The appeal – sometimes the legend even – of some chillies is their monstrous heat. There are tales (true ones) of lunatic gastronomes frying up some entire Trinidad Moruga Scorpions or Butch T’s or Naga Vipers for a stew, having to wear full chemical suits while they cook, to prevent eye and lung injury. We see videos of chilli connoisseurs on their knees, reduced to fiery tears when sampling a Dorset Naga or a Carolina Reaper for the first time, their pride and their mouths melted away.
The Chiltepin’s appeal is different. Although it certainly has an exhilarating kick, comparable to many Habaneros (40,000 to 100,000 Scoville Heat Units, some tested samples registering as high as 265,000), the Chiltepin is a far more sensible chilli than the hottest there are, and can be enjoyed by a broader spread of people, iron gullets not required. Instead, the Chiltepin is a delightfully balanced chilli of delicious flavour and manageable ferocity.
The Chiltepin also has the perfect heritage. It’s a very, very special pepper. It is believed to be the parent of all domesticated chillies; the Chiltepin was most likely the planet’s first chilli. The word Tepin is from the Aztec Indians’ Nahuatl language. It means ‘little one’, or literally, ‘flea’ – tiny with a big kick.
According to the Capsicum Database, “most experts believe the Tepin, also called Chiltepin, is the original wild chile – the plant from which all others have evolved.” Given the vigour of the plant’s growth, and its established relationship with animals, the Chiltepin being the MotherPepper is imaginable. Shaped like a berry or a large pea, the Chiltepin is the favourite of wild birds, who chomp through the pods like there’s no tomorrow, then fly merrily around dropping seeds from their claws or in their feces. They thusly distributed Chiltepin across the prehistoric Americas. A beautiful and spicy symbiosis.
Originally cultivated in Mexico, Chiltepins still grow wild in Mexico, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico and are now used worldwide as a food and spice. Being so ancient and adored, the Chiltepin has collected pet names left, right and centre. To some it’s the Chile Tepin, Chiltepin, Chiltepine or just Tepin. Some prefer Bird Pepper. To others, Pequin, Piquin, Chile Mosquito, Chile de Pajaro, Chile Silvestre, or Tecpintle. You can call it Engelbert if you like, it will still remain one of the most loved and flavourful peppers. In 1995, Texans chose the Jalepeño as their official pepper. Only two years later, they got rid of that and installed the Chiltepin as their favourite instead. It has remained an official symbol of the State ever since.
The cute but capable Chiltepin goes a fair way in cooking. Don’t use too much at first, until you’re familiar with its heat level. Chiltepins are arguably the best chillies to use in Mexican dishes and soups like Pozole. Chiltepin gives chili, salsa, stews and salads a hearty warmth, and can be used fresh, dried or pickled.
In an effort to whet your appetite and convey the precise flavour of the Chitepin, here is what some taste-testers made of them: “Smoky, hot and rich”, “unique”, “the best of any chillies”, “more flavour than a Cayenne could ever have”, “distinct cinnamon flavour”, “strong, rich, slightly sweet”. I don’t know about you but I’m now thinking about a rather punchy thin-crust pizza – tomato, cheese, oregano, mushrooms, Chiltepin, olives. Oh dear, the salivation-inducing distractions of being a food writer…
The Chiltepin’s heat is interesting. Unlike most peppers, the Chiltepin’s spiciness hits the human mouth near-instantly, and will hold your undivided attention for 2 to 3 minutes, then leave you in peace and endorphins. In Mexico, the Chiltepin’s heat is called arrebatado (“rapid”, or “violent”, but also with a second meaning of “ecstatic”). They know the pungency is intense, but also pleasant and diminishes quickly. The hottest peppers on the other hand – the likes of the Trinidads and the 7-Pots – slowly build to a torturous burn that can last an hour. Not to mention the ‘afterburn’ at your other end.
A ring of fire or not, chillies are phenomenally good for us. Chiltepins and other hot peppers stimulate the metabolism. They fight cancer. They help diabetics. They are vitamin-rich and contain immune-boosting antioxidants. They reduce cholesterol… click on the “Benefits of Peppers” header of our website for the comprehensive rundown of the amazing and reassuring things they can do for us mere mortals.