The Taming of the Wild Chile: Part 2, Pre-Columbian Chile Customs and Kitchens

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by Dave DeWitt and  Nancy Gerlach

Recipes:    Chicken in Red Pipian Sauce

                 Tamales Negros

                 Tlaloc-Chile  Stew


Chiles were the major spice of the New World and played a role similar to that of black pepper in the Old World; ancient New World cultures from Mexico to South America combined the pungent pods with every conceivable meat and vegetable. Our knowledge of the pre-Columbian culinary uses of chile peppers is derived from many sources: archaeological finds, Indian artifacts and illustrations of the period, Spanish and Portuguese explorers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, botanical observations, and studies of the cooking methods of the modern descendants of the Incas, Mayas, and Aztecs.

Incan Dish with Catfish and Chiles, c. 1400-1500

Our examination of the culinary uses of chiles begins in one of the major regions where they were first cultivated, the Andes. It was there that the great Inca civilization came to depend upon the chiles as their principal spice and a major crop. At the heart of the Inca Empire was farming, which determined nearly every aspect of their society: the calendar, religion, law, and even war. The Incas were farmer-soldiers, likely to be called out of their elaborately terraced and irrigated fields at any time to defend the empire or extend its boundaries. But farming took precedence over fighting, and some later uprisings against the Spanish failed because the Inca soldiers left the battlefront to return to their fields. It has been estimated that more kinds of foods and medicinal plants were systematically cultivated in the Andes than anywhere else in the world at any time. The result of the Inca agricultural expertise included 240 varieties of potatoes, nearly as many kinds of beans, twenty types of maize, plus sweet potatotes, peanuts, pineapples, chocolate, avocados, papayas, tomatoes, and–of course–several varieties of the the beloved chile pepper.

The Incan historian Garcilaso de la Vega, known as El Inca, wrote in detail about chile peppers and their place in Inca culture. In his Royal Commentaries of the Incas (1609), he noted that chiles were the favorite fruit of the Indians, who ate it with everything they cooked, “whether stewed, boiled, or roasted.” He traced the nomenclature of the plant: the pods were called “Uchu” by the Incas, “Pimiento de las Indias” by the Spaniards, and “Aji” by the people of the West Indies, a name which became quite common in the Andes in later times.

The Incas worshipped the chile pepper as one of the four brothers of their creation myth. “Agar‑Uchu,” or “Brother Chile Pepper,” was believed to be the brother of the first Inca king. Garcilaso de la Vega observed that the chile pods were perceived to symbolize the teachings of the early Inca brothers. Chile peppers were thus regarded as holy plants, and the Incas’ most rigorous fasts were those prohibiting all chiles.

According to El Inca, the Incas raised three types of chiles. The first was called rocot uchu, “thick pepper,” which described the long, thick pods that matured to yellow, red, and purple. The most likely identification of these chiles would be the Aji type, Capsicum baccatum. Garcilaso forgot the name of the next type but wrote that it was used exclusively by the royal household. The third chile he described was chinchi uchu, which “resembles exactly a cherry with its stalk.” This type, with its name and cherry-like pods both still intact, has survived to this day in Peru and Bolivia; it is rocotillo, a variety of Capsicum chinense and a cousin to the Habanero. El Inca noted that the chinchi uchu was “incomparably stronger than the rest and only small quantities of it are found.”

Garcilaso also collected some chile anecdotes. Chiles were reputedly good for the sight, were avoided by poisonous creatures, and had been offered as one of the gifts to appease Pizarro and his invading soldiers. As a final culinary note, El Inca unconsciously predicted the spread of chile around the world when he noted, “All the Spaniards who come to Spain from the Indies are accustomed to it and prefer it to all Oriental spices.” Thus the invaders were conquered by the fiery foods of the Incas!

