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The chile, it seems to me, is one of the few foods that has its own goddess. In Mexican cuisine and lore, this "Respectable Lady of the Little Red Chile" is a deity that represents the chile's everlasting significance in the ritual life of the culture. Losio, the Zapotec god who looks after newly sown crops, also takes an interest in the chile. And in Pahuatlán, Puebla, Otomi Indians believe in chile plant spirits that protect the seeds and the harvest.

When Mexicans aren't praising the chile, they are eating it: fresh, dried, smoked, pickled or skinned and then dried (pasado). Whole chiles are stuffed, shredded, ground, chopped and mashed for everything from vegetable side dishes to relishes and thickeners for sauces. 

In my many years of wandering in Mexico, I have learned one important thing about chiles: you can never be quite sure what you've got. That's understandable since Mexico has the greatest variety of chiles in the world; a few years ago, a Mexican botanist hazarded a guess of 200. Each small village or larger valley has its own local chile. 

Some chiles are quite distinct and immediately recognizable, such as wild ones or those grown in remote places. However, the common chiles we see today, descendants of pre-Columbian plants, are more difficult to identify. A variety found in Oaxaca might look just like one with another name in Guerrero, but you'll find it's not the same. Conversely, one chile can go by several different names in different regions. 

A word about chile heat. I am skeptical about the rigidity of the Scoville chart, a scale popularly used to measure the pungency of chiles. A type that tastes mildly hot today may be very hot tomorrow. Climate, soil and vegetation all have an influence on potency. Rather than categorize chiles by heat, I select them by taste, color and size. When you realize that a chile contributes not only heat but also an incomparably complex flavor to Mexican cuisine, you can appreciate why chiles are a food of the gods. 

DIANA KENNEDY, author of The Cuisines of Mexico, The Tortilla Book, Mexican Regional Cooking, Nothing Fancy and The Art of Mexican Cooking. These recipes come from My Mexico (published  by Bantam Books). English by birth, Kennedy is a longtime resident of Mexico and has been decorated by the Mexican government for her work on cuisine and culture.

Published April 1996
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