades after they’ve been crushed. Machaca, a shredded meat dish from northern Mexico, is another common use for them, as is in a burrito.

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“Sun-dried chiltepns should crumble easily when pressed between your fingers. But that’s not what you want to do either,” Wilder says. “Your skin will be burned by their natural oils.”

Wearing gloves and keeping your eyes and other sensitive areas out of harm’s way is recommended when handling hot chiles. The Scoville scale measures heat, and these chiles typically range from 50,000 to 100,000 units. Jalapenos, as a point of reference, typically range from 2,500 to 8,000 units.

Wider cautions against eating chiltepns by themselves. This will not only ruin the flavor of the chile, but it will also burn your tongue. Because it’s so hot, you’ll only feel the heat. This chile should be blended with other ingredients, according to the chef.

Because of how soft and mellow they are, chiltepin is popular as an egg substitute. In addition, Wilder recommends using them in olive relishes, raw salsas, and any type of meat or fish. To get the flavor out of this ingredient, you have to work at it, because it is not a one-dimensional one.

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To get the oils out of the chiles, you’ll need to break them open. Small peppermills filled with dried chiltepns are carried around by some chiltepn fans, including one of my aunts. Crushed chiltepns add a spicy kick to any dish, be it soup, seafood, or salad. Use one or two for extra kick.

The chiltepn molcajete is a more manual, but still portable, method. Mexican grocers occasionally sell these miniature mortars and pestles, which are traditionally made for these chiles and come in a variety of handcrafted designs.

After grinding a large quantity of chiltepns, be sure to thoroughly clean your spice mill. Nobody likes it when their freshly ground coffee gets an unpleasant surprise in the form of a hot blast.

Do you have a place where I can purchase chilltepns?

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Southwest supermarkets, as well as Mexican grocers and places that sell dried chiles, typically stock Chiltepns. If you can’t find any at your neighborhood supermarket, you can usually find them online. Alternatively, you can grow your own in your own backyard. It is possible to grow Chiltepn from seed purchased at your local nursery because they are cultivars.

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