Steamy primal jungles, throbbing with life, gave rise to some of the world’s most beloved culinary jewels. From the Amazon Basin, up through Central America, southern Mexico and eventually the Caribbean, ancient tropical rain forests offered up an exotic bounty found nowhere else on earth, including sweet potatoes, pumpkins, cashews, papaya, avocados, cocoa, vanilla, and over twenty-five species of wild chile peppers.
Found in an abundant array of jewel-tone colors, such as emerald, ruby and amethyst, chile peppers have been a culinary mainstay in the Americas for over 9000 years, and they were domesticated by native peoples about 6000 years ago, making chile peppers one of the first and oldest cultivated crops in the Western Hemisphere. Used extensively by all Mesoamerican cultures, and beyond, every meal included chiles—they were used fresh, dried, smoked or roasted, chopped, whole or ground. However, the ancients’ reverence for chile peppers went far beyond the culinary to a spiritual and cultural context as well.
The medicinal use of chile peppers dates as far back as the Mayas and Aztecs. They were used for a variety of ailments, including asthma, colds, and for pain relief. A religious practice, similar to that of Europeans, required fasting and penance, which in Aztec society meant that everyone must abstain from salt and chiles. In addition, the Aztecs used chile smoke as a fumigant and as a form of chemical warfare, probably very similar to today’s pepper-spray.
Chipotle, a smoke-dried jalapeño, was an early form of food preservation that originated in Mesoamerica, centuries before the rise of the Aztecs. Unlike most chile peppers, the jalapeño’s thick flesh would not dry properly in the sun, so they adapted a smoke-drying process they used to preserve meat. However, the name for this flavor-packed chile does come from the Aztec word, chilpoctli, meaning smoked chile.
With the rise of the Aztec empire, chiles, including chipotle, began to play a prominent role in trade and at royal ceremonies. At an Aztec banquet, described by Alonso de Molina in 1571, chipotle was used in a ceremonial sauce that consisted of a thick mixture of chiles, tomatoes, nuts, pumpkinseeds, spices, chocolate and cornmeal. Served with venison, fowl and seafood, the dish had been prepared exclusively for the emperor and his guests. Traditionally, before an Aztec meal was served, guests were offered flowers, which they rubbed on their head, hands and neck, and then each guest would drop a little food on the floor as an offering to the god Tlaltecuhtli. In describing this particular event, Molina coined the term “salsa,” although the Aztec word for the ceremonial sauce was actually molli, meaning concoction or stew. Over the centuries, variations of this ancient recipe evolved into two distinct categories: molé and salsa.
At the height of the Aztec empire, chipotle, along with other chiles, Macaw feathers, jade, turquoise, seashells, salt, corn, cotton and beans, were a favored item of trade as far north as the American southwest and as far east as the Caribbean, where, in 1492, Christopher Columbus stumbled onto the New World. Though hoping to find India, Columbus had found instead a lush paradise with strange, exotic plants, including a fiery pod he named pimiento, or pepper, after the completely unrelated black pepper. Although there is evidence that European mariners discovered the New World and chile peppers as early as the 13th century, it wasn’t until after Columbus arrived that chile peppers began to spread throughout Europe, India, Central Asia and the Far East. Historical records indicate that on his second voyage, in 1493, Columbus’ physician, Diego Alvarez Chanca, brought the first chile peppers back to Spain, and most likely chipotle, which would have faired well on the long voyage home. In 1494, Chanca wrote the first dissertation on the medicinal benefits of chile peppers.
Over the next century, the Spice Trade helped to spread the cultivation and popularity of chile peppers to almost every continent on the globe, giving rise to some of our most enduring ethnic cuisine, such as curry, kimchi, and Kung Pao chicken. Chiles were used as medicine and food in the American Colonies, and by the Victorian era, curry was all the rage in both Europe and America.
Interestingly, although dried red peppers are often used in ethnic cuisine, for the most part, chipotle has remained uniquely Mexican. To this day, Mexican food is based primarily on Aztec and Mayan tradition, and it is considered second only to Chinese cuisine in terms of complexity and history. Known for its intense flavor and colorful presentation, the heart and soul of Mexican cuisine remains the chile pepper.
Until recently, chipotles were almost exclusively found in the markets of central and southern Mexico. However, in the late 1980s, as Mexican food became more popular in the United States, jalapeño production and processing began to move into northern Mexico and the American southwest. Today, chipotle can be purchased in the US in many different forms, as a powder, pod, paste, sauce or salsa, and it has become a favorite of many celebrity chefs.
Once again, the wisdom of the ancients has prevailed. The medicinal benefits of chile peppers seem without end, and all forms continue to grow in popularity, in particular, the richly complex and earthy chipotle. But not all chile peppers are created equal. At Pfleider Pfoods, chipotle is their singular focus, their enduring passion. They are dedicated to preserving the quality and unmatched flavor characteristics of pure, authentic chipotle, and they are confident that it will remain a culinary favorite for the next thousand years.