Mexicans are spicy. Whoever has interacted with one of my paisanos knows that we are piquant, rambunctious and a bit wild. But most importantly (at least for this post’s theme) we like to eat chiles. Our preference for these green, yellow, red and (occasionally) black vegetables has reached other places in our continent, thus sparking an explosion of flavor. However, this barrage of heat isn’t something that everyone can partake into, as the spiciness can be too much. Allow me to help you taming that fire that characterizes el chile, Mexico’s favorite veggie.
To let you feel more acquainted with the topic, allow me to share a Spanish word with you. Enchilado. What does this mean? It means that you are spiced up. Whenever I eat something spicy and it is too much for me to handle, I say “Estoy enchilado.” You pronounce it en – chee – lah – doe or /ɛntʃɨˈlɑːdoə/. In any case, it means that you lost and the chile won. Keep this term in mind, as it may save your life at a taco place, south of the border.
WHY THE HEAT?
Chiles are spicy thanks to Capsaicin, a chemical component highly irritant to mammals but, surprisingly enough, not to birds. Capsaicin resides in the fleshy parts and seeds inside the chile. You can get a slight idea of how spicy a chile can be just by sniffing the seeds.
HOW DO I HANDLE THE HEAT?
The spiciness on chiles can be diminished. I’ll provide the method my mother passed to me while I was young. This has helped many friends to enjoy chiles without setting their taste buds on fire. But first, a some guidelines:
- My first and best recommendation to anyone handling chiles is this: use gloves. The surgical ones that you can at any pharmacy work.
- Don’t touch anything else while cleaning the chiles. The capsaicin is a sneaky chemical which will easily transfer to another victims. Don’t touch any other part of your body or another individuals body. There is a funny story on my wife’s family involving habaneros and a husband’s junk. Invite my wife to a party and she’ll happily share it with you.
- Use only one knife while handling chiles. As I mentioned before, capsaicin can be a bit of a villain. Imagine cleaning chiles with a knife and having your kid asking for an apple. Cut it with the same knife and you’ll have an evening of tears and agony. And that is only YOU, the kid will be in LIVING HELL!
- I call this Rule Zero: Don’t get cocky. Unfortunately, handling spicy food is revered as a sign of machismo, not only in Mexico, but in several other nations. I recommend the person handling the chiles to treat these with respect and care, as they can take a fiery revenge upon the person who doesn’t take them seriously.
If you can not hold the heat of a chile, it is recommended to devein it. Use your trusty knife to cut the chile’s insides out. I recommend to first take the stem off and cut it in half, lengthwise. Make a semi-circular cut on the top of the chile to loosen up the insides. Slip the knife inside and then pull to the front, pushing the vein and seeds out. Check this gallery for detailed steps.
But still, it is possible that the chile may be spicy. How do you try to control that sneaky capsaicin from making a number in your mouth?
Salt is your ally
That is correct, salt will be your new best friend in your fight against picante food. The chile is open, just waiting to be included in your favorite recipe. Just pour a bit of salt into the chile and rub it all around inside it. This will diminish the heat dramatically. Let it rest wit the salt in for a couple of minutes. Wash the salt away and, voilà! You have tamed a chile.
After you use the chile whichever way you want to, you’ll need to de-spice your tools. Rub salt first on your tools and then a bit of vinegar, as this will break down the capsaicin. Then wash it as you regularly wash your utensils.
WORST CASE SCENARIO: I GOT CHILE IN MY [INSERT BODY PART]
No matter how careful we are, we can experience accidents. With chiles, it can be VERY VERY painful. Here are some methods that I have used to contain the heat whenever I get enchilado.
- Ate too much chile = enchilado. The common remedy in this case is to drink milk, as it will calm the heat. I have something better yet: Eat a whole lime. Everything, including the rind. It doesn’t mater if it is a key lime or a giant one. In more than one occasion, stuffing my mouth with this citrus fruit has tamed the flamed torturing my taste buds.
