Saving the Prized Chile That Grows Only in Mountains of Oaxaca

Sep 25, 2018, 03:37 PM

Atlas Obscura

IN 1933, RIDING ON THE back of a second-rate horse, it took the late anthropologist Ralph L. Beals two full days to reach the Mixe town of Ayutla from the Central Valleys of Oaxaca in Mexico—a distance of approximately 90 miles. As he twisted his way up the precipitous hills, Beals found towns clinging to the mountains, sitting among the clouds. At the time, he was among a handful of outsiders allowed within Mixe territory, located on the northeastern highlands of the Sierra Norte.

Even today, when it’s only a four-hour drive from Oaxaca City, visiting this land proves nearly as difficult. But these remote towns are the birthplace of—and one of the only places that grow—a prized culinary product: the chile pasilla Mixe.

While the pasilla has been a staple of Oaxacan gastronomy for at least a century, it’s appeared in the menus of high-end restaurants in New York City, Los Angeles, and Mexico City only in the past decade. Several types of pasillas grow throughout Mexico, but they vary in fragrance, flavor, and purpose. The Oaxacan pasilla is regarded as very high quality, a fact reflected by its price tag: around 300 pesos ($16) in Oaxaca City, and $40 to $60 for a pound in the United States. In her book, Peppers of the Americas, chef and food historian Maricel Presilla describes it as “one of the finest smoke-dried Mexican peppers.” But even motivated chefs with deep pockets can struggle to get their hands on one. The area is simply too remote and production is low and dwindling.

In 2011, that fact was on the mind of Julián Mateo Isidro as he returned home after five years of studying to become an agricultural engineer. As he made the long trip back home to the Mixe region, he felt eager to share agricultural innovations. “While I was away, I saw how people in other states establish profitable crops and make business,” Isidro says, “and it made me wonder why the people in my town didn’t.”

Isidro’s main concern was the chile pasilla, which is endemic to the Sierra Mixe. His neighbors were ditching the labor-intensive chile in favor of crops such as coffee, and he worried that their tradition of growing it was slowly dying out.

AS IS THE CASE WITH many past anthropologists, Beals was interested in the exotic—the rituals, the sacrifices—and sought a culture untainted by colonization and other foreign influences. With Mixes, he got close. Their chosen name (rather than the ones imposed by Spanish conquistadors or the Aztec Empire) is Ayüükjä’äy, or “people who speak the mountain language.” Their name is as poetic as it is descriptive of their geographical location and spiritual beliefs, and their culture bears a striking resemblance to their secluded surroundings. They are reserved, and outsiders who enter their land are subject to extensive interrogation and may not be allowed to stay.

During their long isolation, the chile pasilla has been an essential part of their culture. Isidro’s family—and a significant portion of his town’s approximately 3,000 inhabitants—have harvested and cooked with it for generations. “It’s what gives our food its traditional flavor,” he says. “It cannot be substituted with other chiles, because the pasilla flavor is incomparable.”

Fresh, pasillas are generally known as chilacas but, in the Sierra Mixe, no matter the stage, they are simply called pasillas. As they mature, the chiles change from bright green to burnt orange and, lastly, to an almost black, deep red. Once they reach the final stage of maturity, they are harvested and smoke-dried with oak, which adds a deep, meaty taste and results in wrinkly, burgundy chiles that are smoky and spicy, and whose heat is felt at the throat. While the chiles are grown in various towns throughout the region, its birthplace and original producers are found in two of the 19 Mixe towns: Santa María Alotepec and Santiago Atitlán, which is Isidro’s hometown.

Since it would be impossible for a few small towns to supply the whole market dem...