Endangered Chiles, Endemic Flavors, and Making Mole in New Mexico

By Willy Carleton

Chilhuacle negro chiles. Photo by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock.

Years ago, when I first asked myself whether I could make a good mole in New Mexico, I would have never known how far down a meandering path this question would take me. The short answer to the question is yes, but it all depends on the chiles. The longer answer, based on several years of growing chiles, traveling to their origin sites and studying their history in archives, and talking to chefs and farmers in Mexico and New Mexico, is a little more complicated.

“Each chile has its own story of where they come from, and how they are prepared,” Miguel Villalpando of Nomada Goods in Santa Fe told me one afternoon not too long ago. “And I fell in love with that.” Nomada Goods imports rare, endemic chiles from Mexico—chiles historically cultivated only in specific regions. One of these chiles, the chilhuacle negro, has traditionally provided the unique, complex flavor of some of Mexico’s most famous dishes, such as the mole negro, but has in recent decades become extremely expensive and hard to find. Only a few farmers still grow it in and near a town called San Juan Bautista Cuicatlán (often called Cuicatlán for short) in the Cañada region of Oaxaca, where it originates. Chefs, researchers, and food lovers in Mexico and elsewhere are worried that this emblematic chile is in danger of extinction in its home region.

For this reason, Villalpando, along with Nomada chef Fernando Ruiz and operating partner Arthur Martinson, have been working to import the special pepper, which means “old chile” in Nahuatl. For many, the chilhuacle negro is an essential ingredient to some of the most culturally important dishes of Oaxaca. “It’s really rare, it’s really old,” he tells me. “It’s just one of those chiles.”

It has been difficult to secure the chilhuacle negro, he explains, due to a host of reasons that include pandemic-related travel difficulties, growers’ long-standing wariness of outside buyers, and issues with exporting across the border. It’s been a year and a half since Nomada has been able to sell chilhuacles through their website, and it might not be until early 2022 that their customers can hope to order them again. I am sorry to hear it because, selfishly, I want to buy some of the chiles.

But I am sorry, too, because I worry about the chile itself, and the handful of producers in and around Cuicatlán who still grow it. My research interests have taken me to Cuicatlán, where I have met a couple of the farmers who grow them, seen the valley where they grew, and heard some of the stories of that chile from local chefs and cooks. Through learning a bit of the history of this chile, I have also learned about some of the most exquisite moles of Oaxaca and have gained a deeper appreciation of how cultural treasures, no matter how deeply rooted, do not simply exist—they must be tended.

“It smells like an old man’s closet,” a fellow traveler once told me, just after sticking her nose deep into a ripped-open chilhuacle negro. Strangely, I knew exactly what she meant. Musky, with notes of pipe tobacco and bitter chocolate, it smelled ancient, a note deep in the nose that I imagine resonates equally across time, well beyond the whims of what may be in or out of fashion. As difficult as the smell is to define, the taste is perhaps even more so. “Muy natural, muy peculiar,” is how Rosario Mendoza of Tlamanalli in Teotitlán del Valle described it to me one afternoon in her restaurant. Her sister, Abigail Mendoza, famous for her role on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, once described the chilhuacle negro simply as “sacred.”

“El chilhuacle negro tiene un picor agradable,” explained Georgina Cruz of Hierba Dulce in Oaxaca City. Its lasting picor, the pungent tingle of the chile, is pleasant. “Other chiles are irritating,” she went on. “It has a very special aroma, a very good one, and it isn’t dañino like the chile guajillo, chile de arbol, or chile morita, which can hurt the stomach because they scream, whereas the chilhaucle negro doesn’t.”

Yet the chilhuacle is increasingly rare in Oaxacan cuisine. Recognized by UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as an important component of Mexican cuisine, the crop is in danger of extinction, according to the Mexican government and local scientists studying the crop. There are three types of chilhuacle—negro, rojo, and most rare of all, amarillo—and each type is used slightly differently, with different flavor profiles. The chilhuacle rojo, for example, might be featured prominently in a traditional manchamanteles, whereas the chilhuacle negro is the backbone of a traditional mole negro or chichilo.

Chilhuacle negro

Left: A paste of garlic, onion, and the chilhuacle negro coat the molcajete as a salsa is prepared. Right: Chilhuacle negro waiting to be used for a salsa. Photos by Willy Carleton.

