Chiles, the Spice of Mexican Life

Chiles, along with corn and beans, are the foundation of Mexican cooking. Once I discovered more about the various types of chiles, I started adding them to all sorts of dishes and found they added a dimension of flavour that just wasn’t there before.

Welcome to the wonderful world of chiles…

In the market in Mascota these jalapeño chiles are at all different stages of ripeness

In the market in Mascota these jalapeño chiles are at all different stages of ripeness

First off, most chiles start off green and gradually turn yellow, then orange, then red and sometimes dark brown. Some chiles, such as jalapeños, are almost always sold when green, and others, like the habanero, are often orange. The riper they are the sweeter and hotter they are.

Chiles in Mexico have different names depending on whether they are fresh (fresco) or dried (seco). They are usually red or brown when they are dried, and sometimes the drying process involves smoking.

Chiles Poblanos / Chiles Anchos / Chiles Mulatos

(Chiles from the the town of Puebla)
Poblanos. chile poblano
chiles poblanos for sale

chiles poblanos baratos for sale

My favourite dish using chiles poblanos is ‘Chiles Rellenos‘ (Stuffed Chiles).

chiles rellenos

chiles rellenos

These particular chiles also find their way into sopa de milpa (garden soup) and other dishes where their mild but flavourful presence makes a great addition.

Another famous dish featuring chiles poblanos comes from Puebla, ‘Chiles en Nogadas’. Featuring the red (pomegranate seeds), green (chiles poblanos) and white (walnut sauce) of the Mexican flag, they are usually served during the Festival of Independence in September.


When ripened and sun-dried, chiles poblanos are known as ‘chiles anchos‘. They are slightly spicier and tastier than chiles poblanos. They are found in salsa roja along with red plum tomatoes and chiles guajillos. You’ll also find them in moles, those spice-laden Mexican sauces such as mole poblano.

mole poblano, also known as mole negro

mole poblano, also known as mole negro


These are a dried version of a different poblano chile. Picked when fully ripe they are brownish-black in colour and significantly hotter and sweeter. This type of poblano chile is always dried, and never sold fresh. Chiles Mulatos

1/2 of the 50 odd chiles used in our ‘simple’ Puebla-style mole that consisted of 15 chiles ancho, 12 chiles mulatos and 20 chiles chipotles, all with the seeds removed, and all ‘lightly’ fried in pork half of the 50-odd chiles needed for the mole poblano

Chiles Jalapeños / Chiles Chipotles

(Chiles from the the town of Jalapa)

chile jalapeño

If you only need a couple of jalapeños, and they’re sold in packages of 6 or 8 then I love to make stuffed jalapeño poppers with the extras. Port Townsend: Bacon-Wrapped Jalapeño Poppers at from Sirens Pub


When dried and smoked, jalapeños are known as ‘chipotles‘.

chipotles are often found in canned adobo sauce

chipotles are often found in canned adobo sauce, which could be described as one of those ‘secret’ ingredients where everyone wants to know what it is.

Chiles Guajillos

The dried version of the Mirasol chile, they have a dark red skin, are mildly picante and a slightly sweet earthy flavour.Chiles GuajillosThese chiles show up in many dishes – they seem to be the backbone of a lot of Mexican entrees. The skins are a little tougher than most chiles so they must be soaked, boiled, fried and otherwise mistreated in order to soften them up enough for dinner.

  • these Guajillo chiles were toasted in a hot dry pan, changing their colour and texture, and adding a toasted flavour. They were then deseeded and deveined. Because of the tough skins, they were soaked in boiling water for 15 minutes followed by another 10 minute soak in fresh water.
Boiling Charred Chiles

boiling toasted Guajillo chiles to soften the skins

Chiles Pasillas

These are dried chiles have a taste that is said to resemble raisins (pasas), hence their name. pasilla chileTheir slight sweetness makes them an absolutely essential ingredient in tortilla soup.Sopa Azteca topped with avocado at Vitamina T in Puerto Escondido, MexicoAnother real fave dish which uses these tasty chiles is Chiles capones. They are stuffed with cheese and a tomatillo salsa, and served in a creamy tomato salsa. ¡Qué rico!

Chiles Capones from my 'Cooking of Central Mexico' class

Chiles capones from Central Mexico


(Chiles from the the town of La Habana in Cuba)

These are said to be the hottest of the chiles but also the most flavourful – the best description I seen is, “think of a spicy peach”. These spicy chiles are popular in the Caribbean and the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico. Roasted habaneros are used as a side dish to Sopa de Lima, eastern Mexico’s version of Tortilla Soup. Another dish is Salsa Xnipec, a very simple spicy salsa cruda of habaneros, onion and lime juice which can be found in the Yucatán. orange Habanero chile

The riper (redder) the habaneros are, the hotter they are. 
Chiles for sale in the Merced Market in Mexico City

Chiles Serranos

(Chiles from the las sierras, the mountains)
chile serrano (a chile from the sierras)

chile serrano

These spicy little numbers are almost always sold fresh and green. They are a prime ingredient in salsa cruda but if they are a little too ‘picante’ for you substitute the (slightly) milder jalapeño.Salsa Cruda in Mexico

Chiles de arbol

Also highly spicy, the dried chile de arbol is a close relative of the cayenne pepper. chile de arbolIt is found in salsas and ‘escabeche‘, dishes cooked in a tangy vinegar broth. Tapas: sardinas en escabeche

Chile Piquín

I’m not sure if this is true but somehow it seems that the smaller they get the hotter they get. This tiny red pepper is added when you want to up level of heat. I could only find it in chile powder form here in Vancouver – can’t wait to get back down to Mexico to find some whole ones. Piquin Chile powder for PozoleWe used it to spice up Pozole, the Mexican version of pork and hominy soup. A bowl of pozoleMore about Travelling in Mexico and its Cuisine.

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