Chiles of Mexico: Chiltepín

“Rich, what’s a burro?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a large burrito?”

We decide to test our powers of deduction and stop at a comedor by the side of the winding road between Hermosillo and Agua Prieta. This will be our “last supper” in Mexico, and I want something special. I have a good feeling about this place: bright cardboard signs tacked to the hut-like exterior advertise burros, queso fresco, jerky, and salsa chiltepín . I don’t know what salsa chiltepín  is, but any place that makes its own cheese has a leg up in my book.

Partially open to the air, the restaurant has a cheery feel. Saddle tack and horse shoes hang from the bamboo walls, oil cloth covers the tables, a gaudily gorgeous picture of San Judas de Tadeo presides over us, and a glass case is crammed with religious paraphernalia, old bits of ironwork, antlers, candlesticks, and glass jars filled with…something.

I’m peering into the case when the proprietor emerges from the smoky black hole of the kitchen. I spring back to the table: I’m starving and I don’t want to delay the ordering.

I’m not surprised to discover there’s no written menu. Our options are tacos de cabeza or burros de machaca. We are still not exactly sure what burros are, but we order three anyway, along with a slab of queso fresco.

While we wait for the arrival of the mysterious burros, I ask to use the bathroom and the proprietor ushers me out back, where I find a yard surrounded by a neat stick fence. The compound contains a pila, a wood stove, flowers potted in painted cans, a flowering tree, a clean cement bathroom, and a tidy corral where a horse and two burros munch on fresh hay. Hopefully not those burros…

Back at the table our burros have arrived. On each plate I am pleased to see a large  flour tortilla loosely rolled around an ample quantity of spiced, shredded pork, or machaca. The homemade tortilla is lightly charred and chewy, and the whole meal has the pleasant smoky taste of food cooked over firewood.

Perhaps even more interesting is the selection of salsa: a plastic squirt bottle contains a red salsa, and a jar contains a lumpy green salsa–all well and good. But then there’s something I’ve never seen before: a round glass jar full of tiny balls that look like large red peppercorns. Another jar holds the same balls, but pickled. We are also offered a tiny wooden mortar and pestle, which I assume is for grinding the “peppercorns.”

I realize that the contents of the jars match the jars in the sale case, and of course I have to ask about it. As is so often the case in rural Mexico, the woman seems surprised at my question. As in, really, you are not familiar with one of the staples of my life? They do not serve chiltepín at Applebees? Whaa? What the hell is wrong with you gringos? Next thing I know you will tell me that you don’t know how to make a decent tortilla or put shoes on a horse. After recovering from the shock, she graciously explains that chiltepín are tiny wild chiles that grow in the sierra. Every year she harvests them for pickling and salsa, a painstaking process because they are so tiny.

The dried chiltepín do indeed taste a bit like pepper, only spicier and wilder. The pickled variety have a tang that contrasts nicely with the charred flavor of the homemade flour tortillas and the sweetness of the queso fresco.

Later I look up chiltepín in my indispensable copy of Diana Kennedy’s From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients. I find the following:

“Chile Piquín o Chiltepín: There is as yet an uncounted number of minute chiles, domesticated from wild plans, found throughout Mexico. They can be round, like some in the northern areas, triangular, oval, or tubular. All have a shiny, smooth skin, mid- to blackish green in color ripening to brilliant red. They pack a lot of concentrated heat and their flavor varies slightly with soil and climatic conditions. Some plants produce fruits the year round while others are seasonal, and these chiles are used both fresh and dried.”

Two culinary mysteries solved in one day. Not bad.




16 Responses to “Chiles of Mexico: Chiltepín”

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  1. Tina Rosa says:

    God, I could taste those slightly charred flour tortillas!
    Great pix!

  2. BC says:

    Your pictures really captures the feel of the restaurant.

