Getting to the Heart of Mexico, One Chile at a Time

The fruity chile odor filled my nostrils as I took a sip of the mezcal that Juana Amaya Hernandez had poured for me. I was drinking it out of a chile de agua, a large lime-colored chile local to Oaxaca, its rim dipped in homemade sal de gusano, a spice made with ground agave worms, and it tickled my tongue with its tinny flavor. “This is how we drink mezcal in the countryside,” Ms. Hernandez said.

My friends and I were in the courtyard of a restaurant in the sleepy Oaxacan town of Zimatlán de Álvarez, on a lip-burning two-week trip to get to the heart of Mexican chiles. We were the guests of Ms. Hernandez, 67, a stout woman wearing thick glasses, a colorful dress and earrings made of strings of dried blue-corn kernels. Once a criminal lawyer, Ms. Hernandez had changed course to spend her days at her restaurant, Mi Tierra Linda, steeped in her grandmothers’ recipes.

I spend my days documenting war crimes for Human Rights Watch in Ukraine. But I spend my free time on food — cooking, reading about it, watching TV shows about it and planning trips around it. After grueling trips to the front line, with days spent interviewing dozens of victims of the worst abuses that wars foster, I know I can come home to Kyiv and find some relief in the kitchen, preparing food infused with love, as Ms. Hernandez does.

In 2018, my husband and I visited the Mexican hill town of San Miguel de Allende, where we discovered a museum housing a staggering collection of ceremonial masks. The museum owner said he had traveled to every corner of the country to witness the ceremonies they were used in and then buy them for the museum.

His story inspired me. I had an upcoming three-month sabbatical, a break that Human Rights Watch gives all employees for every seven years of work. I knew food would be part of that chance to recharge, so I began to plan my own journey through Mexico, following not masks but chiles.

Guajillo chiles being prepared at La Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana, a culinary school in Mexico City.Credit…Adrian Wilson for The New York Times

The warm-up

One of my earliest food memories is biting into a Chinese noodle dish at a fair in Zurich, where I grew up, and bursting into tears because of the burn. For years, I avoided spicy food. But in my early 20s, I decided enough was enough. So I began to force myself to eat chiles to learn how to handle the heat.

And once I could stand the burn, I began to taste thrilling flavors that had been hiding behind the spice: fruity, sour, bitter, bright or smoky notes, sometimes in stages, sometimes all at once.

Students preparing venorio, a stew from Durango, at La Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana, where the writer enrolled in a two-week intensive culinary course in Mexican cuisine last February, hoping to learn more about chiles and to pick up some Spanish.Credit…Adrian Wilson for The New York Times

I finally made it back to Mexico last February. I enrolled in a two-week intensive culinary course at La Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana in Mexico City. I aimed both to pick up some Spanish (I was starting at near zero) and to find experts to help me map out my tour through three chile-rich states: Puebla, Veracruz and Oaxaca. I made plans to travel with a few adventurous friends, heeding tips from people in Mexico City and the U.S. State Department’s current advice to “exercise increased caution” in those regions because of the risk of crime in all three states as well as the risk of kidnapping in Puebla.

In class, I quickly realized I still had a lot to learn. On the first day, when my professor was explaining a recipe we would be making with dried chipotle chiles, I asked him whether any recipes ever call for fresh chipotles. “You mean jalapeños?” he replied. My cheeks went as red as a ripe mirasol chile. I was the only one in the class who had not known that chiles often have different names when they’re fresh and when they’re dry.

Leopoldo Ramirez, a farmer near the village of Juárez Coronaco, in Puebla state, with a crop of freshly germinated poblano chiles. They will not be ready to pick and eat until July or August.Credit…Belkis Wille

The fleeting poblano

We drove south into the heart of chile country, seeking a Mexican classic: the poblano. In a greenhouse near Juárez Coronaco, a village northeast of Puebla, we met Leopoldo Ramirez, 58, a tall man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a belt with a metal cow’s head on the buckle, and Jessica Andrade, 42, who helps run the farmers’ cooperative Guardianes de Calpan. Polo, as Mr. Ramirez is known, is one of Puebla’s top producers of poblanos — a chile created, Ms. Andrade explained, in the 18th century by Franciscan monks who crossbred local chilaca chiles with morrones (bell peppers) from Asia. The result is a fatter, oblong chile that’s less spicy, with a grassy flavor.

Mr. Ramirez explained that “real” poblanos are germinated in February but aren’t ready to pick and eat until July or August, so if you have ever eaten fresh poblanos outside of those two months, they are impostors. Up to 80 percent of the poblanos being consumed in Mexico were grown in China with pesticides, Mr. Ramirez and Ms. Andrade said, resulting in thicker-skinned chiles that lack the true poblano flavor, much of which comes from Puebla’s volcanic soil. The importance of these chiles in this region cannot be overstated: Men with guns have come in the night around harvest time to load up trucks with stolen produce, Mr. Ramirez said.

If you’re unable to visit Puebla during that small summer window, you can enjoy real poblanos only in their dried form, as either ancho or mulato. But, Mr. Ramirez said, contradicting my culinary professors and internet research, you don’t know whether you’ll get the dark red,slightly bitter ancho or the richer, chocolaty brown mulato until the chile has a chance to lie out in the sun and shrivel.

The next day I went from stall to stall in Puebla’s food market, asking if anyone had poblano seeds for sale (Mr. Ramirez had germinated all of his and had none to share), in the hope that I might be able to take some seeds with me and grow them in Kyiv. Time and again I was told all I could find were seeds from China, and eventually I gave up my search with a disappointing thought: I had never tasted a real poblano, and most likely never would. Its ephemeral nature, I realized, is what makes the poblano so special.