Most Inca dishes were vegetarian because fish and meat were luxuries–at least for the commoners. The Inca royalty, however, did consume fish caught in the rich coastal waters and Lake Titicaca, and also ate deer, wild llama, guanaco, and a large rodent known as vizcacha. But the royalty would not consume dogs, domesticated ducks and cui (guinea pigs)–meat sources beloved by the peasants when they could obtain them.

The Incas’ morning meal was extremely simple: leftovers from the previous evening and a cup of chicha, a mildly intoxicating beverage made from fermented corn. Around noon, an Inca family would gather for the mid-day meal, which was prepared by boiling or baking because cooking oils and frying were unknown. Corn was often boiled with chile peppers, potatoes, and herbs to make a stew called mote. Another mid-day meal of the Incas was locro, a stew made from sun-dried llama meat, dehydrated potatoes, and chiles. The evening meal was eaten at about five o’clock in the afternoon and was usually a soup or stew similar to the midday feast. Potatoes were ubiquitous.

But food was not the only use for the beloved chiles. According to historian L.E. Valcarcel, chile peppers were so highly valued in Inca society that they were probably used as currency. Since there were no coins or bills in those days, certain preferred products like chiles became part of a rudimentary monetary system. He noted that until the mid-twentieth century, shoppers in the plaza of Cuzco could buy goods with rantii, a handful of chiles.

The Incas decorated bowls and dishes with chile pepper designs, as shown in the accompanying photograph of an exquisite dish painted with fish swimming amidst two types of chiles. It was found near Cuzco and is dated circa 1400 to 1532. The fish appear to be catfish, and the chiles closely resemble Garcilaso de la Vega’s description of rocot uchu and chinchi uchu, mentioned earlier.

Chiles also were the subject of embroidery designs. One example of textile art of the early Nazca period is a cotton cloth with twenty-three figures of farmers carrying their crops embroidered in yarn. One of the farmer figures is wearing chile pods around his neck and is carrying a plant bearing pods.

About A.D. 900, a sculptor of the Chavan culture in Peru carved elaborate designs into a sharp-pointed granite shaft measuring eight feet long and a foot wide which has become known as the Tello Obelisk. The principal figure on this obelisk is a mythical creature, the black caiman. The sharp point of the stone corresponds to a real caiman’s narrow snout, and the end of the stone is carved with the feet and claws of the reptile, which are holding the leaves and pods of a chile plant. As yet, no scholar has deciphered the meaning of a magical caiman grasping chile peppers in its claws, but the image is suggestive of the magical powers that the people of the Andes Indians believed were inherent in the powerful pods.

As chile peppers spread north through Central America and Mexico, they gained the reputation of being not only a spicy condiment, but also a powerful medicine. The pre-Columbian tribes of Panama used chile in combination with cacao and tobacco (and probably other plants) to enter into hallucinatory trances. According to scientist Mary Helms, these Indians used chile to “travel” to the heavens or to the underworld to negotiate with the good and evil spirits on behalf of mankind. Today, the Cuna Indians of Panama burn chiles so the irritating smoke will drive away evil spirits during a girl’s puberty ceremony. They also trail a string of chiles behind their canoes to discourage sharks from attacking. (We should caution modern sportsmen that the efficacy of chiles as a shark repellent has never been verified.)

In southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula, chile peppers have been part of the human diet since about 7500 B.C. and thus their usage pre-dates the two great Central American civilizations, the Mayas and the Aztecs. From their original usage as a spice collected in the wild, chiles gained importance after their domestication and they were a significant food when the Olmec culture was developing, around 1000 B.C.

About 500 B.C., the Monte Alban culture, in the Valley of Oaxaca, began exporting a new type of pottery vessel to nearby regions. These vessels resembled the hand-held molcajete mortars of today and were called Suchilquitongo bowls. Because the molcajetes are used to crush chile pods and make salsas today, the Suchilquitongo bowls are probably the first evidence we have for the creation of crushed chile and chile powders. Scientists speculate that chile powder was developed soon after the Suchilquitongo bowls were invented, and both the tool and the product were then exported.

