Luscious green poblanos; fiery hot habaneros; moritas; guajillos; dark and deeply delicious smoke-dried chipotles — so many kinds of chilis, so little time to try them in all their sweet, pungent, hot glory. But with Cinco de Mayo near, the time is right to dive in and celebrate all things chili.
Cinco de Mayo (literally, the fifth of May) is celebrated wherever Mexicans and Mexican wannabes are found, including Whistler. It's a big day for marking Mexican heritage and pride. But since we gringos tend to translate everything Mexican into simplified shorthand, to us Cinco de Mayo is one big party, with lots of tequila and margaritas, to celebrate Mexico's independence. The first bit might be true, but the last part isn't even close.
Independence Day in Mexico is actually September 16. As for Cinco de Mayo, it started with Mexican-Americans celebrating freedom and democracy during the early part of the American civil war. But in the state of Puebla, where the biggest Cinco de Mayo celebrations are held, they mark the Battle of Puebla, when the Mexican army blocked a French invasion at the end of the Mexican-American War.
That's the historical appetizer. Now let's dig into those awesome chilis we also over-simplify.
We couldn't ask for a better guide than Edgar Navarro, executive chef at The Mexican Corner, home of pretty much the best Mexican food at Whistler and beyond. Edgar grew up in Mexico City, but his mom is from Puebla, where in addition to taking great pride in fending off would-be French colonialists, they have one of the finest, most complex cuisines in the country.
"My mama, she was a really good cook," says Edgar, who studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, eventually working as a chef in the Big Apple as well as nearly every state in Mexico, including at Club Intrawest's resort in Zihuatanejo.
"She always prepared meals like a cantina at home — she'd do all the full menu, like, appetizer, main courses, different sides, two or three options." It was all about the traditional way of cooking from Puebla. There, dishes like mole poblano and semitas — small, very traditional sandwiches made with different types of homemade charcuterie — prove how much more there is to Mexican food besides burritos and tacos.
The rich culinary strands weave in from Spain and the many indigenous peoples of Mexico, including Mayans, Aztecs, Olmecs, and the Huichol. From the Spanish you get traditional ingredients like charcuterie (cured meats and sausages): longaniza sausages or fresh red chorizo made with paprika, or chorizo verde (green) made with serrano chilis, spinach, pine nuts and almonds.
Virtually all the indigenous peoples used chilis in their cooking, the type and method dependent on what's grown locally. And here is where the true provenance of "chili" reveals itself. "Chili," the Canadian preferred spelling, is also spelled "chile," which is more common in the U.S., with Spanish using both the "I' and "e" forms. It is one of the few words that's come directly from the Aztec language, appearing in Spanish colonial written accounts of the 16th century. The form then was "chilli."
The Latin name of the chili family is capsicum, which has the same root as "capsule," meaning a box or container, and describing how chili peppers enclose their seeds. Some claim the root might also have come from the Greek word capto, which means "I bite!"
But that's only one dimension of the many forms of chilis, one familiar to most gringos through serranos and jalapeños, now bred much larger and milder for North American tastes. But there are many other chilis, fresh and dried, you can explore for Cinco de Mayo.
"Technically I grew up with a lot of chilis because my mother used a lot of them. Dried, fresh, small ones, big ones," says Edgar. "They come in so many forms — powders, salsa, pickles like escabeche — and have different effects."
If you're feeling adventurous, try a typical dish Edgar grew up with: chilis nogada, made with poblano peppers stuffed with ground pork mixed with carrots and onions and seasonal fruit such as apples or pomegranates. It's all topped with a creamy, nutty sauce made with port wine and goat cheese. (See, I told you there was far more to Mexican food than burritos). Poblanos, which are very consistent and mildly spicy with quite a meaty flavour, make them perfect for this dish.
Or how about some tiny, bright red chili piquines, known for their zing and a light, almost fruity flavour? Then there's the guajillo chili from northern Mexico, which is often charred in the oven, then chopped with tomatoes and garlic and cooked with meat like pork. Big green anaheims are mild with a lovely "green" pepper taste when fresh, or they can be dried. Long narrow chilaca peppers are similar, plus they're great for stuffing like poblanos.
Whatever you use — fresh or dried — Edgar says when picking out good whole chilis, look for a nice, shiny appearance. Also, give them a good sniff — they should be fragrant, no matter what type.
If you want to really have fun, invite some friends over and make chef Edgar's recipe for chili powder, which is used in many Mexican Corner signature dishes. Unlike most commercial powders — there are many blends, just like curry powders — it contains no sugar or salt.
Or if you just want to chill this Cinco de Mayo, stop in at The Mexican Corner, where Edgar promises there's going to be a party. After all, there's nothing like celebrating the end of slavery and colonial rule.
Chef Edgar Navarro's chili powder
129 g. ancho
129 g. pasilla
86 g. guajillo
43 g. chili arbol
43 g. chilpetin
150 g. ground cumin
10 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. x 10 (2 1/2 tsp.) ground coriander
1/4 tsp. x 10 (2 1/2 tsp.) ground cloves
Use your own selection of dried chili peppers. Roast them on a baking sheet in a 300 F oven. When you smell them, take them out of the oven. On a separate sheet, toast the spices (cloves, ground coriander, etc.). Grind everything in an old coffee grinder, or food processor, then mix and use as you like. Great rubbed on roasted meats. Makes 600 grams.
For excellent chilis locally, contact Goodtime Farming in Squamish. Dollar Grocers on Commercial Drive in Vancouver also has great Mexican ingredients.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who loves real Mexican food.