Mexican Chile Seco – Peppers with a Punch – Part II

Chili Seco is a confusing name as it is both specific and generic. Being a Jalapian puts us smack dab in the center of a number of like controversies; spelling and designation opinions abound. Is it Chili, Chilli, or Chile – What kind of chili is a chili seco chile? – Is the chilli a fruit or vegetable? – Is it Xalapa or Jalapa? I am going to try and sort out some of this.

How do you spell this all important pepper? The three primary spellings are chili, chile and chilli, all of which are recognized by dictionaries. Spelled as “Chile” got the most Google hits, but then that included the country. Around here it is most often spelled chili, but Anita thinks it is most often chile. Already confused? Read on.

Then there is the oft asked question, “What kind of chilies are chili seco peppers?” This is at least as confusing as the spellings. Many assume it is a chipotle pepper. The closest I can come to an authoritative answer is the chili seco peppers we buy here are a varietal of Veracruzan jalapeño chiles; thus falling under one of the confusing roster of names. It is not a chipotle pepper. The dried and smoked chipotle chilies appear smaller and drier. Chipotle chilies are available for sale at the same stores and mercados as the chili seco peppers, distinctly different. However, I have it on good authority both varietals origin is the jalapeño pepper.

Author, restaurateur and star chef Patricia Qunitana was quoted in an interview saying after being asked, “What defines the cooking of Veracruz?” She answers in part, “Veracruz is a very, very important region for our culture…dishes of the north are based on chiles: chile ancho, chile seco, chipotle meco, which are smoked like chipotles, but larger. Traditionally they’re dried on top of the stove, but now they have smokers…” Now we have it on good authority “chili seco” is not synonymous with chipotle chilies, but again they both do start off as jalapeño peppers.

Fruit or Vegetable?
Chili seco is a type of pepper which is considered a Capsicum.

Capsicum is a genus of plants from the nightshade family (Solanaceae).

The scientific definition of a fruit is any structure that develops from a fertilized ovary and contains seeds of the plant.

A vegetable is defined as “a plant cultivated for an edible part, such as the root of the beet, the leaf of spinach, or the flower buds of broccoli or cauliflower”

So, the answer is  jalapeño is a fruit scientifically and a vegetable to the rest of the world. Like the tomato this issue remains on the table.

We’ll settle the Xalapa – Jalapa spelling controversy another time – oh sure.

So the chili seco pepper we will use in our sauce or salsa is a dried jalapeño pepper. That chili seco pepper is a fruit and we live in the Xalapa area (my spelling and I am sticking to it).

Before we start cooking lets clear the air on the dangers of preparing chili seco. If you have a mask left over from the recent swine flu outbreak get it. The acrid smoke from preparing chili seco sauce can be likened to being assaulted with pepper spray. I mean this smoke is tear jerking, air grasping overall gaspingly wicked stuff!

Don’t Let This Smoke Get in your Eyes.

We prepare our chili seco out of doors. Many here in the Hood make it in the cocina (kitchen) – this is essentially a death wish. Even out of doors the fumes can be over powering. I mentioned last time that in Merida it is illegal to prepare chili seco. I am going to assume here this is in a commercial sense.

I have a series of DVD’s from the PBS Rick Bayless cooking show “One Plate at a Time.” In the accompanying literature one review includes, “Burning of chiles for recado negro produces a smoke so acrid that nowadays the process is banned within Mérida city limits. In fact, for a full week after initial preparations for the Bayless visit, Chef David suffered from a persistent and nagging cough. The worst smoke comes from the small chile seco yucateco, which resembles the chile de arbol. The problem can be avoided almost completely by using chile ancho, which produces much less of the toxic smoke and also contributes a sweeter taste to the finished recado.”

I am here to attest to the toxicity of the activity of preparing chili seco even on a small scale. Burning eyes and gasping for breath will be part of the activity unless one is very, very cautious. Is it worth risking life and lungs to make this dark rich sauce? We will find out more about this and continue to the cooking lesson next. Stay Tuned!

