Sunday, March 23, 2008

Capsicum Confusion

I've written extensively on the restaurant web site and in the monthly newsletter about chiles, taxonomy, and terminology. This interests me because I am a student of food and food history, because I am trying to understand what chiles are actually being called for in some of my Spanish language cookbooks from Mexico, and because I often need to communicate with Spanish speaking cooks and order takers at my produce company. But what I've just written really constitutes some fat, juicy rationalizations to obscure my addiction.

Friends, I must confess that I am a chile head. I eat more chile in a standard day than some people eat in a lifetime. I eat food so spicy that it shocks some of my Indian friends. My Thai friends call me the Fire-Breathing Farang. I do appreciate the chiles for their flavor and the spice and I don't eat them for the shock value or as some show of machismo: I truly love the things.

But I digress fairly far from today's topic. My daughters and I went to our favorite Mexican restaurant for lunch today (doesn't everyone eat tacos for Easter?), Perlita's on Weems Lane ( is their site which is not yet built at this writing), where their Pescado al Mojo de Ajo (whole Tilapia in garlic paste) is amazingly good. Did I also mention that I can rarely get enough ajo? My personal tastes, when I am not cooking for the restaurant, run to huge flavors.

I have been asking for some time for some salsa with muscle; the vinegar labelled Cholula on the tables is not getting the job done. Today I ordered fish tacos and asked for salsa muy picante to go with it. When my tacos came to the table, they came with a salsa that I had never seen before. I could smell the chipotle as it approached the table: always a good thing for a chile head. Looking at the brick red sauce, it looked like the adobo from a can of chipotles with tomatillo. And that's exactly what it tasted like.

When our usual server (who also helps prep the food) spied my empty salsa dish and came to ask me if I'd like more, I asked her if the sauce was adobo de chipotle y tomatillos and she replied, "No. Moritas y tomatillos." That got me thinking, because I know chipotle when I see and taste it (I use it all the time at the restaurant). I've asked this server for chipotles before and have been rewarded with nice fat ones in adobo, so I started wondering why she insisted on calling what was in this sauce moritas. My kitchen Spanish is not good enough to get into the conversation that I want to have, so next time I am in, I will ask her to show me a morita. Sadly, I was not alert enough today to think to ask her.

What I know about the situation is this. We're both talking about smoked Jalapeños, the chile that is named after the Veracruzana town of Jalapa. When the chile ripens to deep red and is smoked it becomes the chipotle and we most frequently encounter it pickled in an adobo of tomato sauce, vinegar, and other herbs and spices depending on brand. I use the small San Marcos cans at home and the industrial sized Embasa cans at work.

I've been studying chiles enough to know that green Jalapeños are called cuaresmeños in some places in Mexico, but all the Mexican cooks I've ever had say Jalapeños and this includes cooks from Oaxaca, the City, and Veracruz. And I have seen small, darker, more oval cultivars of Jalapeños labeled moras or more commonly moritas ("small dark ones"), but generally I have seen these terms applied to those cultivars when they have been smoked. And to add more confusion, I know Oaxaqueños who call chipotles huauchinangos.

So, I still don't know why my server was so insistent on using the term morita today. It could be that she thinks that it is a different chile from the Jalapeño/chipotle. It could be that she is making the distinction that she is using the small cultivar rather than the larger tipico form. And she could be saying that she used the dried form to make the salsa rather than the form in adobo, but I rather doubt this. My guess is that her can of chipotles is labeled moritas. I will attempt to find out next time I go there.

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