Thursday, August 28, 2008

Chiltepin for sale


I happened to procure a small stash of chiltepin - the wild chile from NW Mexico or the "mother of all chiles" - on my way back to the USA. During various points of our travel, a number of folks have expressed interest in purchasing some chiltepin. So for those of you interested, I have about 60 bottles of chiltepin, packaged by Don Tepin. Don Tepin is a small business in Baviacora, Sonora. Its actually the hobby of a couple brothers and their neighbor. They purchase ripe, wild harvested chiltepin, the best of which get rinsed, washed, dried and packaged into these bottles.

You can buy a bottle of chiltepin (51 grams of dried chile) for $10 plus S/H. If you purchase more than one, I can combine the S/H charges.

To purchase, send me an email at kraigkraft [at] gmail [dot] com. I have a paypal account with the same email address as well.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Images of the border

Lost in the return to Davis and in the subsequent frenzy of lab work and catching up here at home, I've failed to share with you some of the most interesting and poignant images that Heather and I have taken during our time in Mexico. So after some delay, here they are.

For the school year 2007-2008 UC Davis selected The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea as the Campus Community book. If you have not read it, the book follows 26 men as they attempt to cross into the United States by walking through the Arizona desert, telling the story from all of the angles - the border patrol, the smugglers and the would-be migrants.

Heather and I used the book as a road map of sorts and took some incredible images of the border - the concept of which I have trouble wrapping my head around all of the myriad issues, especially this particular border, which has its own controversial history and politics.

We encountered the border just west of Nogales, then followed it as it ended in the Pacific Ocean, on a stretch of municipal beach just outside of Tijuana's bullfighting ring.

This abarrotes in Altar sold everything you needed to cross. Dark windbreaker, dark hat, dark backpack and gallons of water.

Just outside of Sonoita, just south of Organ Pipe National Monument, the border is a rather simple series of 4x4 metal posts of alternating height with some barbed wire stretched across the top and bottom parts. Not much of a deterrent.

Ceniza, our newly adopted Mexican street dog crosses the border illegally.

Kraig and Ceniza approach the border's end - the municipal beach in Tijuana.

Vendors selling peanuts, churros and cold coconuts right up to the fence.

Footprints on the other side

The border patrol keeps a watchful eye on the vendors and the proceedings.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Chasing Chiles on the air

I was recently asked by the local university radio program "Acontencer Agropecuario" (translates to farming happenings) to talk about why I was at the Universidad Autonoma de Aguascalientes and about his project.

The audio should be linked to this page, so you can listen along as I butcher the beauty of the Spanish language.

ACONTECER mañana.mp3

Monday, March 10, 2008

Doña Coyo's Mole Poblano

I’ve alluded at various times to the great variety of chiles grown here in Mexico and how each has its own culinary purpose or niche. I’ve been quite remiss in providing some examples of dishes that incorporate the two major dried chile varieties that are grown in the state of Aguascalientes. I will attempt to remedy that now, with 2 posts on traditional dishes that are made with the dried peppers from this region. Today: a very traditional dish made with the Pasilla pepper...Later this week: a popular dish eaten during Lent made with the Gaujillo pepper.


The Pasilla chile is so named for the superficial qualities shared with the pasa, or raisin. When the Pasilla chile is dried, it wrinkles and darkens, resembling a black raisin. This chile is quite popular for use in sauces, especially in Puebla, where it forms the base of the dish Mole Poblano. Mole is a great example of how a “typical” Mexican dish, actually is an amalgam of ingredients, techniques and traditions that blend the pre-hispanic Mexico with the post-colonial version. There are as many different moles as there are chiles – perhaps even more so, as each mole carries its own distinctive combination of chiles.

This recipe comes from Doña Coyo – mother-in-law of my good friend and collaborator, Mario Perez. Doña Coyo learned this recipe from her husband’s childhood nanny...that means that the recipe is AT LEAST 100 years old.

