Human Flower Project

Chiltepin - Tongues on the Scales

Each of the Southwest’s native chilis has its day in the sun; pull over for chiltepin.


Jack Tobar collected tiny, jolting chiltepins after work

September 18, 2010, Austin, Texas.

Photo: Human Flower Project

A gentle knock.

Two passers-by had come to the door asking permission to pick the tiny chilis from bushes on our corner, just what happened a year ago.  Chiltepin season is upon us in Central Texas. Jack Tobar and a friend had knocked off work and caught sight of the tiny “bird peppers” (so called because birds like them and sow them, too). With our blessing, the two men spent a good half hour harvesting from five Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum plants and were off, we hope, for an evening muy piquante.

This spice is a favorite among lots of Mexican, Mexican-American, and South Texas cooks, though Tobar’s pickin-partner, who declined to give his name, said the chilis don’t taste good alone. He recommended making a simple salsa by crushing the chiltepins in a mortar with red and green tomatoes and a pinch of salt. It’s delicious, he said, on tacos, eggs, meat – just about anything that could use a bit of a kick.


Jack Tobar picks chiltepins for a seasonal hot sauce, 9/18/2010, Austin, TX

Photo: Human Flower Project

These days, however, we find it better to get our kicks otherwise. Since red pepper and even too much salt seem to induce ashtray-mouth, we’re only too happy to see these chiltepins ride off into the sunset with folks who’ll enjoy them.

A bit more oral fixation: the chiltepin is often confused with chili piquin. Though Mr. Tobar and his companion shrugged off the distinction, others may be interested to learn the differences between the two: Chiltepin is rounder and a bit smaller, more like a bright orange berry, whereas chili pequin produces slightly elongated little chilies.

imageThese bushes of Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum were pruned nearly to the ground in Feburary. They’ve come back strong.

Photo: Human Flower Project

According to wiki, “In Mexico, the heat of the Chiltepin is called arrebatado (“rapid” or “violent”), because, while the heat is intense, it is not very enduring. This stands in contrast to the Chili Piquin, which is somewhat similar in size and shape to the Chiltepin, but delivers a decidedly different experience. Piquins are not as hot as Chiltepins (only about 30,000-50,000 Scoville Units), but they have a much slower and longer-lasting effect.”

The Scoville scale (news to us) was developed specifically to grade the spicy-hotness of chilis: chemically speaking, this is the effect of their capsaicin content on human membranes. Sweet bell peppers, which contain none of this prickling chemical, score 0 on the Scoville scale. Law enforcement grade pepper spray measures 5,000,000. Jalapenos are in the 2,500-8,000 range, and Chiltepins? They measure as ten times hotter than jalapenos – somewhere between 50,000-100,000. It’s a rather intriguing unit of measurement – objective, in that it’s an exact dilution of “capsaicin oil from a measured amount of dried pepper” but subjective, in that it’s based on the level of dilution at which tasters feel the heat. Read more about it here.

With our singed taste buds, we won’t be volunteering for a Scoville panel nor will we be trying any of these recipes. But we hope you will—the one from Guyana, with brown sugar, lime and soy sauce, sounds especially tempting.

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