TT: Green Chile and Kumera

Hi…  If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back to hear what I’ve been up to when I’m not writing…  Then wander back here and join Alan and me as we prove once again that knowing the word doesn’t mean knowing the thing…

JANE: Well, Alan, to tell you properly about green chile, I need to go back in

Various Chiles

time to when I first visited New Mexico.  I was surprised by two things.  First, the people who wrote menus couldn’t spell.  Secondly, they’d include “chile” as part of many dishes and then forget to put it on the plate.

Let me explain the source of my confusion.  For someone living in the Eastern United States in the late eighties, “chile/ chili” meant one thing – chili con carne, a dish made with meat, beans, onions, tomatoes, and some (often very little) chili powder.  Much of this was so mild as to be able to masquerade as pencil shavings.

In New Mexico, “chile” is the proper spelling.   Formally, it refers to  members of the capsicum family, often called –  because of a confusion created by Christopher Columbus  –  “peppers,” even though they are unrelated to the plant that provides the stuff in your pepper shaker.  Informally, “chile” usually refers to long (sometimes eight inches or more) tapering peppers that have a nice flavor and a wide variety of “bite” – although, I must note that to someone unaccustomed, even the mild has quite a bite.  There are lots of sub-varieties, but I believe what is usually called “chile” is  grouped in the Anaheim chile family.

Green chile is the less ripened version of this particular chile.  It is such a part of New Mexico food and tradition that, in the autumn,  almost every grocery store has a big roaster outside.  People buy their chiles by the twenty pound sack.  Chile is  almost a religion.  “Red or Green?” is the official state question.    (Yes.  We have a state question.  We also have official state neckwear.)

I remember one year asking one of the postal clerks if he’d gotten his green chile yet.  He said, “Ah, we’re not getting much this year.  Just forty pounds or so.”

ALAN: The mind boggles! I find it hard to imagine using that amount of chile in a lifetime, let alone in just a season. And what’s the roaster for? Do you actually roast the chiles?

JANE: Definitely.  The fresh chiles are roasted, then peeled.  This is not an easy task and should be done wearing gloves.  Even the mild chiles will cause the fingers to burn and the hot ones can cause blisters.  The end result is used to make sauces, salsas, stews, and as an ingredient in other dishes.  I never really liked meatloaf until I started putting in a few tablespoons of green chile.

ALAN: Inspired by this information, I actually went out and bought some fresh chilis and cooked up a large dish of this and that. Unfortunately the chilis turned out to be so mild and bland that I had to stir in a tablespoon of sambal oeleck to give it some bite. There’s a nice fusion of cuisines –  Mexican and Indonesian!

JANE: Well, all I can say is that you must have gotten a wimp variety.  New Mexico green chile doesn’t need help from anyone and will kindly lend a grace note to any dish.  Here you find chile added to everything from corn muffins to meatloaf to peanut brittle.  No bland and inoffensive food is safe.  Many people feel the New Mexico climate makes a difference, that the same type of chile grown elsewhere – say, California – will not have the same range of flavor.

ALAN:  That feeling that the local conditions add something special to the flavour that simply cannot be reproduced in other areas is not uncommon. Sweet potatoes, for example, are grown in many countries but we feel that our own variety, the kumera, is something quite special. It can do everything that ordinary spuds can do and it’s really rather yummy. Kumeras come in various varieties and flavours, much as potatoes themselves do. You also sometimes see taro, imported from the Pacific Islands, but I really don’t like that. It’s very bland and starchy.

JANE: We’re beginning to see a great variety of sweet potatoes here and, happily, people now realize that they taste good without being smothered in brown sugar and marshmallow fluff.  For years I thought I hated sweet potatoes, but, as with so many things, it was the preparation I didn’t like.

You mentioned mixing Mexican and Indonesian cuisine.  One thing I remember fondly about my visit to New Zealand was the interesting variety of foods, but I also gathered this was a relatively new phenomenon.

ALAN: When I first came to live in Wellington there was exactly one Chinese restaurant in the city and no other ethnic restaurants at all. And the one and only Chinese restaurant served very bland, flavourless food. The waiter always made sure to put a large plate of bread and butter on the table. People who didn’t like the nasty foreign muck filled up on the bread and butter while their friends ate chicken chow mein and felt sophisticated. Nowadays it’s completely changed –  ethnic restaurants of every description are everywhere.