Doña Coyo’s Mole Poblano
This takes 2 to 3 hrs to make and yields ~ 5 liters of sauce. You will need a powerful blender to make sure that all the ingredients are liquefied for the proper consistency.


  • 15 dried Ancho chiles
  • 15 dried Mulato chiles
  • 12-15 dried Pasilla chiles (*use less for less heat)
  • 250g blanched almonds
  • 2 bolillos – small French style dinner rolls...could substitute half a baguette if needed
  • 4 corn tortillas
  • 3 “rounds” of Mexican chocolate (i.e., Ibarra)
  • 250g of manteca de puerco - pork lard
  • 200g of raisins
  • 2-3 tablespoons sugar
  • ~2 L (about 8 cups) of chicken stock (we made our own stock with onions, garlic, salt and pepper, but you could use store bought to save time)
  • 4 cups of water

1. Prepare the chiles by removing all the seeds and the stem. Thoroughly rinse the prepped chiles under running water.
Doña Coyo opens and prepares the dried chiles.

2. Lightly (!) brown the chiles, almonds, bread rolls (in pieces), tortillas and raisins in lard, working in batches. Set all the browned ingredients aside and allow to cool.
A really quick dip in some hot oil for the chiles

All the ingredients ready for the blender

3. Using the blender and working in batches, blend together the toasted chiles, browned bread, fried tortillas, almonds, raisins, chocolate and chicken stock. You may need to keep adding chicken stock to reach the right consistency. When the stock runs out, use the water that was set aside. . Blend until pieces of chile are no longer distinguishable and the consistency is that of a medium-thick milkshake.
Keep adding stock until all the ingredients all thoroughly blended

4. Pour into a large stockpot with a small amount of lard (keep on low heat). Taste the sauce and add sugar as desired. Dried chiles can sometimes impart a bitter aftertaste and the sugar mellows this out.
5. Simmer the mole for 30-45 minutes, carefully stirring to avoid burning the sauce at the bottom. The mole will thicken and darken in color. It's ready when the oil starts to rise to the surface of the sauce. Take the mole off of the heat and let cool. Once cooled, you can portion the sauce into containers and freeze them for later use (should keep if stored frozen for 2+ years).

On the stovetop to simmer

This mole is often served over roast chicken or pork, accompanied by a side of rice. Srpinkle lightly toasted sesame seeds over top and/or a few toasted raisins. For those in love with the flavors, true Poblanos take his/her mole any way they can get it – try it on top of a fried egg for breakfast or over beans.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Portraits of Chile Farmers

I wanted to share some of these photos with you. These portraits are of survey participants, with each I have included their first name, age, acreage farmed and crops that they grow. I normally feel that pointing a camera in someone's face is very intrusive, but after talking with each participant on how they manage their crop, and of their concerns for their livelihoods, I asked for their photo to pair with their survey data. I'm thrilled with the results as I think each photo makes the data less abstract, giving it a very real, human connection. I think this subset of participants is fairly reflective of the entire group. Mostly men 50 and over planting small acreages to beans, maize and chile. A few plant cash crops, which in this region is garlic or tomatoes.

Santiago, 58
4 hectares of maize, beans and chile
Guajillo and Pasilla chiles

Alberto, 66
9 hectares of maize, beans, garlic and chile
Guajillo and Pasilla chiles

Baltazar, 54
4.5 hectares of maize, beans, garlic and chile
Guajillo and Pasilla chiles

Gelacio, 53
7 hectares of maiz, frijol and chile
Pasilla chiles

Ismael, 57
5 hectares of maize, beans and chile
Guajillo and Pasilla chiles

Israel, 36
25 hectares of garlic and chile
Pasilla chiles

Friday, February 22, 2008

Hot Peppers on the Presidential Campaign Trail

Although this news is a few days old, and I am favoring her opponent for the Democratic Presidential nominee, this is blog worthy.