Oaxaca is often called the land of seven moles, but I repeatedly heard from chefs there that something like the land of two hundred moles would be more accurate. There are regional variations of the classics, along with entirely different moles, such as the mole blanco, that are traditionally only made in certain areas of the state. Each of these moles is traditionally shaped around the endemic chiles of the region, of which there are over twenty. Oaxaca, in fact, has the highest diversity of landrace chiles in Mexico, and the Tehuacán Valley, which stretches between Oaxaca and Puebla, is also the home to some of the oldest domesticated chile seeds ever found. There, in a cave not too far from Cuicatlán and in the same valley the chilhuacle today calls home, a 5,600-year-old capsicum seed was found.

If you dig around the libraries of Oaxaca and look for old cookbooks, as I did one afternoon in the city, you might come across the Libro de cocina de D. Jose Moreda, año de 1832. Recipes that call for chilhuacle fill the pages. There are recipes for cod and bobo fish with chilhuacle, salsas, and moles. Reading the cookbook, the chilhuacle is so common you might even mistake it as synonymous with chile itself.

Yet today, the chilhuacle in Oaxaca is hardly common in most kitchens. “By the end of the nineties,” writes journalist Lucas Laurson, “this chile had become a cultural treasure in danger of both invasive pests and the abandonment of the few traditional producers that remained.” An important ingredient for traditional holiday meals, such as mole negro on the Day of the Dead, its importance is more cultural than purely a matter of sustenance. Home cooks throughout the state, unable to afford this traditional ingredient, often substitute it with cheaper, industrially produced chiles, such as the guajillo, pasilla, and ancho, in their mole recipes. These days, it’s only in a dozen or so restaurants in Oaxaca City that you can still regularly taste moles with chilhuacle negro.

Among those handful of restaurants is Las Quince Letras, whose chef-owner, Celia Florián, has worked hard in recent years to build a market for the Oaxacan-grown chile across the city, helping organize a network of chefs in the city to buy directly from producers in the Cañada region. Her work led to the creation of the Asociación de Cocineras Tradicionales de Oaxaca (the Association of Traditional Cooks of Oaxaca), for which she serves as president and which further helps champion the cause of the chilhuacle.

Speaking with me one evening at her restaurant about a year before the pandemic, Florián expressed particular alarm about the trend of more and more industrially grown chilhuacles being produced in the state of Zacatecas. These peppers could potentially drive the price down and squeeze the traditional producers even more—a concern Villalpando, who only sources chilhuacle from Oaxaca, shares. What’s more is that they do not taste the same as chilhuacle grown in Oaxaca. “They do not have the same organoleptic properties,” she explained. The climate, the altitude, the characteristics of the water and soil—in short, the terroir—all impact the flavor. “Even if they are the same seeds, the chile is not the same result.”

I know for sure that Florián is right about the terroir of the chilhuacle, not only because she is vastly knowledgeable about Oaxacan chile, but also because, a couple of years ago now, I grew them in small isolated plots on the land I was farming in northern New Mexico.

Equipped with a USDA permit, I shipped a few bags of seed from Oaxaca to the USDA inspection station, which then, months later, sent the seeds to my home in New Mexico. I germinated the seeds in trays, transplanted them into irrigated beds, weeded them throughout the year, and watched nervously as the still-green peppers slowly ripened amid the chill of northern New Mexico’s September nights. (The New Mexican landrace chile nativo I also grew, in a separate plot that was well isolated from the chilhuacles, ripened well before the threat of frost.) Just before an early October freeze, I harvested the fruits and dried them on a rack I built in my high tunnel. Then, once they were fully dried, I made a mole.

The mole wasn’t bad, but it was nothing like the ones I had tasted in Oaxaca. It had much more fire but lacked a certain warmth. The complex mix of tobacco and chocolate was absent and the sharp, smoky bitterness was muted. It didn’t smell like an old man’s closet at all; the old man, it seemed, was still in Oaxaca. It was the same seed, but not at all the same chile.

salsa molcajeteada with chilhuacle negro

Left: A salsa molcajeteada with chilhuacle negro in the foreground, beside the coals used to cook the ingredients. Right: A fire prepares coals to cook ingredients for a salsa. Photos by Willy Carleton.

