Jalapeno chilies are the backbone of Mexican and Southwestern cuisine. They are the most recognizable chili in America. Usually 2-4 inches long and ½ to 1 inch in diameter, this amazing little pepper packs a powerful punch. They grow in a variety of soil, but prefer the warmer temperatures of southwestern United States and their native lands in Mexico.
Jalapenos are grown mainly in California, New Mexico, and Texas. They are a perennial plant and one bush will flower and fruit several times a year. Several thousand acres per year are dedicated to growing this favorite chili. I planted my first jalapeno bush last year, which gave us fresh chilies throughout most of the year and we are still getting fruit this year. It was so exciting to go out and hand pick chilies for salsas and soups.
Originally from South America, the jalapeno traveled north to Mexico. The name we use today was taken from the state where this chili was traditionally grown and harvested, Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. Xalapa is also spelled Jalapa and the name suggests roots in the Nahuatl language (the language of the Aztecs). Most likely the Spanish added on the “eno” to make it easier to pronounce. They weren’t very comfortable with the language of the Aztecs and spent a good amount of time renaming lots of things.
Chilies became known throughout the world during the discovery years (1500-1700) when Portuguese and Dutch traders traveled between continents. Chilies literally transformed the cuisines of Asia and India after their introduction. Long chili was already in use in these cuisines, but the introduction of the jalapeno and other varieties of capsicum took these cuisines to another level.
Jalapenos can be added to just about anything. They are used for salsa, pico de gallo, and sauces. When jalapenos are dried and smoked they are called chipotle. I use them in my smoked coconut curry sauce. Jalapenos can be made into powder as well that can then be added into sautes or used in desserts to give a bit of back heat. When I was working in Santa Fe, we developed a Chili Chocolate Mousse using green jalapeno powder. It was an amazing dessert, but a hard sell to tourists traveling through the region. They had never heard of the combination.
Chilies have been used not just for culinary purposes, but also in medicine. The active ingredient capsaicin is known to help with sinusitis, weight loss, and to balance cholesterol levels. Does this mean you should run out and buy all the jalapenos in sight? Probably not, but adding them into your diet can be useful. They contain high amounts of vitamin C – more than oranges or most types of greens.
There is an entire cult of chilies, with jalapenos at the center. The most common way to represent jalapenos is through the ristra, the strung up dried chilies. Although these are commonly New Mexico red chilies and not jalapenos.
Facts About Jalapenos
- The Guinness World Records for most jalapeños eaten in a minute is 16 by Alfredo Hernandes on 17 September 2006 at La Costeña Feel the Heat Challenge in Chicago, IL, USA
- Jalapenos are usually green, but if allowed to ripen they will turn red. At the end of the growing season they will be red from the start.
- Red jalapenos are used to make Siracha Sauce.
- Jalapenos were the first chili to travel into space.
Here are a few more links to familiarize yourself with the jalapeno, and other chilies.