Hillary Clinton is no stranger to the power of the pepper. She swears by them, telling Katie Couric on CBS that eating peppers is the key to maintaining stamina on the campaign trail. So is this the secret to her fountain of youth, or is it just meaningless pander for key Hispanic voters in TX and OH? hmmm...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

And the Survey Says.... part 1

Forming beds for planting. This producer was fairly technified and had drip irrigation installed.

While the 15,000 mile chile chase to the Yucatan, Chiapas, Baja and back was the exciting prologue, we have now entered the real raison d’être of this Fulbright - the opportunity to wander the dusty teracerias of central Mexico and to have a face to face, honest conversation with the Mexican campo. Since my interests lie in the conservation of crop genetic resources and my host institution lies near the heart of dried chile pepper production - it made a lot of sense to tie all of these up neatly and to explore what kinds of chiles farmers were (still) growing, whether or not they were saving seed to plant in successive seasons, and if so, how do they select chiles to save for seed? By exploring some of the esoteric details of this particular farming system, we can explore “larger” topics such as the loss of genetic diversity as it pertains to chile and what this means for the public at large; the ageing of farmers and the decrease of acreage under the plow; the increasing technification of agriculture and the need for increased savvy from producers; the liberalization of agricultural trade bringing farmers in competition with farmers from all over the world. But let’s get our heads out of the clouds for a second, and step down from the steps of the ivory tower and I’ll recount how the survey got off the ground and what the initial responses have been.

Getting everyone on board

Although the chile chase ended in November, the survey was already in its final rough draft and piloted by early December, I was unable to start the survey work until the middle of January. Why? In order for the survey to be administered in a more “scientific” manner, I needed to obtain a random list of producers to survey. In order to get a list of producers of chile (from the state committee on plant health, whose mission is to combat insect infestations in crops), I need to meet so-and-so, to submit a letter to so-and-so, another meeting which gets delayed, and on. Finally, I received the green light and made a random selection of the producer list, taking down names, county and town. List and surveys in hand, I’ve been traveling to small towns and ejidos and I basically stalk individuals, asking about in the small stores and then finding them at their home or in their field. Once finding my “mark,” I introduce myself and the purpose of the survey and as soon as it’s clear that I know the chile farming lingo, the residual doubts about my purpose and origin disappear. Most answers beg follow-up questions and we often cover lots of ground that goes beyond what is on the survey. We talk about the irony that many from the rural parts of Mexico are trying to go the US and here I am, coming from the US to rural parts of Mexico. Many respondents have been in the US, or have kids/brothers/sisters/aunts/uncles/cousins in California, Chicago or Florida. Once, an interviewer’s small field crew came up in the middle of our conversation and basically told him that they were leaving tomorrow para el Norte, that they had obtained papeles. We talked about Hillary v. Obama, the US border wall, the US recession, the lunacy of the new anti-immigrant law in Arizona, and we talked a lot about chiles and chile farming.

Jose with his seedbeds

Sembrar chile es como un vicio” - Planting chiles is like a bad habit

This refrain was repeated to me twice on my first day of interviews. Jose Montellano said this to me as we slowly walked out to his almacigo, or seedbed, where his seedlings were just beginning to emerge. In his early 60s, Jose walks with some difficulty and his gait is a slow shuffle, each huarache-clad foot laboriously placed one in front of the other into the dusty path. Jose plants 2 hectares (roughly 5 acres) of pasillas – long dark chiles that have a raisin-like look when dried and then are used to make moles or sauce – and he also plants about 2 hectares of maize for consumption and sometimes lettuce when he has extra money. We arrive at the almacigo and he carefully unwinds the cords that keep the plastic burlap covering taught over the seedbeds, serving as a modicum of protection against the wind and the cold nights. As he shows me the seedlings and the obvious care that has gone into their planting, he continued to narrate how the chile season proceeds. Each seedbed has around 45 thousand seeds, of which perhaps some 30,000 will get planted in one hectare. Each one will transplanted by hand, into furrowed rows. When needed, water will be pumped up from a well and diverted into the furrows via brick culverts. All application of inputs will be done by hand – insecticide is applied via a backpack sprayer and fertilizer is applied by the handful at the base of the plant. Upon dodging pests and disease for the long 6 to 7 month season, harvested chiles are brought to the secadora, or a commercial dehydrator, which charges for drying and packaging of the finished product.

