Red Hot Chilli Peppers: From Mexico to India, stuffed pepper dishes are hot culinary favourites.
When you think of Mexican cuisine, 'chiles en nogada' is unlikely to be the food that comes to mind. And yet, it is this stuffed pepper dish that proudly wears the colours of the Mexican flag — green, red and white — tied as it is to the nation's history. It is said that the dish was prepared for the first time in the province of Puebla for the visiting hero Agustin de Iturbide, in 1821, when the Treaty of Cordoba, which declared Mexico's independence from Spanish rule, was signed. It made use of a produce that Puebla prided itself on: the Poblano chilli/pepper.
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The Poblano is a mildly spicy chilli with a deep and glossy green skin, that turns red or brown as it ripens. The walls of the pepper are thick, which makes it ideal for recipes that call for stuffing or baking a vegetable. For the chiles en nogada, the Poblano is charred and gently divested of its skin, seeds and inner membrane. Next, meat cooked with tomatoes, onions, olives, nuts, raisins and even fruit (think apples, peaches, candied pineapple) is added as filling. (At this stage, the stuffed pepper may be coated in a batter and fried.) A smattering of pomegranate seeds comes after this, with their flavours providing an essential counterpoint to that of the meat and the Poblano. Last, a velvety sauce made of freshly peeled walnuts, heavy cream and milk finishes off the dish.
Image: chiles en nogada
The 'chiles en nogada' is a must during Mexico's Independence Day festivities late August and September, but it is made year-round as well. The dish is part of a global culinary tradition spanning China, Europe, the Mediterranean et al, that is centred on the stuffing of chillies/peppers. In India, for instance, the Besan Bharwa Mirch calls for stuffing large chillies with a gram flour and spice mix. Once filled, these chillies are fried in hot oil until crisp, and served alongside dal and rice.
Other popular stuffed pepper dishes from around the world include Spain's "Pimientos Rellenos de Arroz con Salsa de Tomates". In effect, these are large and colourful bell peppers stuffed with "Valencia or arborio rice and saffron, then cooked in a tomato sauce". In Tunisia, the stuffing incorporates lamb meat, rice, nutmeg, saffron and cardamom for the very delicious "Fil Fil Mashsi". Mexico's other famed stuffed pepper dish is the "Chile Rellenos", which features a whole Poblano pepper filled with carnitas (pork that is braised or simmered in oil until it turns very tender), kielbasa (sausage) and cheese.
If we turn our gaze to Hungary, we'll find the Töltött Paprika: a ground meat, rice and paprika-seasoned stuffing served with lashings of sour cream. A variation on this Hungarian stuffed pepper dish can be found in neighbouring Romania, where the "Ardei Umpluti" uses pork, rice and a sauce with a sour cream base to delicious effect. Meanwhile, the American standard tends to borrow a little bit of this and a little bit of that to come up with a classic stuffed pepper dish that has generous helpings of ground beef, rice and tomato sauce.