  • American Mommy in Mexico

    I had no idea. An Art Form!

  • Jonna

    Los Dos is about a half block from my house, I haven’t smelled him making chilmole yet but if the wind were right I probably could.

    Chilmole is a staple in Yucateco food and it is pitch black and has a wonderful taste. On my first encounter I was leery of trying it because I assumed it was made from squid ink. Silly me, but it is that black.

    I’ve always wondered about your chile seco because that just means dry chile and to me it didn’t say which chile was used. Now I think I understand that it is a chile jalapeño prepared in a certain way. Perhaps it is very similar to our chilmole? Here’s the recipe for chilmole from the Los Dos site. Chilmole

  • Todd McIntosh

    My favorite chilies are the chili peron. They look like a small orange bell pepper but can pack quite the kick.
    I get the impression they are not that common outside of Michoacan. Have you run across them in your neck of the woods?


  • John Calypso

    Jonna, recado negro is more of a thick black paste where as chili seco is like a thick oil or gravy. They are similar. Checkout the next installment for more info.

  • bj

    Jonna, thanks for the link to the Chilmole recipe.

    Looks like something else to put on the list of “make this someday.”

    In the recipe I noted the use of the word “ash”, and wonder if that word was supposed to be “mash”, which is the word used for pureed pepper pulp with seeds in many “pepper sauce” recipes.

  • John Calypso

    BJ – The chilmole or recado negro is a Merida specialty. Rellenos negro or black stuffing. It is made black from the carbon or ash, burnt chilies, – it always includes an egg and comes out like a slab or meatloaf (in this case turkey or pork).

    It is different from chili seco Jonna – so stay tuned.

  • islagringo

    Mmmm. Since I have no facilities for preparing this outdoors, I guess I will have to settle for eating some made by others.

  • Jonna

    The chilmole is usually used in a kind of relleno dish with boiled egg and ground turkey that does resembles a black sauced meatloaf. The chilmole itself though is a paste that can be used in many ways. I prefer it as a marinade on poultry or pork but it is often just diluted with stock and used as a thick broth with either turkey or just veggies and boiled egg.

    Yes, the ash they refer to is the ash from the burnt chiles, they give the sauce the jet black color.

  • John Calypso

    Yes sorry I wasn’t clear on the recado negro. It can be bought in the Merida Mercado; displayed in basketball size and larger balls in bowls – they pull off the appropriate amount like soft clay. It is good smeared on German bread ;-) Chili seco is a bit different – I like it better personally.

    Islagringo – don’t give up on making it. It could be done on a gas barbecue or find a friend with an outside cooking situation.

  • Jonna

    Me? I really want to try the Chile Seco described here. While I like chilmole, it isn’t a favorite of mine and I rarely order it if I have a choice. I still think the color puts me off, it is so identified in my mind with squid ink sauces and those I definitely do NOT like. I love all moles though, the red and the black from Oaxaca and the green from wherever it comes from. So, I imagine I would love Veracruzano chile seco.

    One point, I don’t think there is anything in Spanish that uses the spelling chili – that’s a Texas and New Mexico spelling… Tex-Mex sort of. I think of it as referring to the stew type mix of meat, beans (or no beans) and chili’s + spices.

  • Anonymous

    So, to clarify…the veracruzan “chile seco” is a dried chile jalapeño.
    The chipotle chile is a dried SMOKED chile jalapeño (or said another way, a smoked chile seco!).
    Chipotles can be purchased either dried, or canned, usually in adobe sauce (mild red chile sauce).
    How versatile the jalapeño! ….Or should that be xalapeño????

  • John Calypso

    Anonymous – jalapeño can be stuffed for chili rellenos and many other dishes. I would say yes to your summation – one person that worked in a jalapeño processing plant confirmed they were both from jalapeños but unclear on whether the chile seco was smoked (which would essentially make them the same thing) – it is confusing. At the moment I know where to get terrific chilies to make chile seco ;-)