Monte Alban Glyph

A carved glyph found in the ceremonial center of Monte Alban is further evidence of the early importance of chile peppers. It features a chile plant with three pendant pods on one end and the head of a man on the other. Some experts believe that the glyph is one of a number of “tablets of conquest” which marked the sites conquered by the Monte Alban culture.

By the time the Mayas reached the peak of their civilization in southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula, around A.D. 500, they had a highly developed system of agriculture. Maize was their most important crop, followed closely by beans, squash, chile peppers, and cacao. Perhaps as many as thirty different varieties of chiles were cultivated, and they were sometimes planted in plots by themselves but more often in fields already containing tomatoes and sweet potatoes. The Mayas also cultivated cotton, papayas, vanilla beans, manioc, and agave. They kept domesticated turkeys, ducks, and dogs, and their main game animals were deer, birds, and wild boar. Armadillos and manatees were considered delicacies.

For breakfast the Mayas ate a gruel of ground maize spiced with chile peppers, which is usually called atole but is sometimes known as pozol. A modern equivalent would be cornmeal or masa mixed with water and ground red chiles to the consistency of a milkshake.

For the main, or evening meal, stews of vegetables and meats heavily spiced with chiles were served.

The Mayan civilization had declined considerably by the time the Spanish arrived in Mexico, so there are no Spanish observations about the height of their culture. All that exist today are Mayan hieroglyphics, which are slowly being transliterated, and ethnological observations of the present Maya Indians, whose food habits have changed little in twenty centuries.

According to the Ethnology volume of the Handbook of Middle American Indians, chiles are highly visible today in areas with a Mayan heritage. Today in the Yucatan Peninsula, descendants of the Maya still grow chiles, tomatoes, and onions in boxes or hollowed-out tree trunks that are raised up on four posts for protection against pigs and hens. These container gardens are usually in the yard of the house, near the kitchen.

Despite the passage of centuries, the most basic Maya foods have changed little. Still common are tortillas with bean paste, chiles, and a little squash. Meat is only consumed about once a week and is usually chicken or pork.

The Tzeltal Indians of central Chiapas plant chile in plots about fifty feet on a side, alternating cotton every other year. Interestingly enough, the seeds are planted by women, but only after the men have punched holes in the ground with a planting stick–a ritual with obvious symbolism. The only difference between this method and that used by the Mayas is that planting sticks today have metal tips.

Among the descendants of the Maya, chile is regarded as a powerful agent to ward off spells. For the Tzotzil Indians of the Chiapas highlands, chile assists in both life and death. The hot pods are rubbed on the lips of newborn infants and are burned during the funeral ceremonies of viejos (“old ones”) to defeat evil spirits that might be around. The Huastec tribe of San Carlos Potosi and Vera Cruz treat victims of the “evil eye” with chile peppers. An egg is dipped in ground chile, then rubbed on the victim’s body to return the pain to the malefactor. The Cicatec Indians of the southern Mexican highlands prepare tepache, a drink of fermented sugar cane juice, with cacao and chile, for use in various rituals. Such a concoction vividly recalls a similar combination of chiles and chocolate consumed by the Aztecs.

Father Bernardino de Sahagun. Illustration by Cyd Riley.

In 1529, a Spanish Franciscan friar living in Nueva España (Mexico) noted that the Aztecs ate hot red or yellow chile peppers in their hot chocolate and in nearly every dish they prepared! Fascinated by the Aztec’s constant use of a previously unknown spice, Bernardino de Sahagun documented this fiery cuisine in his classic study, Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva Espana, now known as the Florentine Codex. His work proves that of all the pre-Columbian New World civilizations, it was the Aztecs who loved chile peppers the most.