- Got chile in my eyes. This is awful, as it can be while cleaning the chiles, a seed jumped out and hit you straight in the eye. If you have glasses, this will be one of those few advantages of need these, but for the rest, the pain can be excruciating. Don’t rub it, as it will be worse. My mother’s solution? Rub hair, human hair, into your eye. The oils in our hair helps contain and soothe the pain. After a minute or two, you will be OK.
- Got chile in [body part]. Use a mix of lime juice and vinegar to rub the area. This will calm the heat and stop the pain.
RECIPE TIME: MACHO SALSA.
WARNING: This salsa can be very mean. Make it at your own risk.
My first experience with the Macho Salsa (yes, capitalized, as I learnt to respect it) was in high school. I had a friend called Aaron. He was the only Asian kid in school and we both loved comics. We also liked computers and drawing. He was way better than me in that later aspect and was the person who introduced me to anime. If somebody was my geek brother those days, that was him.
His mom was Japanese and an amazing chef. Getting invited to eat with them was something that I enjoyed a lot. My mom could cook too, but Aaron’s mom made succulent Japanese dishes that I’ve never had in my life before.
We were hanging at Aaron’s studio, reading comics, when we were called for dinner. We all took our seats and that day’s dish was hamburgers. I have to admit that, to these day, I haven’t had meat patties like hers. Before we even started, Aaron’s father arrived. Greeted us and then went to the pantry, where he produced a jar, with very vibrant green, yellow and orange things floating in liquid. He took a seat and opened. He must have seen me, watching him with a quizzical expression. “¿Gustas?” He said, inviting me to try the contents. I gave it a quick smell and noticed the spicy aroma emanating from the jar. I have to admit, it was quite inviting. Before even giving the concoction a testing taste, I grabbed a spoonful of the colorful creation and put it on top of the burger patty.
I don’t recall Aaron’s reaction to my act of bravado, but her mom saw me and exclaimed “¡ES MUCHO!” with her slight accent, while opening her eyes wide. I’ve never seen her open her eyes as much as that time. I tried to calm her, informing that I had chile at my household too and that I could handle it. However, the way my words came out makes this anecdote even funnier. I said “No se preocupe señora. Mi segundo nombre es CHILE.” For the Spanish challenged, I said something like “Don’t worry M’am. My middle name is CHILE.” YEAH, I WAS AN IDIOT. Needless to say, I was about to change my last name to “Bigmouth” in a couple of seconds.
I finished preparing my hamburger and prepared to have it, starting with a huge bite. And the chiles kicked in. Very few times I’ve been that enchilado in my life. My mouth, throat, tongue, and everything else inside my mouth was in flames. I swallowed that bite and asked for a whole lime, please. His dad was just laughing at me, as it seemed I was as red as a tomato. Aaron’s mom gave the the lime, which I just put in my mouth and started to chew on it. His dad continued laughing. After I contained the heat in my mouth, Aaron’s mom asked me if I wanted a new burger. I said no, while I took the bun off and started scrapping off the salsa from the patty. Humble pie for one.
What was on that salsa? His dad was from Yucatan, the biggest habanero producing state in Mexico. They eat those things like strawberries over there. What he made was a mix of these chiles, red, orange and green, floating in vinegar and ground black pepper. Lethal. Very Lethal. However, as I don’t want to inflict the same pain I experienced to you all, kind readers, let me share the ready for anyone version.
- 1/2 red onion
- 1 Hinkelhatz pepper
- 1 lime
- 1 lemon
- 1/4 cup white vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground pepper
Chop the onions very well and put into a small jar. I’m using a Hinkelhatz pepper, which came into my CSA box from Johnson’s Backyard Garden. It is similar to habaneros in heat. If you want the Salsa spicy, leave the seeds, otherwise, clean it following the previous explained method. If you are feeling daring, rub the chile between your palms, the same way you rub these while cold. This will amplify the heat, as the seeds will rub all over the chile’s insides. Chop the chile and put it inside the jar. Add the juice from the lime and the lemon together with the vinegar, salt and pepper. Cover the jar and shake well. Let it rest for one hour. This salsa is ideal for pork dishes, but is can be great on top of fish too.
I hope this post was helpful and let others experience chiles, no mater how spicy these are. ¡Buen Provecho!