First class Pasillas

More seedbeds - those are stalks of maize used as the cover.

In addition to the lengthy season, farmers have more reason for concern. In recent years, diseases and pests have been wreaking havoc as many smaller farmers cannot afford the chemical treatments and/or not readily following preventative measures (such as rotation and fallow) and there is increased worry from competition from abroad, namely Peru and China. This increased competition has dropped prices, forcing farmers to sell their crop ripe on the plant to coyotes, rather than paying to have the crop dried and packaged and looking for better prices. Add to this the increase in fertilizer prices, the increase in the electrical costs to power the pump, and this venture is less profitable and desirable than it has been in years past. For many who have the resources, they readily adopt newer techniques such as plastic mulching or drip irrigation, along with the hybrid seeds. Yet for the majority without resources, they stubbornly keep planting, hoping next year will be better, hence Jose’s reference to a bad habit…

More on this in a few days.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Mexico’s answer to the schwarma

I have finally gotten the green light to begin my survey of chile producers in the region, so the chile chase will become the chile canvass very soon. Until that update, enjoy this piece about my favorite taco, al pastor.

If I return from Mexico slightly above my fighting weight, the blame can be laid squarely on tacos al pastor. Literally translated to “shepherd’s tacos”, tacos al pastor are thinly sliced pieces of rotisserie marinated pork leg served in a corn tortilla with a slice of pineapple, diced onions and shredded cilantro. Like the title of this post alludes to, the cuts of pork are stacked vertically, and thin slices are carved off as the outside portion begins to cook, leaving a tapered shape to the stack. Between the visual cues of the bright yellow pineapple, the dark red seasoned pork and the roar of the gas-powered rotisserie, the combination is more hypnotic than a barber’s pole never-ending stripes. Needless to say, the vertical rotisserie (called a trompo, lit. “spinning top”) is placed in the most visible part of the taqueria as to maximize the number of passerby who become ensnared by it’s siren song. As each taco is about 3 or 4 bites, its not uncommon to eat 7 or more in one sitting.

From what I understand of its history, it is another great example of culinary mestizaje, or mixing of the indigenous with the foreign, the process that has made Mexican cuisine so diverse across its various regions. Tacos al pastor are thought to have been an adaptation of the Middle Eastern schwarma or the Turkish döner kebab that were brought by a wave of Lebanese immigrants. First made with lamb (and hence the name al pastor), al pastor now is exclusively made with pork, a switch that probably ensured its place in the pantheon of Mexican regional tacos – carne asada in the North, fish tacos in Baja, birria in the central west, cabeza in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Traces of this history can still be found at the modern al pastor serving taquerias. Many of the taquerias still have an order called taco arabe, which will be served in pita-like bread. My local taqueria has gone as far as to name these orders with recognizable Arab names, such as the “Saddam Hussein” and the “Osama bin Laden”.

Tacos al pastor are a night food – a small dinner or a late night snack. My local taqueria here in Aguascalientes starts their rotissierie up at 5 PM every day and will run it until 4 or 5 AM. They start with about 40 lbs of pastor on the weekdays, and up to 90 lbs on the weekends. The marinade they use has some 25 different ingredients – I guessed at about 8 of them – orange juice, annatto, dried chiles (guajillo, arbol), clove, wine, salt, pepper, garlic… Duplicating the marinade will not be a problem, but how am I to replicate the trompo? Without that rotisserie, it just won't taste the same. Well there is a solution for everything. My new friend, Javier who runs the trompo pictured above, mentioned that I could easily find a trompo to import for as little as 380 dollars.