Specialties cooked by Ms. Soledad include, clockwise from left, chicken in a mole de rancho, roasted jalapeños, a salsa of roasted jalapeño, and tortillas dusted with toasted, dried chiltepin powder and doused in manteca, or lard.Credit…Adrian Wilson for The New York Times

The precious chiltepin

The mist that Veracruz locals call chipi-chipi was rising above the intricately carved terraced temples and grass-covered ruins of El Tajín, once one of the largest and most important cities of Mesoamerica. Down a small path about five minutes away, we found Martha Soledad, one of the most renowned cooks of Mexican traditional cuisine and the founder of Mujeres de Humo, a Veracruz female cooks’ collective, waiting for us in a thatched hut with a kitchen.

Bright green and red chiltepin chiles, small and beadlike, stood out on a table of ingredients that included pumpkins, cherry tomatoes and other chiles, including árbol and red jalapeño. Chiltepins are deep emerald at first, and then when matured on the stalk or dried, they turn a scarlet that makes them look almost like currants.

Ms. Soledad preparing a chicken in a mole de rancho and roasting jalapeños in her kitchen, in a thatched hut near the ruins of El Tajín. She is the founder of Mujeres de Humo, a female cooks’ collective in Veracruz.Credit…Adrian Wilson for The New York Times
The ruins at El Tajín, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its elaborately terraced temples. The site is thought to have once been one of the largest and most important cities in Mesoamerica.Credit…Adrian Wilson for The New York Times

Ms. Soledad’s assistants showed us how to make tortillas by hand. On the griddle, they toasted pumpkin seeds and the dried chiltepins, then ground both into a fine powder, which they used to dust the tops of the tortillas. Finally, they poured a spoonful of melted manteca, or lard, on each tortilla. Each mouthful delivered the perfect blend of the earthy tortilla, the richness of the manteca, the nuttiness of the pumpkin seeds and the tingling spice of the chiltepins — capturing that simple perfection that so many cooks strive for and few dishes can attain.

I was still savoring every bite as we witnessed the Voladores (“flying men”), a religious dance performed by the Totonac people, during which the dancers offer themselves to the gods and in return, ask the gods for rain. Five men climbed to a platform on top of a roughly 100-foot metal pole. One began to play, on a flute and a small drum, songs dedicated to the sun, the four winds and the cardinal directions. The other four men flung themselves off the platform with ropes around their waists tied to the platform, appearing to take flight. They slowly spun around the pole, upside down, gracefully lowering themselves to the ground in a mesmerizing spectacle.

The scorching manzano

I had so far easily endured the sting of almost every chile I’d tasted since arriving in Mexico. But that was about to change.

Coatepec, in central Veracruz, is Mexico’s coffee capital. We warmed up with a delicious cup and a warm concha, a Mexican sweet bread, at the Panaderia el Resobado, a bakery where the oven has been burning 24 hours a day, seven days a week for more than 100 years. But we had come to eat a stuffed manzano.

The manzano is bright yellow, crunchy and sweet, with earthy, smoky undertones. It can also be one of the spiciest chiles, up there with a habanero. I had never come across the manzano before this trip — it is impossible to dry because of the high water content in its skin, so fungus always develops during the drying process. This means few people outside Mexico have had the joy of eating one.

In Coatepec’s market we went to a small open-air restaurant stall and sat at a table covered in a red plastic Coca-Cola tablecloth. We ordered a manzano stuffed with cheese, onions and greens, and a stuffed and batter-fried jalapeño.

I was able to endure only a few bites of the manzano. It felt as if a forest fire were blazing in my mouth and throat. I had to admit defeat, and took tiny sips of agua fresca, holding each in my mouth to quench the blaze. When I finally tried the battered jalapeño, it was telling that I found it sweet and not the slightest bit spicy.

Dishes at Xhobe Humo y Sal, a restaurant in Miahuatlán de Porfirio Díaz, in Oaxaca, include, clockwise from bottom left, stuffed chiles de agua, a salsa of taviche chiles, and stuffed pasillas.Credit…Belkis Wille

The unforgettable chile de agua

The memory of the mezcal I’d sipped from a chile de agua the day before was still on my tongue as we navigated a maze of dirt roads in search of Xhobe Humo y Sal, the restaurant run by the 29-year-old chef Juan José Valencia and his mother in the Oaxacan town of Miahuatlán de Porfirio Díaz.

Finally, we found the right cluster of buildings amid the agricultural fields, the largest one a sea of agave plants, their blue-gray rosettes extending into the distance.

Mr. Valencia gave us a friendly welcome, then dived straight into the menu we would be making: a “drunken” salsa; a salsa de pasilla; pickled tusta chiles; chileatole (a soup of chile and corn); and two stuffed chiles — one dried pasilla filled with a mix of with pork, spices, raisins, almonds and tomatoes, and the other fresh chile de agua filled with chicken, spices and tomatoes.

After several hours of cooking — and of Mr. Valencia preparing us delicious beverages including homemade tepache, a pineapple brew, served with beer and a splash of mezcal — we all sat together like one family at a long table under a tree in the yard. The chile de agua was vibrant, and just as delicious as its scent — sweet, sour and earthy — had suggested when one of them had served as my mezcal tumbler the day before.

I had come to Mexico to learn about chiles and try to put their essence in a bottle I could open up back in my kitchen in Kyiv. But as I looked out over the agave field surrounded by people who spent their lives among these chiles, I realized the soul of these chiles comes alive in these kitchens: It’s a part of these families who have passed down their magic through generations.

I could buy bags of dried chiles, bring them to Kyiv and cook the salsas, moles and stuffed chiles exactly the way I had been taught by everyone on my journey. But without that magic, those dishes would never taste the same.

Belkis Wille, an associate director in the Crisis & Conflict division at Human Rights Watch, is based in Kyiv, Ukraine.

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