Chile De Agua Pepper
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Chile de Agua peppers are most often harvested when still green, before the spice level increases, or when the color is a slight orange or a moderate red. At maturity, the peppers have a glossy green skin with a slight wrinkle and sometimes a slightly curved shape. The medium-sized peppers grow an average of 4 inches long and 1 and a half inches wide at the shoulders; the end of the pepper tapers to a point. Chile de Agua peppers have a complex flavor, the spiciness is mitigated by sweet and sour notes and a hint of herbaceousness. The Mexican peppers are about as spicy as a jalapeno pepper, but with more flavor. The capsaicin, which is responsible for the stinging sensation and subsequent “spiciness,” is most concentrated in the ribs and seeds of the Chile de Agua pepper and removing them will eliminate much of the spice.
Chile de Agua peppers are available year-round, with a peak season in the late summer and early fall months.
Only recently grown outside of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the Chile de Agua pepper is a medium spicy variety of Capsicum annuum that is often harvested and sold when still green. The name roughly translates to “water chile” or “irrigated chile,” and may reflect the ancient way in which the peppers were grown along with seasonal rains. The peppers are not grown commercially but are slowly being introduced into the southern and southwestern United States by small farmers, and are gaining in popularity.
Peppers contain more vitamin C than citrus, and are also a very good source of potassium, vitamin A, and iron. The capsaicin in Chile de Agua peppers is a helpful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
Chile de Agua peppers are traditionally used to make chile rellenos: the peppers are rinsed and split down one side lengthwise, roasted and stuffed with cheese or shredded meat, then dipped in egg white and fried. The relleno is major player in a popular street food; it’s wrapped in a tortilla with red rice, a hard-boiled egg and black bean paste. Chile de Agua peppers are also used to make a relish, sliced thinly with red onions and epazote and used as a topping for tacos and other dishes. The flavor of the Chile de Agua pepper lends well to many other dishes, served alongside grilled chicken, or braised meats. Chile de Agua peppers will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator wrapped in plastic.
Chiles de Agua first appeared in Spanish records dating back 300 years, when Spanish explorers wrote of the indigenous people they encountered in their travels. The chiles are still primarily grown locally, in the traditional, ancient methods and are sold locally at markets in the Valley of Oaxaca. The peppers have been grown there for at least three hundred years as part of the ancient "milpa" system of community farming. The word ‘milpa’ is derived from the Nahuatl phrase “to the field.” This ancient system of growing crops, specifically corn, beans, and squash, along with companion crops, and was designed to maximize output and maintain sustainability. This ancient system is still going strong in the Valley of Oaxaca and farmers still use burros, handmade tools, wooden plows and cattle. There are efforts to maintain this style of community farming because of its sustainability.
Chiles de Agua have, until recently, only been grown in the valley of Oaxaca, located just north of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. The name of the Chile de Agua pepper likely predates the Spanish presence in Central America, the origin lost to the centuries. Chile de Agua peppers have been a part of the milpa system for over 300 years, and are starting to gain popularity as native Oaxacans move out of the area and bring their favorite pepper seeds along with them. In the little markets of Oaxaca, Mexico, Chiles de Agua are often sold in bunches of five or six peppers and are displayed, fanned out on a large leaf or plate. They are typically more expensive than other peppers sold in the region. Currently, the availability of Chile de Agua peppers is limited outside of Oaxaca, but can be found in home gardens, and at small farms where they may be sold at local farmer’s markets.