Tacos anyone?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Paleta paleta paleta

we've been lucky enough to have friends and family join us along the way on the chile chase this year and we've asked a few to write about thier own culinary adventures in Mexico! the following is by our friend and guest blogger, Cathy Wirth.
As readers of this blog know, the search for the origins of the chile pepper have brought Kraig and Heather to Mexico, which sports an amazing natural diversity of chiles in more shapes, sizes, and flavors than I ever imagined possible. However, Mexico is not only the likely homeland of the chile. It is, in fact, a veritable birthing center of many culinary delights. Preliminary research conducted during my recent visit with Kraig and Heather in Mexico indicates that Mexico may also be a center of origin for an understudied but internationally recognized food, the paleta (or popsicle, as it is called in many parts of the U.S.).

The incredible diversity of paletas - flavor, size, texture, color - is a clue to it's likely origins in the region.

The Mexican paleta (pah-lei-ta) comes in a truly stunning variety of flavors, colors and textures. While the paleta is often classified into two main subcategories—those made with agua (water) or leche (mik)—it seems that these are fairly superficial distinctions and that there is only one real species of paleta (see the literature on race as a social as opposed to genetic construct for a parallel analysis). The paleta is ubiquitous in Mexico, with even the smallest towns having a paleta vendor, stand or store on every other street . In the U.S., the likely descendent of the paleta, the popsicle, is generally confined to distribution through retail outlets such as major supermarket chains, corner stores, and gas stations, whose main focus is not popsicle sales. In addition, the popsicle has clearly been bred for storage and conformity, at the expense of the variety and general tastiness still found in the Mexican paleta. However, despite the overall importance of the paleta as a cultural, social and dietary influence in Mexico, the Americas, and many other parts of the world, where exactly the paleta originated and what the original paleta looked like are questions that remain unanswered.[1]

Given the constraints of my time in Mexico (10 days), the many other activities on the agenda (great company, eating Kraig’s cooking, surfing, etc.), the level of funding from outside sources received for the trip ($0), and the general level of discourse (see upcoming post “Dude, What Eats that Fish?,” by guest blogger Todd Rosenstock), it did not seem prudent to undertake a full scientific study of the origins of the paleta during this trip. However, a preliminary “social science” study was conducted, tentatively entitled “Which Paleta Flavor is the Best?”

For the purposes of this study, I personally sampled as many paletas as possible during the course of our travels in Mexico. I also employed the help of Heather, Kraig and Todd to add to the paleta taste test sample size. In total, over 50 paletas were sampled.

There was some debate over whether it was more appropriate to try as many different flavors as possible, or to try some paletas until a few favorites were found and focus further study on those favorites while avoiding potentially gross flavors (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1. Number of paletas sampled as compared to diversity of paleta flavors sampled per participant in the study.

To answer the original study question “Which Paleta Flavor is the Best?” a complex algorithm was developed, which assigned each paleta an Overall Paleta Score (OPS)[2]. The best paleta flavors were those that consistently received the highest OPS scores. As can be seen in the figure below, a clear pattern with regard to the best flavors emerged.

Figure 2. Paleta flavors that received the highest Overall Paleta Score (OPS)

In conclusion: Happy paleta tasting for those of you visiting Kraig and Heather in the coming months! Provecho…

[1] As a side note, the paleta retail space is an archetype that has persisted in the Pan-American psyche for generations, giving rise to the expression popularly utilized among disaffected hipsters throughout the U.S. today—“let’s blow this popsicle stand.”
[2] While it is not crucial for the lay paleta consumer to understand the details of the algorithm in order to appreciate the results of this study, in the interest of promoting future study on the subject, the algorithm is as follows: Overall Paleta Score (OPS) = 15 (source of flavor) + 8 (seasonality of flavor) + 6 (consistency) + 200 (Cathy’s favorite flavors)