    It sounds like you got a mild and very favorable chiltepín. I’d just like to add, since this is a pepper that I grow at home, that some chiltepíns can be much more intense than a jalapeno, yet they seem to have a shorter duration, in regard to the burn.

    • churpa says:

      Do these look the same? The ones pictured in the Diana Kennedy book look nothing like the ones we ate, but she did say that they vary greatly in appearance. Now that you mention it, I think I may have downplayed the burn a little.

      • BC says:

        They look the same, to me. I think the longer they dry the milder they get.
        If you found a milder tepin with more flavor, then looks like I need to mark that on the map, I want some to grow! I’m a big fan of peppers but not of burn, just flavor. If you like peppers with flavor, then I suggest that you try the not yet ripe, still a little green, yellow Aji [South American pepper] which has a unique citrus flavor, to me. The fully ripe ones are very Hot, so avoid unless you like burn. I also love smoked peppers in salsa and the mild chilaca peppers with everything.

        I hope you post about your queso fresco finds.

        • churpa says:

          It sounds like we are on the same page when it comes to chiles. I have a pretty high tolerance to spicy (though I’m afraid I don’t rival my dad on that count), but I def. don’t go in for the machismo of eating a chile just because it is hot. I’m definitely in it for the flavor. Incidentally these chiles were on Highway 17, somewhere past Moctezuma. The restaurant was called, tellingly “Restaurante Comida Regional.”

          Cheese…hmm…As it so happens there was one notable cheese incident that I’ve been meaning to look into further…I should have kept notes on all the cheese though, now that you mention it.

          • BC says:

            Thanks for the location info! Hope you come up with the cheese article.

            Your article got me off searching about artisanal Mexican cheese, came across this interesting Summer recipe using tepins and cheese, looks good.


            (cucumber filled with white onions, aged manchego cheese, piquin hot pepper, lime juice and pineaple vinegar)

          • BC says:

            Wish there was a way to edit posts? Guess I will just need to let them set awhile before posting.

  3. -el codo- says:

    Oh Yeah! Super story and images Churpa! The adeptness the improvisation of rural authentic cocineros is a great part of my love of those roadside enramadas! I still gasp in near hysterical laughter at those PG stories of Carl and Steve and Steve’s preoccupation with demands of ending hunger pangs while sitting in a restaurant holding a knife and fork! You obviously have inherited dominant dining genes from your papa! Can’t wait for more of this…

  4. Lorena says:

    Thanks Churpa for yet another great article. And wonderful pictures. Makes me wish, yet again, that there was a little comidor just around the corner.

    As far as I know, Chiltepín is the name used for little wild chiles, throughout Mexico. The ones that Dona Mica served us in Batopilas, in the Copper Canyon, were scalding. And we still have a small jar of pickled ones Carl brought back home from Tepoztlan a couple years ago.

    BC: Since you grow your own Chiltepíns, do you have a recipe or two that you would share with us?

    • BC says:

      I use them in everything, so no favorite recipes. I did look for one I remembered and thought I had downloaded where they are incorporated into jams. The chef said something about using them to add vibrant specks of color and a bit of depth[heat. spice] to counteract some of a jam’s sweetness. The other one that I found that looks interesting is the one I posted in a reply to Churpa above, using cucumbers and queso and is said to be a favorite in León

      • churpa says:

        I need to try that this summer…I’m going to remind Rich to plant cucumbers now…

      • Lorena says:

        Just put a cucumber on my shopping list. Garden cucumbers are months away. Won’t be making my own vinegar either ;-(

  5. Gabino says:

    FWIW, restaurants and shops around Tomatlan sell jars of pickled local tiny chiles.

  6. churpa says:

    “Our regional cookbooks confirm “burros” are indeed a larger version of “burritos” in Arizona and surrounding areas. The “ito” suffix denotes a smaller version of the original item.” From food timeline. Thanks to a reader for the link…

  7. noland says:

    I sell Chiltepin if any one needs some @chiltepintx