The Chiltepin Post
May 22, 2022 8:24 AM   Subscribe

Capsicum annuum is overall the widest spread and most used of the five domesticated species of Capsicum. It ranges from the ubiquitous bell pepper, a workhorse vegetable used in nearly every cuisine, to the fiery spice peppers taken for granted in just as many, like the jalapeño, cayenne, peri peri, or prik ki nu. All have been elaborated from one unassuming ancestor: the wild Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum, a shrubby perennial bearing a small, red pod of roughly pea to peanut size and shape with a beguiling flavor and brief but intense heat.

(The primary links are the first three in the final paragraph.)

It’s native throughout Mesoamerica, but its cultural homeland, an area where it is widely gathered, appreciated, and commercially exploited, is centered on Hermosillo, Sonora and ranges from central Mexico to the southwestern United States and eastward through Texas, where it’s the thoroughly praised Official State Native Pepper. (There is even a population in Florida, albeit morphologically distinct.) In that home region it’s commonly called the chiltepin, from chiltecpin, a Nahuatl contraction of chilli tecpin, “flea pepper”, for its small size and sharp bite.

The chiltepin has fired the passions of botanists like Kraig Kraft in this keenly observed, well informed travelogue and conservationists like Gary Paul Nabhan, who cofounded Native Seeds/SEARCH (a good, nonprofit source of seed) and encouraged the formation of the Wild Chile Botanical Area (where seed can be gathered for personal use).
posted by thoroughburro (30 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
My own observation possibly explaining how a C. annuum can reach the superhot levels (as measured in the “sharp bite” link above) typically requiring a unique introgression of C. frutescens genetics into C. chinense is that chiltepin’s very small pods, being more or less filled with placental tissue, allow for a similar concentration of capsaicinoids.

It is nonetheless more common in most growing conditions for chiltepins to be closer to a mild habanero in heat, and in any case dissipating quickly.
posted by thoroughburro at 9:20 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]

Thanks for this post! I just ordered some chiltepines from Native Seeds/SEARCH and can’t wait to try them!
posted by dmo at 9:36 AM on May 22 [1 favorite]

Thanks for reminding me that I have some chiltepin (or chile pequin) that I've been meaning to use in tamales, which is apparently what one does, at least in Monterrey.
posted by ssg at 10:07 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]

Grew up with these in my grandfather's back yard. They are very expensive when store bought.
posted by nestor_makhno at 11:29 AM on May 22 [1 favorite]

friends who live in Mexico grow these and gave us some. I did not realize they were so special!
posted by supermedusa at 11:46 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]

Mmmm, bhut jolokia.
posted by y2karl at 12:23 PM on May 22

(If your interest is specifically in very hot peppers, I've had good experiences with (not a nonprofit) Pepper Joe's.)
posted by box at 2:00 PM on May 22

I found a new to me pepper last year, called a chilaca. It has a matte skin, doesn't need to be peeled. It appears almost black. When it is dried it is called a pasilla pepper. Nice, flavorful, somewhere in the middle of the heat scale. Meanwhile on a shelf in my cabinet lurks a quart of pickled maybe cayenne, maybe another smallish, multicolored, pepper, I bought in a bouquet, at the market. Two years ago. I think I will open them now, to see what I got...
posted by Oyéah at 2:24 PM on May 22 [5 favorites]

I'd love to get a hold of some of these for growing. I love cross-breeding chillis - not in a scientific way, but in a plant a load of different types and let the pollinators decide way, and I'd be interested to see what happens.
posted by kersplunk at 2:26 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]

I would gently discourage anyone from using Pepper Joe’s. It was sold and is now extremely unreliable, generally known for dominating the search results while providing heartbreaking results to unsuspecting new growers.

I see threads like this often.
posted by thoroughburro at 2:53 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]

Thanks for that—it’s been a few years since I ordered anything from them, and I’m disappointed but not surprised that new ownership is doing what new ownership does.
posted by box at 3:43 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]

The best pepper I've found lately is the datil. It's fairly hot and very flavorful.

Minorca is the only place I've found that sells the peppers (dried and powdered) rather than the seeds or sauces including datil peppers, though they sell sauces, too.

There's something broken at their website, so if you want their products shipped outside of Florida, you need to contact them.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 4:08 PM on May 22

Tangentially related here, but I was reading the Kraig Kraft articles about searching out wild chiltepin, wherein he mentions eating the "most amazing gorditas" in a small town called Bernal in Queretaro — which reminded me of the best gorditas I've ever had in my life, right there in Bernal a few years ago, at least a decade after his visit (though perhaps not in the same place). Incredibly delicious.
posted by ssg at 4:50 PM on May 22 [3 favorites]

I only learned in the past few days that there was no such thing as a non-spicy pepper until maybe 100 years ago. There are a handful of people still alive who are older than the existence of bell peppers.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:35 PM on May 22 [5 favorites]

Oyéah - Well? Should we send help?
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 7:54 PM on May 22

Wow! Had to see the pics to confirm...I've had these! I worked in northern Mexico years ago and there was a group of nuns helping poor families. They had a nice garden out back and I was helping pull in some fresh veggies for dinner. I saw this small, shrub looking tree. It was about 4 feet in height and it was covered in red "berries". I asked what it was and was told that they were chiles and that they called it "chile de arbol". Well then, so did I. I see now that has what has lead to 25 years of confusion in identifying them. Somewhere, maybe, I have a small ziplock bag that I kept about 10 of them after they dried in the hopes of bringing them back to the Midwest. Gonna have to have a little search party this weekend.