JANE: When I was in New Zealand in 1995, an article I read in the hotel magazine said that yours was a country which was finally discovering how exciting food could be, partly because of the influx of Chinese and other immigrants with the impending transfer of Hong Kong.

ALAN: Yes, we’ve had a large number of immigrants from all over the world and we’ve gone from being a bi-cultural society (European and Maori) to being very multicultural. And that’s certainly been reflected in the food. The science fiction writer David Brin once said that if the aliens from the stars ever landed in California they’d be overwhelmed by people rushing up to them and crying, “Have you got a new cuisine?”

Well – I don’t think the aliens landed here but nevertheless I’ve observed exactly the same phenomenon over the last few years. You name it and I’m sure we have a restaurant that serves it. And that’s really quite amazing in a country as small as this one. I wonder what will happen if the aliens ever do land here…

JANE: Aliens and food.  My first published short story  – “Cheesecake” – dealt with that, oddly enough.

Anyhow,  I bet the folks reading this could bring up other regional favorite foods, both here in the U.S. and there at the bottom of the world.  How about it?  Anyone want to step up to the table?


12 Responses to “TT: Green Chile and Kumera”

  1. Peter Says:

    I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised by the notion of putting chile in peanut brittle, but I lived in Mexico, where chips (crisps for the Rightpondian) come with their own little packet of chile (co-workers of mine used to keep a bottle in their desks because the packaged stuff from the vending machine wasn’t hot enough), dried fruit/fruit leather is typically sold coated in chile powder, and street vendors selling plastic cups of fresh fruit salad have big pump dispensers – the type you’d see on a hot-dog cart filled with ketchup or mustard – filled with chile sauce so you can soak your fruit in it.

    Some of my personal favourite regional ingredients:

    – maple syrup, which in Quebec is used for more than just slathering on pancakes (try eggs poached in maple syrup, or baked beans made with maple syrup rather than tomato sauce),

    – papelon (dried cane juice) is known by a wide variety of names in different countries (in New Mexico look for piloncillo, which is the Mexican name) is an absolutely vital ingredient in Venezuelan cooking,

    – not a favourite, but of note: cardamom, which here in Saudi is used in everything from beef marinades to coffee. Imagine my bogglement when I first when to the store to pick up some beans and was asked what ratio of cardamom pods to coffee beans I wanted. I’ve been shopping there long enough now that the clerk recognizes me as “That weirdo who doesn’t want any cardamom in his coffee.”

  2. Morton W. Kahl Says:

    I’ve always been told that “chiles” origiate in the Andes mountains. I know that we have some that can cause actual burns if you are not careful. Locotos, Aribibis, are just two of the tear provokers.

  3. heteromeles Says:

    Actually, there are wild chiles that creep across the US border in Arizona: They’re called chiltepins or bird peppers, and they’re about 1 cm in diameter. Some people even like them, though I suspect you can imagine how hot they are. I doubt these are the ancestors of domestic chiles (which date back 4000 years to Peru, according to the archeologists). Then again, chile phylogeny looks a bit…messy (as is true with tomatoes and potatoes as well), and I’ll bet that we don’t figure out the ancestry of chiles until the masters students start doing genomic studies for their degrees (in other words, in 3-5 years).

    As for regional foods, things get weird. For example, I’ve lived in Wisconsin and California, and you know where I got more variety in cheeses? California. But I got more apple varieties in Wisconsin, even though most of them were rare heirlooms sold by the “heirloom apple guru” at the farmer’s market.

    Apples are an example of a whole area of food diversity that’s fallen by the wayside. We moderns are missing some extremely flavorful apples, simply because they don’t meet supermarket criteria for consistent mass production, shipability, high sugar content, or resistance to diseases that carelessness has spread around the world. We’ve also lost quite a lot of cider apples and cooking apples for the same reasons. It’s weird to think that the people 100 years ago had more apples to choose from than we do now, but that’s the case. It’s actually true for many crops.

  4. Alan Robson Says:

    Don’t forget Asia. Chile (chilli) isn’t just American. The plants grow all over the world and chillies (however you choose to spell the word) are staples in many cuisines. Indian curries, Korean kimchi, Indonesian sambals and many others all depend upon chilli for their bite. And many of the fiercer oriental chillis would make America’s hottest chillis cower in shame.