After my recent conversation with Villalpando, my attention turned to New Mexico’s own rare and fiery cultural treasures. New Mexico’s chile nativo, a general term for the landrace chile varieties that have developed over centuries in New Mexico and become uniquely adapted to our high-desert climate and soils, is more than simply a source of pride for many in the state. It is what gives the particular type of slow burn, the lingering smokiness, the smooth and comforting flavor to some of New Mexico’s most distinctive dishes. It also contains unique genetics, shaped by centuries of being grown here, that provide a wealth of potential protection against future chile-plant diseases and climate disruptions that could hinder local agricultural production of chiles.

Perhaps most well known among New Mexico’s landrace varieties is the Chimayó, grown in and near the town of its name for roughly four centuries. There are unique varieties to many villages and Pueblos of northern New Mexico. While they impart a complex flavor uniquely their own, they also tend to grow less uniformly than the “improved” varieties grown in the southern part of the state. They can vary in heat levels, shape, yield, and size, even among plants in the same field. In part because of this variability and lower yield, commercial growers can often make more money growing other varieties. As a result, many are hard, if not impossible, to find commercially. And some varieties, such as the Escondida that was traditionally grown outside of Socorro, are no longer grown at all in their place of origin.

Even though “New Mexico landrace chile peppers contribute to the cultural identity of many communities in northern New Mexico,” as a recent study from New Mexico State University (NMSU) reported, “New Mexico landrace chile is threatened from a variety of issues, including cross-pollination from other C. annum cultivars, economic issues resulting in some of the farmers moving out of farming altogether, and the loss of arable farmland in northern New Mexico.” Even in Chimayó, only a handful of farmers grow the traditional landrace variety and it is not always easy to find a bag of dried red pods for your kitchen. There are reports of people selling non-landrace chile as Chimayó chile (landrace pods tend to be more wrinkled at the stem and smaller than other New Mexico chiles). For all these reasons, the NMSU report concludes that “public and community awareness and appreciation of these unique accessions of chile pepper is critical to their preservation.”

As in Oaxaca, where the majority of restaurants opt for cheaper chiles over the Oaxacan-grown chilhuacles, most restaurants and home cooks in New Mexico opt for industrially grown, cheaper chile, grown on larger scales and most often with herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, and other chemical inputs. One key to preserving this chile is cultivating enough local appreciation for it that customers will gladly pay a bit extra for the real thing, and enough knowledge about it that restaurants and purveyors tempted to sell non-landrace chiles under the label of “native chile” would not easily succeed. More demand, of course, means more incentive for farmers to grow it.

Seeds migrate. We all eat foods from seeds that originated far from our homes. It is far more rare to eat food from seeds endemic to our place. When that is possible—and in New Mexico, that is possible with foods like blue corn, bolita beans, and chile nativo—it is an invaluable source of culinary and cultural wealth well worth preserving. 

There are real concerns among local producers, whether they be in Cuicatlán or Chimayó, about large-scale farms growing vast amounts of the crop that generations of farmers have shaped over centuries—in many cases, they are the direct forebearers of those few farmers still growing it—and then selling the chile at prices low enough to make the original farming communities move away from the crop. To address these legitimate concerns, well-written and small-farmer-friendly laws that regulate origin labeling designations can help. Seeking out landrace chiles from traditional growers to help these communities is a strong incentive. Beyond that, there is also simply the matter of taste. Without a doubt, a chilhuacle grown in Zacatecas, or New Mexico, does not taste the same as grown in Oaxaca, just as, I am sure, a Chimayó chile grown in Zacatecas or Oaxaca would not either.

This brings us back to moles. What if you want to make delicious mole, reminiscent of the ones found in southern Mexico, while helping preserve endemic chiles? One good option is buy chilhuacles from importers, such as Nomada Goods, who only source their chilhuacle from point-of-origin communities in Oaxaca, when they are available (which, hopefully, they will be in early 2022). If Oaxacan-grown chilhuacles are not available, another option is to create your own versions of the moles based on the chile nativo that we have here in New Mexico.

What follows are three recipes—two moles and one table salsa—I gathered in Oaxaca that, when substituted with New Mexico chile nativo, taste exquisitely complex. They are neither traditional Oaxacan moles nor classic iterations of New Mexico red, but rather new creations, inspired by the old chile of Oaxaca, that showcase the flavor of New Mexico’s own cultural treasure.


Editor at Edible New Mexico and The Bite | + other stories

Willy Carleton is a co-editor of edible New Mexico and The Bite. He is the author of Fruit, Fiber, and Fire: A History of Modern Agriculture in New Mexico, which explores the cultural and environmental history of apples, cotton, and chiles in our region.