Growing up in Tucson, the salsa we ate at home was almost always made from chiltepines. With family roots in Sonora, my mother made salsa the same way that it is still made south of the border today. For the most part, it seemed like something rather ordinary. It wasn’t until the mid-80s, when I read about chiltepins in Gary Nabhan’s Gathering the Desert that I realized these tiny chiles, which grow wild in northern Sonora, Mexico, and a very limited area of southern Arizona, were something rather unique. However, at the same time, I was immersing myself in Mexican cooking and was more intrigued by what I perceived to be the more colorful and complex salsas of southern Mexico.
And then, things changed. About five years ago, perhaps due to improved and refined culinary sensitivity (or age), I awakened to the fact that these tiny, red, super-hot chiles had a marvelous flavor that I had previously never appreciated. Indeed, most people who write about chiltepins rarely talk about their flavor, focusing instead on the ferocious pungency of the tiny fruit.
Perhaps one of the reasons one does not find a great diversity of salsas in Sonora is because chiltepines have such a unique and distinct flavor that the Sonoran people may never have had the desire to look for something else. Apart from chiltepin salsa, the only other salsa that I recall as a traditional part of Sonoran cuisine is one made from green chile and tomatoes, made only in season.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that the chiltepin is virtually synonymous with Sonoran culture and, for that matter, the Sonoran Desert. Anyone who comes to appreciate this fantastic chile has to become part Sonorense as well. It is almost inconceivable to imagine sitting down to eat in Sonora and not finding chiltepines on the table in one form or another. If not in salsa, you’ll find dried chiltepines in a jar; you can crush these red orbs into soups like cocido or menudo. Occasionally, you’ll find a bowl of freshly picked green chiltepines, as well as those that have been preserved in brine or vinegar.
Chiltepines are harvested in the fall, typically over a one-month period that typically begins the middle of October. The plants are commonly found growing under the cover of leguminous nurse plants like mesquite and can be difficult to access. When planting them in the Tucson area, they do best when those conditions are replicated. They prefer shade and are frost sensitive; planting against a south facing wall can help create an ideal microclimate for the plants.
Nonetheless, chiltepines are very resilient. In Sonora, many plants were severely damaged by freezes in 2011 and many locals thought they would not survive. However, two years later, most of these plants have recovered from their roots and are producing once again.
If you would like to try growing chiltepines, Desert Survivors Nursery typically has plants for sale. You can also try growing them from seed, but it can be difficult. In the wild, the chiltepines depend upon birds to scarify the seed by allowing it to pass through their digestive system; the hard outer covering of the seed is broken down so water can enter. To successfully germinate the seeds, you can scarify the seed yourself in order to facilitate the seed’s ability to absorb water. Keeping the seeds well-watered may also be sufficient.
Why grow them? Well, for one, you can enjoy the plants and leave the fruit to the birds. You also might find an economic motivation, as chiltepines are very expensive to buy because they are harvested by hand in remote locations where the plants are often far apart. In addition, their annual availability can vary greatly due to an increasing frequency of climatic disruptions such as drought and extreme frost.
I am aware of only one person that has really had any success growing chiltepines commercially. For over ten years, Francisco Alfonso Lopez of the tiny town of San Jose de Baviacora, in the Rio Sonora Valley, has been experimenting with domestic and wild varieties. Despite many failures and setbacks, he has enthusiastically continued his efforts to develop plants that will produce bountifully; that are stable when grown in fields with irrigation; that can be harvested easily; and that have the flavor and pungency resembling the wild chiltepin.
Every year Francisco’s chiltepines get a little bit closer to being virtually identical to the wild ones, but with the added benefit of being able to be grown under controlled conditions where they are less susceptible to climatic extremes. He employs more than 30 local people during planting and harvest times and his products are marketed in various locations in the state of Sonora under the label of Don Tepin. For more information, visit chiltepin.com.mx.
