Chiltepin is the fruit of the Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum plant. Chiltepin is often confused with another small pepper – pequin or piquin pepper. One easy way to differentiate the two is the shape. Pequin pepper is oval with a point, while chiltepin is round or oval / rounded. If you examine closely, the leaves, stems, and plant structures of chiltepin and pequin pepper are different from one another. Chiltepin is a perennial shrub. It can grow from as little as 3 feet to as tall as 9 feet. This is the only native pepper in Texas.
- Birds are impervious to the heat of peppers, and many wild birds eat chiltepin, the pepper earning the name “bird peppers.” In fact, chiltepin is a favorite of the northern mockingbird, the state bird of Texas. Birds are also responsible for distributing chiltepin across the southern US.
- Chiltepin is also known by other names, such as Indian pepper, chiltepe, chile tepín (tepín is a Nahuatl word that means “flea”), and bird’s eye.
- Here is another difference between chiltepin and pequin peppers: chiltepins are sun-dried, while pequin peppers are dried over wood smoke.
- Chiltepin is the official native pepper of Texas.
- According to the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into Texas Bigger and Better, the ancient Tarahumara Indians of Mexico believed that chiltepin helps ward off evil. A person that refuses to eat chiltepin is evil, that is their belief.
Chiltepin Buying Guide
- Chiltepin is sold in supermarkets, farmers’ markets, and online shops, especially in the southwest United States.
- Check out the pepper’s skin. Choose the ones that are intact, firm, and glossy. Avoid the ones that have soft spots or shriveled.
- If it is an option, try to buy organic chiltepin.
- As always, peppers from farmers’ markets are better than the ones in stores. Here, the products are usually organic and you might be able to taste them before you buy them. You are also helping local farmers this way.
Chiltepin Production & Farming in Texas
The chiltepin pepper is red to orange-red in color with a slightly ellipsoidal shape (some are perfectly round when fresh). In places untouched by hard frost, the chiltepin plant can live for as long as 35 to 50 years. Plant it in well-draining silty or sandy loam soils. One chiltepin plant can yield 50 to 100 peppers. Harvest season for chiltepin is usually around September and October.
According to growers, the heat of chiltepin peppers is affected by rainfall especially when the fruits are forming. Chiltepin peppers harvested during drought season are not as hot as those that grew with sufficient water.
There are several stores like Walmart in Bentonville that you can go to buy chiltepin in Texas.
There is a vendor in South Padre Island Farmers’ Market in South Padre Island selling chiltepin plants, which you can grow at home and harvest for peppers.
Pesticides, Additives, and Chemicals
Between the years 2010 and 2012, the USDA found oxamyl, acephate, and chlorpyrifos in peppers. These toxic pesticides are banned from use on some crops. However, they’re still permitted to be used on chile peppers. Thus, it is better to buy organic peppers to reduce your exposure to pesticides.
Consider growing your own peppers organically.
Chiltepin is native to southern North America and northern South America.
In Mexico, chiltepin is harvested from the wild. Sonora, Mexico is a major producer of chiltepin. It is also grown in the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Central America, and Colombia.
In the US, chiltepin is grown in Texas, Arizona, and Florida. Alan McPherson, in the book State Botanical Symbols, explained that chiltepin “grows wild in canyons on rocky surfaces of steep slopes from west Texas to southern Arizona.”
Chiltepin is commonly sold and priced by weight, either by the pound or kilogram. But, if you’re planning to buy wholesale, go to your nearest local producer, and you can get these peppers in bushels, cartons, and even crates. Dried chiltepins are sold in vacuum-sealed pouches. Crushed, ground, or powder chiltepin, on the other hand, may come in packages like glass bottles, plastic bottles, pouches, or packets.
Matt Warnock Turner, in the book Remarkable Plants of Texas: Uncommon Accounts of Our Common Natives, gave an account of how it was used on both sides of the border. “In Texas, as in Mexico, they have been used in a variety of ways, either crushed and added to soups and stews or soaked in vinegar for a pepper sauce, considerably hotter than regular Tabasco. They were also pounded into dried meats for seasoning as a preservative.”
Chiltepin is consumed as fresh or dried pepper.
Chiltepin peppers are very hot pepper, hotter than habanero or red savina. But the hot sensation doesn’t linger. Nonetheless, chiltepin is used to make pepper sauce, and people love it. William D. Adams, in the book The Texas Tomato Lover’s Handbook, wrote: “Some chiltepin pepper sauce or a shelf full of home canned taco sauce makes the winter more pleasant while we wait for the next crop of tomatoes and peppers to come in.”
All fresh peppers are best kept unwashed, in a sealable and airtight container lined with paper towels. They should be stored in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator, with a temperature that ranges between 40 and 45ºF. Properly stored, they will retain their freshness for a week or two. You can also freeze fresh peppers. Spread them evenly, on a single layer in a sheet tray, and freeze. Once frozen, transfer the peppers onto freezer-safe bags. Here, it’ll last for up to 6 months but take note that frozen peppers can only be used in cooking. It’s not meant to be eaten raw as it requires further heat to kill the bacteria. But, to further retain its crispness, you can half-cook the peppers in oil before freezing. Fully cooked chiltepin usually last 3-5 days, while pickled, roasted, or dried can last for 1 year in the fridge.
Alan McPherson, in the book State Botanical Symbols, discussed how chiltepin is “a staple in many Tex-Mex favorites, adding an extremely pungent flavor to stews and chili.” Cheryl Jamison, in the book Texas Slow Cooker: 125 Recipes for the Lone Star State’s Very Best Dishes, All Slow-Cooked to Perfection, used dried, crushed chiltepin to add a spicy flavor to peanuts.
Fresh, green chiltepin is pickled in vinegar.
John Ash and James O. Fraioli, in the book Cooking Wild: More than 150 Recipes for Eating Close to Nature, gave the readers a glimpse of how chiltepin has been used in the kitchen. “It’s used as a flavoring for cheese and a base for sauces; it’s also made into a condiment with the addition of tomatoes, wild oregano, garlic, and salt. In Mexico, especially in Sonora, chiltepin chiles are often mixed with beef or venison to make carne machaca.”
Lili DeBarbieri, in the book A Guide to Southern Arizona’s Historic Farms & Ranches, shares the recipe for Sonoran Desert Hummus, which gets the spice for chiltepin.
Pati Jinich, in the book Pati Jinich Treasures of the Mexican Table: Classic Recipes, Local Secrets, shares the recipe for Apple Chiltepin Salsita.
Try M. S. Pickerel’s aguachile (chili water) made with chiltepin, found in the book The Poor Gringo Guide to Mexican Cooking.
Chiltepin can help improve metabolism and aid in weight loss. Matt Warnock Turner, in the book Remarkable Plants of Texas: Uncommon Accounts of Our Common Natives, wrote: “Old-time Texas remedies include using chiltepins to make a cough syrup or simply swallowing the pill-like fruits for colds.” Turner also added that chiltepin, like other peppers, aids in digestion, helps in reducing blood cholesterol, and helps prevent heart attack.