By Joseph Antonio, Contributing Editor
During a recent culinary visit to Oaxaca, Mexico, I experienced a part of Mexican culture and cuisine that helped me gain a deeper understanding of how distinct ingredients, particularly chiles, help define a region’s food culture. Just seeing the plethora of chiles that go into the many different moles, for example, was awe-inspiring from a chef’s perspective. Each of those chiles has characteristics that can add layers of complexity to a dish.
Chiles, as well as other pungent ingredients like ginger, horseradish, wasabi, mustard and peppercorns, can either play the leading role in a food’s performance or serve an important part of the supporting cast. Certain chemical compounds in chile peppers, peppercorns, ginger, galangal, wasabi, horseradish and mustard seeds, such as capsaicin, piperine, gingerol and allyl isothiocyanate, affect the senses to give the characteristic “spice" or “heat." Those trigeminal flavors can be accentuated by adding other strong, complementary flavor profiles, or subdued by contrasting, elements. Balancing those heat-imbuing components with other flavors, such as those from fruits, nuts, spices and seasonings, and other vegetables, can lead to some truly inspired creations.
Chiles are used in many cuisines from Southeast Asia to Latin America to Europe. Chiles’ placental walls contain capsaicin, which contributes the burning sensation. Each chile, whether fresh or dried, also contributes its own distinct flavor.
There are chile peppers of all shapes, sizes and forms. They come in all heat levels, from a mild bell pepper to a fiery bhut jolokia, or “ghost chile." Chiles come in many forms the chef and product developer can use: fresh, dried, pickled and fermented, to name a few.
Combining certain chiles, such as the serrano or de arbol chiles, with roasted tomatoes or tomatillos and spices to make a salsa adds vibrancy to cooked meats. Using fresh chiles, such as jalapeños, serranos, habaneros and guerros (a moderately spicy chile), in a salsa complements lighter proteins like fish, shrimp and chicken. In conjunction with acidic elements like tomatillos and/or lime juice, they tend to brighten the flavors of foods. Dried, red chiles, like guajillo, California and ancho, often used in marinades and stews, go well with heartier proteins, such as beef, lamb and pork.
Eating a Mexican street taco filled with only pastor pork and topped with cilantro and onion is rather pedestrian without the bold addition of a salsa taquera made with toasted de arbol chiles, roasted tomatillos, garlic, onions and spices. Local taquerías always provide a jar or bottle of homemade salsa roja made with dried de arbol or fresh habanero chiles mixed with tomatoes, garlic and onions to accent a carne asada burrito.