The (once) underground pepper

a can of chipotles (packed in adobo sauce)A while ago on one of my favorite cooking shows the chef made a dish with chipotle peppers. She extoled their unique flavor as “bacon for vegetarians.” With a description like that, I couldn’t resist trying a bunch of different recipes laden with these mysterious peppers.

Chipotle (pronounced chee-POHT-lay) peppers are simply smoked red jalapenos, a fact I didn’t know until I had eaten them many times. The process of smoking changes the flavor completely, which along with the ‘adobo sauce’ they are typically packed in, makes them a flavorful alternative as a spicy condiment; as suggested, they have an aroma that suggests bacon or jerky. Once I started eating them, I became obsessed, maybe even addicted to the flavor. I have an open can of chipotles in my refridgerator at all times

I just recently discovered that my addiction is not unique. The name has started to pop up everywhere, from the Cheescake Factory to Tabasco; everywhere I turn I’m confronted with this word I don’t ever remember noticing before this year. Some are proclaiming 2003 the Year of the Chipotle, its popularity sealed by acceptance in the popular market. Paul McIlhenny, president of the Tabasco enterprise thinks their new chipotle sauce will supercede habanero, garlic, and green to become their number two sauce.

How can something nearly a thousand years old emerge in one year as a taste of the year? Is it the product of good marketing, or did its diffusion just reach epidemic proportions? As a researcher in this sort of thing, it’s hard to tell. Americans have been diversifying their tastes like crazy over the past decade, and it might have just been a matter of time before people were ready for it. I wonder what other sneaky, radically good ingredients are just around the corner. It’s like an element of the periodic table of tastes that has just been discovered. If you know of any others, sound off..

5 thoughts on “The (once) underground pepper

  1. Mango and pomegranate are catching on, too. I grew up eating them (we were an “ethnic” household!) but apparently fewer than 5% of Americans have ever had pomegranate. Now they’re both all over the place on menus.

  2. Do you think at least some of the popularity is the result of the qualities of word “chipotle” itself? There’s a southwestern restaurant here in Fullerton, Cafe Hidalgo, which my friends and I often patronize, and every time, it never fails, someone happens upon the word “chipotle” and says it, mispronounces it, inquires as to the correct pronunciation of it, asks what it is, etc. And now, chipotles are being consumed and mispronounced on every corner. Indeed, there’s even a new chain of burrito restaurants called Chipotle (, which is itself a kind of signal that the word has become a permanent part of our culinary vocabulary. Who knows.

  3. Its worth noting that McDonald’s has a stake in the Chipotle chain of quick-serve restaurants. The Bastion of Bland is bringing the name, if not the flavor, to middle America.

    When I lived in Philadelphia, I bemoaned the lack of Mexican restaurants and its nasty food in general, so it seems ironic that it was there I developed a taste for the peppers. I use them in a lot of dishes like tofu burritos that you could hardly call traditional cusine.

  4. Too bad that the link below, doesn’t have a english translation (use babelfish?), but is an interesting article about the culture of “chile” (peppers) in México.

    The article explain at least 22 diferents type of peppers, one of them the Chipotle.

    The chile I like most? The “Chile Chiltepin” a wild form from the variety of “Chile Piquin”. Unfortunately, a not very comercial pepper, a lot of his disemination came from the birds, who eat the pepper and spread the seds.

    I think that the best place to find new flavors of peppers… is to go to the south of México (Oaxaca, Chiapas) and eat some salsas… you will be amazed at the variety!

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