Chiltepins are the origins of the Chilli!
The following article describes everything you must know about this special chilli breed. The most important facts, such as the origins, usage and looks, are described.
Does the word Chiltepin mean something special?
The expression Chiltepin does have a deeper meaning. The word for this true chilli specialty originates in the Aztec language Nahuatl and is composed of two terms. These words are chilli and tecpintl, which translated in English means flea. If you take both terms together, you get the saying “hot flea”. The meaning of the name points at the reduced size of the fiery berries. The chilies of this breed are not only known as Chiltepin though. The short form “tepin” is also used among chilli experts.
How exactly do Chiltepins look like?
The Indian name of the berries is rightfully there, as the singular fruits only grow to 6-8 mm. This size is somewhat similar to that of a pea, as well as its round shape. This is what makes the Chiltepins a true rarity, as most other chilli breeds are sharp, pointy fruits. Ripe Chiltepins are red, that’s why they remind us of the rowanberries. This is obviously not a coincidence, as birds are their only means of breeding. This is because birds are fully immune to the heat of the capsaicin of the fruits.
The berries do not grow almost vertically upwards for no reason. This way, the Chiltepins are easier to find and animals cannot withstand the temptation of eating the berries. The plant itself is a bush of up to 2 meters height. The plant develops a main stem with a diameter of up to 8 centimeters. The nightshade plant can become, under the best conditions, several decades old. The Chiltepin plant makes beautiful white flowers with wonderful, violet pollen bags.
Where does this ancient form of chilli has its origins?
The origins of the chiltepin are in today’s Mexico, in the Sonora desert to be more specific, and in the south west of the United States of America (Texas and Arizona). The chiltepins found in this hostile area a niche under the high mesquite trees. The trees do not only provide the bushes with shadow, they also provide the chiltepins with the necessary water from the depths of the desert soil. A further deciding advantage of this symbiosis is the fact that the birds who enjoy eating these hot berries make their nests exactly on these trees. Chiltepin is exclusively a wild growth and up until today is at home in this region. For about 9000 years now, these berries have been harvested by the indigenous people. Today, the chiltepins are still held in high regard by the indigenous population. This is noticeable in a saying handed down by the Tarahumara Indians, which says “a man who eats no chilies makes himself a suspect for witchcraft”. We really like these Indians! Another Indian tribe, the Papago-Indians, believe that the chilies have been around since forever. This is a really nice thought. In Europe, this form of chilies became known only in the year 1615, through the works of Dr. Francisco Hernandez. The European scientist made the first catalogue of the Central-American flora known to date.
Harvesting the Chiltepin-Berries is not an easy task!
As the plant only grows wild, sometimes it is difficult to get to it. This is only one of the reason why it is so difficult to harvest these hot berries. Another reason is that the process is similar to gathering olives. The helpers, also known as chilteperinos, have to wear thick gloves at work. This is because they are at risk of being bitten by rattlesnakes. Then they go with a towel and a bucket to the chiltepin bushes under the mesquite trees. The berries fall from the branches easily through shaking. This really difficult and dangerous work, in combination with the fact that the chilli only grows wild and in a relatively small region, makes it very costly. Chiltepin, next to saffron and vanilla, are some of the most expensive spices of the world. After the harvest, they are often dried in order to be pulverized. This is how they become somewhat milder. They are being dried in fresh air in a shady place. This procedure takes between 3 and 4 days. Chiltepins dried this way keep their powerful red color, whilst in direct sunlight they would become automatically darker.
How do the Mexican chiltepins taste?
Because of their small size, their taste is especially intensive. The little berries reach a hellish heat degree of 9 and are herewith at the upper end of the scale. The fiery taste of the chiltepins is felt as “cutting heat” on the tongue. It is however only a subjective heat, as the chiltepins pack approximately only half the Scoville units as, for example, the Habaneros. The specific mix of capsinoids however makes this chilli breed taste weirdly hot. The hottest part is found in the shell of the ancient berries.
How is the chiltepin used in the kitchen?
The indigenous people use the chiltepins mostly in dried form, as a spice. The berries are ground after they are dried, and this way they season a multitude of dishes with the right heat. Mostly the chiltepins are used for salsas, soups, one pots and bean dishes. The extravagant aroma can however be used to spice up more common meals from our kitchen, such as pizza or Currywurst. Of course, the spicy aroma of the chiltepins completes grilled meat wonderfully. The spice is perfect to make your own rubs. The powder and the small berries are also very popular in the top gastronomy. This is because the chiltepins are always a clean natural product, as they grow exclusively wild. The top chefs can be sure that no artificial fertilizers or chemical pesticides were used. Furthermore, you can make wonderful chilli oils out of the chiltepin, which can then be used in the preparation of meals. We have made a list of uses for the chiltepins in the kitchen:
- one pots
- Grilled meat
- Chilli oil
Are there other ways to use it?
Yes, a lot! Chilli is not only a spice; it is also a remedy. Of course, the wild Capsicum Annuum is no exception. The Indian people of central America use the chiltepins since thousands of years as remedy for various affections. Amongst others, the chiltepins have a positive effect on stomach problems such as heartburn. Rheumatisms is also treated with chiltepins. The native people of today’s central America say that chiltepins have positive effects on tougher diseases, such as diabetes. The chiltepins help also in case of high blood pressure. Because of the antioxidants contained in the chiltepin, it is also used as a preservative for meat.
What else is important while handling chiltepins?
As said, the cultivation of the ancient chilli is not possible. The domestic version loses either its shape or its size. Another disadvantage of the cultivated variant are its seeds, which appear in much higher numbers than in the wild variant. This obviously brings with it differences in taste. Proof deliver the numberless chilli and paprika breeds, that derived over time from the chiltepins. In our latitudes, the plant should definitely not be planted outdoors, but only in a suitable pot. Then it can find a place in a greenhouse. Obviously, hot chilies such as chiltepin should be kept away from children. This is valid for all states of the berries, by which it is meant that it doesn’t matter if powdered or whole, the spice should not get in the hands of children.
The conclusion about Chiltepins:
Chiltepin means “hot flea” in the language of the Aztecs, which indicates the size and the taste. Today, the little berries which remind us strongly of rowanberries, grow wild around Mexico and in some south-western states of the USA. The hot berries have their roots deep in the Indian mythology of this region. On a scale, the chiltepins pack a heat level of 9, even though they have less Scoville units than the habaneros. In the kitchen, the small berries are usually used in powdered form as a spice. Next to the culinary uses, they are also used as medicine. This spice contains antioxidants which is why it is also used as a natural preservative. Apropos natural: The chiltepins grow exclusively wild and cannot be cultivated, which makes them free from all manmade agricultural poisons. Because of how difficult it is to harvest; the special Mexican spice is one of the most expensive of its kind. Of course, one must pay caution when handling hot chilies. This applies for the chiltepins as well, as they do pack some 100.000 Scoville units.