The market places of ancient Mexico overflowed with chile peppers of all sizes and shapes, and Sahagun wrote they included “hot green chiles, smoked chiles, water chiles, tree chiles, beetle chiles, and sharp-pointed red chiles.” In addition to some twenty varieties of chillis, as the pungent pods were called in the Nahuatl language, vendors sold strings of red chiles (modern ristras), pre-cooked chiles, and “fish chiles,” which were the earliest known forms of ceviche, a method of preserving fish without cooking. This technique places the fish in a marinade of an acidic fruit juice and chile peppers.

Other seafood dishes were common as well in ancient Mexico. “They would eat another kind of stew, with frogs and green chile,” Sahagun recorded, “and a stew of those fish called axolotl with yellow chile. They also used to eat a lobster stew which is very delicious.” Our recipe for Shrimp Tenochtitlan is a typical Aztec seafood dish; it combines Ancho chiles, chipotles, dried shrimp, and tomatoes.

Apparently the Aztecs utilized every possible source of protein. The friar noted such exotic variations as maguey worms with a sauce of small chiles, newt with yellow chiles, and tadpoles with chiltecpitl. Sahagun classified chiles according to their pungency, as evidenced by the following chart:



cocopaticmuy picantesvery sharp

cocopetzpaticmuy muy picantesvery, very sharp

cocopetzticbrillantmente picantesbrilliantly sharp

cocopetzquauitlextremadamente picantesextremely sharp


Father Sahagun, one of the first behavioral scientists, also noted that chiles were revered as much as sex by the ancient Aztecs. While fasting to appease their rather bloodthirsty gods, the priests required two abstentions by the faithful: sexual relations and chile peppers.

Chocolate and chiles were commonly combined in a drink called chicahuatl, which was usually reserved for the priests and the wealthy. Sahagun also discovered the earliest examples of dishes that have since become classics of Mexican cuisine: tamales and moles. The early versions of tamales often used banana leaves as a wrapper to steam combinations of masa dough, chicken, and the chiles of choice. Sahagun wrote that there were two types of “chilemollis”: one with red chile and tomatoes, and the other with yellow chile and tomatoes. These chilemollis eventually became the savory mole sauces for which Mexican cuisine is justly famous.

Aztec cookery was the basis for the Mexican food of today, and, in fact, many Aztec dishes have lasted through the centuries virtually unchanged. Since oil and fat were not generally used in cooking, the foods were usually roasted, boiled, or cooked in sauces. Like the Mayas, the Aztecs usually began the day with a cup of atole spiced with chile peppers.

Aztecs living close to either coast were fond of drinking chilote, a liquor made with pulque (fermented agave pulp), ancho chiles, and herbs. Our recipe for Loin of Pork Pulque shows another use for the combination of pulque and chiles. Since pork was not available until the Spanish arrived, the Aztecs would have used peccary (wild pig) meat.

The main meal was served at midday and usually consisted of tortillas with beans and a salsa made with chiles and tomatoes.

The salsas were usually made by grinding the ingredients between two hand-held stones, the molcajetes. Even today, the same technique is used in Indian villages throughout Central America. A remarkable variety of tamales were also served for the midday meal. They were stuffed with fruits such as plums, pineapple, or guava; with game meat such as deer or turkey; or with seafood such as snails or frogs. Whole chile pods were included with the stuffing, and after steaming, the tamales were often served with a cooked chile sauce.

It was this highly sophisticated chile cuisine which the Spanish encountered during their conquest of the New World.


Chicken In Red Pipian Sauce

Pipian sauces are both flavored and thickened by seeds and can probably be classified as the earliest moles.  This Mayan recipe uses pepitas (pumpkin seeds) as its base, but if they are not available, nuts such as almonds can be substituted.  Although this recipe has not changed since pre-Hispanic times, we advise pureeing the sauce in a blender rather than by hand in a molcajete.  Serving Suggestions: Serve with black beans, baked pumpkin, chopped tomatoes with cilantro, and corn tortillas.

