A Guide to Mexico's Most Essential Chillies

Ling Tang / © Culture Trip
Ling Tang / © Culture Trip
Photo of Jessica Vincent
27 April 2018

Many people think of chillies as having one simple purpose: they add heat. So does it really matter which one you choose? In Mexico, this question is borderline offensive. With over 150 varieties available across the country, and thousands of ways to prepare them, Mexicans carefully select their chile to not only add heat, but also, and most importantly, to add heaps of flavour to their dishes. Whether it’s sweet, fruity, smoky, earthy or hot, the chilli forms the base of every meal here, and has even become part of Mexico’s national identity. Here are 11 varieties you’re bound to taste during your visit to the world’s chilli capital.


Originating in the state of Puebla, the poblano is a large green chilli most commonly used for chile rellenos: peppers stuffed with meat and cheese and sometimes served with a spicy tomato-based sauce. The fun (or deadly) thing about poblano chillis is that you never know what you’re going to get. Most tend to be pretty mild, but every now and again you can get some real eye-waterers, so approach with caution!

Spice rating: mild to medium.


You wouldn’t think it, but the ancho chilli is actually a dried poblano pepper. What was once a large, bright green chilli, if left to ripen and then dried for several days, shrivels up and turns a dark red-brown (sometimes almost black). The late harvest and drying out process allows the chilli to develop a deliciously sweet, fruity flavour. These are perfect for grinding and making into a delicious mole or enchilada salsa.

Spice rating: mild to medium.


They may be small and cute-looking, but don’t be fooled: habanero chillis can be lethal. Rated 100,000–350,000 on the Scoville scale, these are one of Mexico’s hottest (back in 2009, it was even voted as one of the world’s hottest by Guinness World Records). Whilst most commonly red or orange, they can be white, brown, yellow, green or purple, depending on how early they’re picked. They’re commonly used for fiery-hot salsas and are most popular in the Yucatán peninsula, the largest producer of habanero chillies.

Spice rating: super hot.


Often mistaken for a jalapeño, the Puebla and Hidalgo-native Serrano pepper is a meaty green chilli between three and 10 centimetres (one and four inches) long. They can vary hugely in spice levels depending on how they’re cooked and how early they’re picked (some are even yellow, red, brown or orange if left to over-ripen), but they’re largely considered to have a comfortable medium kick. You’ll find serrano chillies used for flavouring salsas, or served pickled as a garnish.

Spice rating: medium to hot.

Ling Tang / | © Culture Trip


A dried form of the fresh chilaca pepper, pasilla (literally meaning ‘little raisin’) got its name from the dark and wrinkled skin that forms after dehydration. Because of its rich, sweet flavour, it’s often used as a sauce to accompany meats or fish. The Oaxacan pasilla, a slightly smoked version, is delicious and forms the base of Mexico’s famous mole, a sweet-spicy sauce made from fruit, chocolate, nuts and spices.

Spice rating: mild.


Accounting for around 30% of Mexico’s chilli production, the jalapeño is an undisputed favourite in the country and beyond. This is probably due to its versatility: jalapeños can be pickled, stuffed, fried, smoked and even jellied. You’ll most commonly see them either pickled and diced over nachos, or served whole and lightly charred on the grill as a tasty street taco side.

Spice rating: medium.


The guajillo, a dry, 10- to 15-centimetre (four- to six-inch) chilli with a deep red colour, is considered to be pretty mild by Mexican spice standards, and is mainly used for making rich, sweet sauces or meat marinades. The dried chillies are deseeded, soaked in water and then blended together to make a thin paste ready for cooking. The most popular use of the guajillo pepper is in sauces served with tamales, mole and pambazos.

Spice rating: medium.


The puya, a tiny, bright-red chilli with tough skin, is very similar to the guajillo pepper, only spicier and smaller in size. Just like the guajillo, puya chillies are commonly ground up into a paste and used for sauces and meat marinades. It can also be lightly ground as a chilli dust and sprinkled over dishes for that extra fiery finish. Spicier than the jalapeño, but not as hot as habanero peppers, puya chilli is perfect for those wanting to step it up a little, without the risk of your lips going numb.

Spice rating: hot.


You’re most likely familiar with this name: it is one of the most famous sauces to have come out of Mexico. The name, of course, comes from the vital ingredient that gives the sauce its smoky, medium-spice flavour: the chipotle chilli. Not many people know this, but chipotle is actually just a smoked, dried version of the jalapeño. It’s picked at the very end of the ripening process and then placed in a wood-fire box for several days, turning the fresh, green jalapeño into a dark red, shrivelled chipotle chilli.

Spice rating: hot.

Chiles de Arbol

Probably the most attractive-looking chilli in Mexico, chiles de arbol, with their long, bright-red bodies and even brighter green stems, have captured the imagination of Mexicans for centuries. Because of their beauty (and because they don’t lose their colour once dried), they’re often used as wreath decorations or as a colourful dish garnish. But they’re not just a pretty face: with a heat index of up to 30,000 Scoville units, these potent chillies pack a huge punch. Most similar to cayenne pepper in spice, flavour and aroma, chiles de arbol are popular for adding some fiery heat to salsas.

Spice rating: hot.


Cascabel can be found fresh or dry, but the dried version (small, round and a dark red-brown colour) is the most common. The name cascabel, meaning ‘jingle bell’ in Spanish, comes from the sound the dried chillies make when the seeds rattle inside the hard skin. With a mild, earthy and sometimes smoky flavour, cascabel is most often blended with tomatillo (a small, green Mexican tomato) and served as a side salsa.

Spice rating: mild.