Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Fire in the Mouth!

One of the regional specialties of the Rio Sonora valley where Banámichi is located is the tiny chiltepin, a small hot pepper that is somewhere between a peppercorn and a pea in size. It is also known as Chile Tepin, bird's eye or simply bird pepper, Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum. The word tepin is comes from the Nahautl language and means flea. It may be small in size, but WATCH OUT!! This flea will take your head off!

Chiltepin Grinder, Native Seeds Search
Our first introduction to the Chiltepin  was at the home of a friend in Banámichi who served us a delicious beef and vegetable soup. A small dish of tiny dry red pellets was passed around with a little wooden mortar and pestle to crush them. We were encouraged to crumble one and put it in our large bowl of soup. "One?" I thought. "How could that make any difference?" The result caused searing fire in my mouth and made my eyes water! YOWZA!

Freshly picked chiltepines from Beto's ranch
 Turns out these babies come in at between 50,000 and 100,000 units on the Scoville scale, a measure of chile hotness. By comparison, the lowly jalapeño comes in at a mere 3,500 to 8,000 Scoville units. The chiltepin's burn is just below the habañero or scotch bonnet. There are hotter peppers on the scale, but even though I like fire in the mouth, the habañero pretty much borders on inedible to me.

Once a visiting neophyte in Banámichi expressed curiosity about the chiltepin. He thought it couldn't be all that bad, after all, it was so small. Our friend Tom gave him a fresh one to try. He popped it in his mouth and chomped it down. His face turned red. He couldn't breathe for a few moments. His eyes watered. When he could finally speak again he gasped, "That was a really bad idea!"

Chiltepines thrive along the Rio Sonora in riparian areas under mesquite trees. They are also native to southern North America and northern South America. In the US, they grow in Texas, Arizona and Florida, and also in the Bahamas and the Caribbean. In 1997 it became the "official native pepper of Texas." Who knew??

Their heat depends on the amount of rainfall...the more rain, the hotter they become. According to Wikipedia: "In Mexico, the heat of the chiltepin is called arrebatado ("rapid" or "violent"), because, while the heat is intense, it is not very enduring."
Native chiltepines growing in mesquite grove

The Chiltepin is truly a wild native pepper and is notoriously hard to grow form seed, allegedly because the seeds must pass through the digestive system of a bird before they will sprout . Hence the name bird peppers. Thinking I could surely mimic a bird gut and outsmart the little buggers, I tried grinding them a bit with some fine sand and then soaking them in some vinegar, but no go. Nothing worked. I later learned from Native Seeds Search in Tucson, Arizona that they can sometimes be sprouted under mesquite nurse trees where there are  leaves and debris on the ground. I also  found an article from the Cochise County Master Gardener Newsletter that explains various fiddly ways to create the right conditions for the seeds to sprout.

I have not really had the need to do this, because a couple of years ago we had the opportunity to go to our friend Beto's ranch near Banámichi and pick our own. It is a tedious job because they cling tightly to the branches of their shrub and are so tiny. We spent at least an hour picking before having half of a sandwich bag full. But, no problem, to this day we still have not used these up because a  few go such a very long way.

Mexican ranchers will sometimes allow pickers to come on their land to harvest the berries in exchange for 1/3 of the yield, which is still quite a substantial amount. Then the pickers sell the chiltepines by the side of the road, or put up signs in front of their houses offering them for sale. Sometimes the pickers try to hurry the process by stripping the branches of leaves, berries, everything. Unfortunately this ruins the plant, and makes the ranchers angry enough to never let the pickers return to their land.

Also a couple of years ago our friend Terri gave me what she called a chiltepin plant. It was really just a sad looking twig in a rusty old coffee can. I dutifully planted it and it immediately began to thrive in my north facing planter in Banámichi. Over the  years, it has grown into an enormous shrub, as tall as I am. It produces gazillions of tiny red peppers, but they are not really chiltepins. I discovered this accidentally when I found the little conical fruits in one of those small cellophane packages in the grocery store in Tucson. They are called chile pequin, and I learned that they are a domesticated cultivar of the chiltepin. (A cultivar is a plant  selected for desirable characteristics that can be maintained by propagation.) So the two are are very closely related.

Huge chile pequin bush in my Banamichi garden
Chile pequins ripening in my garden

According to Wikipedia, "Pequins are not as hot as chiltepins (only about  30,000–50,000 Scoville units), but they have a much slower and longer-lasting effect." In Thailand, where they have been imported from the new world,  they are known as "rat-turd peppers!" (Sounds yummy, no?)

Freshly harvested chile pequins...see the difference in shape?

Frankly, I can't tell much difference between the two. They both get the job done. I have come to love the flavor and the fire, and have developed a recipe for salsa that Dan calls "the best in the world. " He says I should bottle it and sell it, but it is so simple that it is almost embarrassing, not to mention I do not wish to compete with the many women who make a living selling their chiltepin salsa up and down the Rio Sonora. So I am happy to share my recipe with you here. Remember, it is just a can use either chiltepins or chile pequins, vary the number you use and vary the level of the other ingredients to suit your taste. If you have a tender tongue, I would suggest that you cut the number of chiles in half or thirds. You can always raise the heat on the next batch!

June's Excellent Salsa de Chiltepin

Note: My grocery store in Tucson, (Sprouts) has both types of peppers in those small cellophane packets on a rack. You can also buy them from Native Seeds Search for $12 for a one ounce bottle, which comes up to $192 a pound. (Compare to the price of silver at about $20 an ounce!)
You could use fresh herbs in the recipe if you like, and even throw in a handful of fresh cilantro if you have it, but the salsa is fine as it is.

1 15 oz can of diced tomatoes
1/3 can water
about 30 dried chiltepins or chile pequins
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
1 tsp dried oregano leaves

Crush the chiltepins in a mortar or in a bowl with the back of a spoon. Put everything in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 5 minutes and carefully pour into a clean sterilized jar and seal. Will keep in the fridge for 3-4 weeks.

Enjoy with tacos, eggs, quesadillas, carne asada, almost anything!

1 comment:

  1. eToro is the ultimate forex broker for beginning and full-time traders.