Appreciate the post!
posted by zerobyproxy at 8:08 AM on May 23 [4 favorites]

If there's one thing I've learned about chiles in Mexico it's that one chile might have ten different names in ten different places and that some of those names will overlap (i.e. a cascabel in Monterrey is a guajillo in the Central Mexico, but a cascabel in Central Mexico is an entirely different chile). I guess the same thing was happening with your chile de arbol / chiltepin, zerobyproxy.
posted by ssg at 9:08 AM on May 23 [4 favorites]

I’m so happy to have helped identify them for you! They have a ton of common names and which is in use varies by region. My research indicates that, originally, the Mesoamerican peoples did refer to it as “tree pepper” and that “flea pepper” was larger (according to the Florentine Codex), perhaps akin to what is now usually called “pequin” (but “pequin” is another broad name and in some places it also refers to chiltepin). So, the folks who informed you weren’t wrong, of course, just using a regional or idiosyncratic term.
posted by thoroughburro at 9:09 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]

OK, so I opened the jar! I poured off about a cup of the juice, and ate one of the peppers. They are cayenne peppers and pretty hot, but hot is OK by me if it is cayenne. The juice I now remember was from a bread and butter pickle recipe. It is glorious, and it would be particularly good in coleslaw on pulled pork sandwich. I mulled this over, I will probably put more vinegar in the juice, and the peppers. The peppers in the quart jar, are put up with onions resemble a thick ragu. The peppers are intact. I will put in a little salt, and more vinegar. I had the juice on cold baked fish this morning, lovely stuff. I have always liked Tabasco sauce, and I wondered about their ageing process. I will slow cook some pork later in the week, make bread, and slaw.

Thank you for checking back.
posted by Oyéah at 12:54 PM on May 23 [4 favorites]

I would suggest anyone who enjoys growing, or even buying peppers explore the world of lacto-fermented hot sauce. All you need are peppers, some veggies if you’d like, water, salt and time. Tons of great tutorials on the interwebs and a great thing to explore.
posted by misterpatrick at 3:00 PM on May 23 [4 favorites]

The first time I heard of these chilies was when Pati Jinich waxed rhapsodic about them on her PBS show. She even has a cute little wooden grinder dedicated to them.
posted by Surely This at 6:17 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]

I thought chiltepen seeds would be boss for my daughter’s fiancé who gardens, but they have none at the Native Seeds/Search place. However, they have whole dried chiltepen. Do you just separate the seeds from the pods? Apologies if this is dumb, but I am far from a gardener. Of course, even if that’s how it works, we’d still have the chiles. So still good.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 5:57 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]

I am intrigued! Has anyone every had any luck growing these in containers? I would be curious to try it, but I'm pretty sure I'd have to overwinter them inside given the winters in my area.
posted by Kurichina at 7:06 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]

Gilgamesh’s Chaffeur, if they haven’t been smoked it’s likely some of the seeds are viable. The wilder the plant, the less fuss its seeds take, allowing for human-uncomfortable habitats…

If your daughter’s fiancé isn’t specifically into seed starting already, I might add a germination tray with a dome and a heat mat.
posted by clew at 9:08 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]

Now I will have to try and find these peppers in Seattle. They sound pretty awesome.
posted by Windopaene at 10:43 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]

Chile pequin and chile árbol are definitely different plants/fruits IME. The "bird's eye" chilies from SE Asia are related to one of them, I assume . . .
posted by aspersioncast at 6:36 PM on May 24

Has anyone every had any luck growing these in containers?

I've definitely seen them happy in containers outside in Northern Mexico. They don't need full sun, so I think they'd probably do OK inside in the winter, maybe with a little supplemental light. Worth a try!
posted by ssg at 8:37 PM on May 24 [1 favorite]

Yeah they do great in containers in DC - I have overwintered them inside for up to 8 years. They just get woody stems and eventually stop fruiting.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:20 PM on May 25 [1 favorite]

My second choice for chiltepin seeds would be the Chile Pepper Institute, hosted by New Mexico State University.
posted by thoroughburro at 7:31 PM on May 25 [1 favorite]

If you prefer seedlings, I grew this chiltepin last year, and it was sooo cute and wonderful! The photo doesn’t do it justice; mine turned into a lovely almost-bonsai form.
posted by thoroughburro at 7:42 PM on May 25 [1 favorite]

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