    There’s really only one true test. It has to be twice as hot coming out as it was going in. Johnny Cash knew that. Ring of fire anyone?


  5. janelindskold Says:

    So much cool stuff here…

    Actually, Alan, I believe all chile is American and has just spread globally.

    Tomatoes are not Italian, for all many people can’t imagine Italian food without tomatoes. They’re also American.

    And potatoes are not Irish. They’re American, too.

    All of these, by the by, belong to the deadly nightshade family.

    And you haven’t come close to trying America’s hottest chiles… They don’t tend to get exported!

    As to other comments… I like cardamom, but I don’t think I would in coffee, unless it was a dessert coffee and sweet. And, as I’ve noted, I’m a black coffee drinker.

    I think apples are making a comeback. Certainly, the days when all you could get were Red Delicious and Granny Smith have ended.

  6. heteromeles Says:

    Hi Jane,

    Ah, but have you had an Arkansas black, or a winter berry, or a winter banana, or an Anna, or a northern spy apple? There are a few more apples out there, but there are hundreds that are seldom grown. Some have a limited audience (the winter banana), but others are quite yummy, especially if you can get the older version.

    Alan brings up a good point: cultivars. To pick European examples, paprika comes from a chile pepper cultivar developed in Hungary, and the hottest current chile (the Naga Jolokia, which is ~10 times hotter than the wild chiltepin) was first bred in eastern India. Apples were first domesticated in (I think) Kazakhstan, transferred to Europe, and crossed with native American wild apples when the colonists got here, because European apples tended not to do so well here.

    There’s a difference between where a plant was first domesticated (which is where its wild relatives typically live), and where a cultivar was bred. Cultivars turn up all over the world now.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Y’know… I appreciate the list of exotic apples (and in fact I have heard of all of these, although they haven’t come my way).

      My point was that I think there is a growing audience for suchlike.

      Just as Rowan wants to go to Asia to try exotics there, awareness of all the wonders available has led to food tours and heritage farms all around the country.

      This is a HUGE difference from when Jim was growing up in Detroit and spaghetti was considered exotic by his family (although my Mom’s family just down the way in Toledo knew where to find Italian groceries).

      Sometimes we forget how much American attitudes toward food have changed since WWII.

      And I fear I have a rather anthropological view of plants… Wonder why?

      • Peter Says:

        “Sometimes we forget how much American attitudes toward food have changed since WWII.”

        Depends what you grew up trying to cook 🙂 I remember my mother being ecstatic when she discovered the local university biology department kept a banana tree in their greenhouse. Not for the fruit, which you could buy anywhere. For the leaves, which are an essential part of Christmas cooking in my family (they’re used in the preparation of hallacas, traditional Venezuelan Christmas dish – you wrap them in banana leaves before cooking).

        These days there’s a major grocery store in the same city that sells pre-packaged and sliced banana leaves in the produce section.

  7. Rowan Says:

    As a note on your above comment, Jane, I frequently think how much my very favorite foods are of so many nationalities but still revolve around “New World” ingredients.

    This doesn’t fall into the favorites category, but into the wishlist category, but someday I want to try all the awesome tropical fruits that one cannot get even at fancy groceries. Some of them flat out don’t travel well enough, so despite having read some of the most delightful descriptions of custard apples, for example, I’ve never been able to taste them. Food tour of Southeast Asia is some where in my future…

  8. heteromeles Says:

    Rowan, you can get some of these fruits at asian grocery stores, especially if you are in a city with a large Vietnamese or Thai community. Obviously, these have been shipped a *long* way, but it’s a bit cheaper than going there.

    I do recommend buying a durian frozen, if you see them for sale and want to sample one. It will let you know when it’s thawed, and there’s a reason they don’t have fresh ones in the grocery store. It’s a love it or hate it fruit. Some people find it addictive, most people think it’s interesting but can’t eat that much, and a few people run away gagging.

    • janelindskold Says:

      When you’re home from grad school, I know I’ve seen durian at Tah-lin here in Albuquerque…

      But, y’know, I see your point. I mean, even radishes taste better when home grown, why would you want to settle for less with your first taste of something exotic?

  9. davefreer Says:

    On the pepper-and-something unusual taste, Tasmanian Mountain pepper, which has peppery-hot-with-spiciness, is worth experimenting with. We pick and use the leaves fresh, but the dried berries are sold, and do travel reasonably.

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