1 large ancho chile, stem and seeds removed

2 pasilla chiles, stems and seeds removed

4 chicken breasts

1 cup pumpkin seeds

1 cup chopped onions*

3 cloves garlic, chopped*

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large tomato, peeled and seeded

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon*

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon achiote* (optional)

     Cover the chicken with water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the chicken is tender, skimming off any foam that rises.  Remove the chicken and reserve the broth.
    Soak the chiles in a cup of the chicken broth to soften.
    Toast the pumpkin seeds on a hot skillet, stirring constantly until browned, being careful that they do not burn.  Grind the seeds to a fine powder.

    Saute the onions and garlic in the oil until softened.

    Combine the chiles along with the broth they were soaking in, pumpkin seeds, tomato, cinnamon, allspice, onion mixture, and achiote in a blender and puree until smooth.  Use more of the chicken broth to thin if necessary.

     Simmer the sauce for 15 minutes.  Add the chicken and simmer for an additional 15 minutes.

    Yield: 4 servings

    Heat Scale: MIld 

*Achiote, the red seeds of the annatto tree, are used as a seasoning and to impart a yellow coloring.  They are available in Latin markets.  Onions, garlic, and cinnamon are post-Columbian ingredients.


Tamales Negros

This recipe incorporates many of the staples of the Mayan diet–chiles, tomatoes, seeds, chocolate (cacao), and corn.  These tamales would have been wrapped and cooked in banana leaves, a practice still followed today in the coastal regions.  We substitute corn husks, also an authentic Mayan tamale wrap.

3 guajillo chiles of New Mexican red chiles, stems and seeds removed
2 pasilla chiles, stems and seeds removed
2 small tomatoes, peeled
1/2 ounce bitter chocolate, melted
2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds, toasted and coarsely ground
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon*
2 boneless chicken breasts

Tamale Dough:

2 cups masa
1 1/2 cups water

1/2 cup shortening 

Corn husks soaked in warm water

   Cover the chiles with hot water and let them sit for 15 minutes until softened.  Combine the chiles, the water they were soaking in, the tomatoes, chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and cinnamon in a blender and puree until smooth.

     Simmer the chicken in the sauce for 15 to 20 minutes or until tender.  Remove the chicken and, using two forks, shred the meat, and mix it with the sauce.

     Mix the masa with the waterand shortening and knead to the consistency of a solid dough.

     To Assemble:  Spread the center of a corn husk with 2 tablespoons of the masa dough and top with 2 tablespoons of the meat and sauce.  Fold the sides of the husk toward the center, then fold in  the bottom and the top, and tie with a thin strip of corn husk.

     Add 2 cups of water to a large kettle, place the tamales on a rack, and steam them for an hour.

     Yield: 12 tamales

     Heat Scale: Mild

*Cinnamon is a post-Columbian ingredient.


Tlaloc-Chile Stew

The turkey was the Mayan god of rain and fertility and was called Tlaloc.  A meal to the Mayans consisted of a stew, either with meat and vegetables, or vegetables alone in a broth base.  This stew also uses mint, or native yerba buena, as well as culantro for flavoring.  Serve with an avocado salad and corn tortillas

4 pasilla chiles, stems and seeds removed

5 jalapeño chiles, stems removed, chopped

1 quart of water

3 medium tomatoes, peeled

1 medium onion, chopped*

1 teaspoon achiote*

1/4 cup chopped cilantro, chopped

1/4 cup yerba buena or mint, chopped

1 8-pound turkey, cut in serving pieces


     Cover the pasilla chiles with hot water and let them sit for 15 minutes until softened.

     Combine the chiles, tomatoes, onions, achiote, and the water in which the chiles were soaking, in a blender and puree until smooth.  Stir the cilantro and mint into the sauce.

     Place the turkey pieces and water in a pan.  Add the sauce, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the turkey is tender, about 1 hour.

     Heat Scale: Medium-hot

     Yield: 8 to 10 servings  

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