In Tucson area, chiltepines can be typically found at Food City markets or through Native Seeds/SEARCH’s retail outlet on Campbell Avenue. For a better price, hop in your car and take a leisurely drive down to Imuris, 43 miles south of Nogales, or continue an additional 15 miles down the highway to Magdalena, where some of the best roadside stands in Sonora are found.
In addition to the common uses, chiltepines are also combined with dried red chiles, green chiles, and even desserts like flan. It might be a good idea to become familiar with some of the traditional recipes first before branching out into a flurry of creativity. With that in mind, here are a few basic recipes to introduce you to a true Sonoran Desert treasure. ✜
Chiltepines en Escabeche
If you happen to have access to green chiltepines before they turn red on the plant, they can be preserved in vinegar and are great with tacos and soups.
Fill the jar about a third of the way with chiltepines. Add one garlic clove, 1 tsp of salt and 1 tbsp of vinegar. Repeat this process a couple of more times and then fill almost to the top with water. Store in a cool, dry place.
Nothing complicated here; just keep a jar of chiltepines on the tabletop that can be added to soups or any other dish of your liking. When added in combination with a little lime juice, they can transform almost any dish.
Note of caution: Chiltepines need to be handled with care. Either use the fingers of your left hand or a small crusher, which are easily found in Sonora. If you touch your skin—or eyes—the residue oils can be quite irritating.
When it comes to chiltepin salsa recipes there is no such thing as an exact recipe. Individual recipes vary widely, but the basic ingredients remain more or less the same. The recipe I’ve given below is what you might call middle of the road, one that will not scorch your mouth when eaten and that will be enjoyed by most.
Remove the center core of a tomato and boil it with the garlic and Mexican oregano. When the tomato has softened, remove the skin. Another option is to blacken the tomato in the oven or on the grill instead of boiling. Toast the chiltepines lightly on the stove top, being careful not to burn as it will turn them bitter. Blend all the ingredients, adding some of the cooking water as needed until the desired consistency is achieved. Finally, add the vinegar, salt, and chopped cilantro.
The town of Arizpe is famous for their chiltepin salsa that is made with quince/membrillo. It is occasionally made in other parts of Sonora, sometimes with apple. One variation on the Basic Chiltepin Salsa recipe is to cook equal parts of quince with tomato and add them to above ingredients. The quantity of vinegar might be increased slightly; otherwise all else is the same. A small amount of crushed black pepper is optional.
Caldo de Chiltepin y Ajo
This simple broth-based soup packs a punch. Like the variations in salsa found around Sonora, there are many simple variations of this soup.
Lightly sauté the garlic, add the water or broth, cilantro, and salt. You can add a vegetable or two, but the classic simple broth is nice by itself. Traditionally, this soup is eaten with the large, very thin Sonoran tortillas known as tortillas de agua.
Although flan flavored with chiles is common throughout Latin America, the use of chiltepines in this recipe not only enhances and mellows their spicy kick, it also elevates the flan’s smoky caramel flavors. The drive down to Banámichi, a town in the Rio Sonora valley, is worth it just to try this flan at its source. Find it at La Posada del Rio Sonora, where Pati Galvez continues to make the recipe she created.
Add ¾ cup of sugar to a heavy pan—steel or cast iron—over medium heat and stir constantly. It’ll take several minutes for the sugar to caramelize; keep stirring until you have a dark brown liquid.
Pour the hot caramel into an 8-9” tin mold and rotate around until it coats the sides and bottom. Here, Pati uses a Christmas cookie tin, but you can use anything that has a secure lid, and that won’t melt or break.
Pour the prepared batter on top of the caramel, secure lid, and place in a simmering water bath. Place a towel or canning rack below to secure the tin; the water level should come halfway up the side of the tin.
Cover the water bath and leave simmering for an hour and a half. Remove from the water and chill in refrigerator; once cool, invert the flan onto a serving platter. Garnish with chiltepins.
Bill Steen and his wife Athena are founders of The Canelo Project, a non-profit organization in Santa Cruz County dedicated to “connecting people, culture and nature.”