Flavoring Your Fiestas: A Guide to Spicy Mexican Food
Many Mexican dishes are known for their extensive range of mild to intense heat. While this prevalence of spice may be due to the easy access to hot chile peppers, it may also provide a way to increase sweat production, thus cooling down the body in an otherwise tropical climate.
But where does that essential spice come from? In this article, we will explore the types of peppers that bring the heat in spicy Mexican food as well as the other unique spices and herbs that characterize the distinct flavor profile of traditional Mexican cuisine.
What Makes Mexican Food Spicy?
Like in some other types of cuisine (including Chinese and Thai dishes), many Mexican dishes pull their signature heat from the inclusion of various hot peppers. Not all peppers are created equal though, with each one bringing its own unique flavor and intensity to the food.
Jalapeños are probably the first pepper that comes to mind when you think of spicy Mexican food. These peppers contain the active ingredient capsaicin, which gives them their fiery flavor and may also have some anti-inflammatory properties. You will find the majority of a pepper’s capsaicin in its seeds and pith rather than the actual flesh. This is why many authentic Mexican recipes leave the seeds in the jalapeños rather than removing them. For premium sweet potato chips with a spicy kick, try Jackson's Spicy Jalapeño flavor.
Hailing from Puebla, Mexico, poblano peppers are a slightly more mild pepper compared to jalapeños. However, the intensity of their heat does depend on different factors, including their ripeness. Green, unripe peppers (which is how they normally appear in most dishes) are typically less spicy than their red, ripened counterparts.
The habanero pepper is one of the hottest among the chile peppers, with more than 100 times the heat of a jalapeño. On top of that heat, though, rests a plethora of other flavors, including a distinct freshness along with floral and even fruity tastes that make it a perfect base for sauces and salsas alike. If you are a snacker who can’t get enough heat, try our new Habanero Nacho sweet potato chips.
Chile de Árbol
Though not as fiery as the habanero, árbol peppers do exceed their poblano and jalapeño brethren in the spice race. Notably slender and small with a deep, red hue, these peppers bring both a smokiness and a sweetness to any dish. Be careful not to burn them though, as this can quickly turn their unique, pleasant flavor toward the bitter side.
Other Unique Mexican Flavors
But heat is not the only defining flavor in traditional Mexican dishes. Mexican cuisine has a unique flavor profile characterized by the use of various herbs and spices as well.
The name “achiote” actually refers to the seeds of the annatto tree, native to the Caribbean, Central and South America, and, of course, Mexico. Often, the seeds are ground up into achiote paste, which is then used to provide a vibrant reddish-brown color to various dishes including stews and sauces. The paste has a sweet, earthy flavor that pairs well with citrus.
Another spice with a distinctly earthy though bitter flavor, cumin is the seed of a Mediterranean plant. It gets along well with the various chiles you often find in many Mexican dishes. This spice, however, does not show up as frequently in traditional Mexican cuisine as it does in the Tex-Mex varieties.
The flavor profile for a number of Mexican dishes relies heavily on the use of garlic, whether fresh or in powder form. You might find it working in tandem with onion powder in salsas, taco seasoning, rice, and even soups or stews.
Epazote is an herb that grows in Mexico as well as Central and South America. Its flavor profile is pungent, featuring an aromatic mix of anise, citrus, mint, and oregano. Though it may sometimes be utilized in sauces, epazote is most commonly incorporated as a seasoning for black and pinto beans due to its gas-relieving qualities.
Though it is easy to confuse the two, Mexican Oregano is very different from Mediterranean Oregano. The Mexican variety of this spice has a much more citrus-y flavor alongside the usual grassy, earthy taste. It makes a great addition to taco seasonings, stews, and chilis.
Mexican Bay Leaves
This herb comes from an evergreen shrub native to Mexico. Though they are known for their herbal and floral flavors, the leaves are also slightly bitter in a similar way to Mexican Oregano. You may find them mainly in soups, stews, and broths.
Thanks to its aromatic qualities, cilantro naturally pairs with and highlights the flavors present in many Mexican dishes. It has found its way into becoming a traditional taco topping as well as an addition to the seasoning used on various types of both meat and seafood.
Popular Examples of Spicy Mexican Food
If you’re feeling brave enough to take your tastebuds on a fiery adventure, check out this short list of some of the best and spiciest dishes Mexican cuisine has to offer!
Chiles rellenos is a delicious dish consisting of poblano peppers stuffed with either meat, cheese, or both. Some may be breaded and deep fried while others are served with a tomato and onion sauce. Though poblano peppers are notoriously on the mild side, on occasion you can run into one with rather intense heat. So, every time you eat chiles rellenos, remember that you’re essentially playing a game of pepper roulette and might end up with a burning tongue!
If you need a dose of spice to wake you up in the morning, look to one of Mexico’s most famous breakfast foods: chilaquiles. This dish contains fried or toasted strips of corn tortilla (also known as totopos), smothered in either a red or green salsa, and sometimes served up with eggs, cheese, or shredded chicken. Depending on the peppers used in the salsa, chilaquiles can be whipped up as either a mild or a spicy dish according to your own taste preferences.
Mole refers to a family of sauces that are extremely common in Mexican cuisine. The sauce is most often used as a dressing for different meats. Just like other Mexican staples, mole can be either spicy or mild depending on the heat of the chile peppers used to make it. You can utilize the various types of mole to bring a smoky, spicy flavor to rice, chicken, enchiladas, and much more!
If you are into epic flavors, check out Jackson's Epic Flavor Variety Pack which features both Spicy Jalapeño and Habanero Nacho Sweet Potato chips!