A rare smoked chilli from the mountains of Oaxaca
The chile pasilla de Oaxaca—or ‘little raisin’ chilli of Oaxaca province in central Mexico—is grown in a mountainous region northeast of Oaxaca City by the indigenous Mixe people who, at altitudes of 2,200 metres, produce everything from maize and squash, to plantain and sugar cane. At the centre of the region lies Juquila—which is where these special chillies are produced.
“They grow the chillies on the hillsides, where the air is cool and the humidity high. They get fogs up there!” explains Dodie Miller, founder of the Cool Chile Co, one of few purveyors of this rare chilli outside of Mexico. “The growing and drying process are kept quite secret, as it is a main source of income for them”—what we do know is, once ripened to a deep red colour (“some are picked when green to be eaten in salsa, but mostly they’re left to mature”), the chillies are hand-picked and smoked.
“They need to smoke-dry them, because the humidity in the air won’t allow them to dry on their own.” To do this, they put the chillies on a mesh frame raised over a very low, gentle fire, and turn them as they dry. “They will do this for a couple of days, or until they think it is enough.”
The chillies are then taken to Oaxaca City market to be sold. But there are logistical difficulties—namely, getting them to market from the mountain top along a long, windy road—and production is small scale: hence the expense.
Those that aren’t sold at the market are often made into a traditional paste called chintextle, which involves toasting and soaking the chillies, then blending them with pumpkin seeds, garlic and dried shrimp. “They spread it on everything,” says Dodie—typically a large, thin, crunchy tortilla known as ‘tlayuda’. The larger chillies are reserved for stuffing, “usually with something like picadillo, a savoury sweetmeat mixture, but you could also stuff them with potato and cheese, or rice with vegetables—the light, gentle smoke flavour and moderate heat make them perfect for this. It’s delicious.”
Equally, a whole chile pasilla de Oaxaca can simply be added to a soup or stew. “Drop it in, then remove it when the heat and smokiness are just right for you—it’s brilliant in a seafood or tomato soup.” Dodie also likes to make a simple paste, known as salsa negra.
“It is normally made with chipotle but with pasilla de Oaxaca, it is divine,” she continues. “The texture of this amazing stuff is like gochujang, and you can just put little dollops into everything: soups, stews, dressings, mix it with mayo. It really is yummy.”