The Great Mexican Chili Challenge

By Frederic Friedel

Some years ago I spent quite a bit of time in Mexico — five trips I believe, average two weeks each, as a journalist and software specialist attending world class chess tournaments. Mexico City was scary — more about that in a separate article. Morelia, on the other hand, was the nicest place you can imagine — a beautiful, calm city with the friendliest people. Making eye contact with a stranger on the street, I quickly learned, should be accompanied by a friendly smile. After a few weeks of that you return to Europe, where the appropriate reaction to chance eye contact is to look away quickly and apologetically — “sorry, didn’t mean to offend you, to invade your privacy.”

In Morelia we were treated like kings: stayed in fine hotels, got everything we wanted, quickly and always with an enchantingly friendly smile. And we had meal vouchers — breakfast, lunch and dinner were all paid for by the organisers, and they were valid for one of the best restaurants in Morelia, La Conspiration, just minutes away from the hotel.

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My stay in Morelia, every time I was there, ended with a very important task: a visit to the food market. It is a place where you don’t just buy food, you actually eat it.
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The smells that fill the air cannot be described in words — you have to experience it for yourself.
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Chicharrones and carnitas, offered all over the market for next to nothing

Chicharrones was introduced to me by Guil, a nice Jewish boy who bought copious amounts of it and shared it with our group. Chicharrón is pork rind that has been seasoned and deep fried. You can add salsa verde (green chili sauce), or squeeze lime on them. Don’t get started on it, you cannot stop until you are thoroughly stuffed.

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My Mexican friends — Manuel, Jorge, Lorraina, Guil and Ricardo, pretending to eat habanero chilies— took me to the market was so I could buy an adequate supply of fresh chillies to take home to Hamburg. Habaneros, the deadliest of them all, weigh in at 100,000 to 300,000 Scoville units, enough to kill a horse at twenty paces.

I discovered recently why chillies are hot, from an evolutionary point of view. Normally plants produce fruit so that they are plucked and eaten, so the seeds may be transported by animals to distant locations. So what is the point of producing a fruit that nobody in their right minds would touch (but see below)? Well, it turns out that chili plants have specialised in being transported by certain birds (like parrots) which have no taste buds sensitive to capsaicin, the chemical compound that makes chillies hot.

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Here are the treasures I brought back with me to Hamburg. On the left are the round chili manzana, on the top my favourite jalapeños, on the bottom the hotter green serranos, on the right the sweet pablanos and, in the middle, the deadly orange-red habaneros.

Most of the chillies keep for over a month in my refrigerator, an important factor when you live in a country where Mexican chillies are not readily available, even in gourmet stores.

The Great Mexican Chili Challenge

After the chess event we were all transported to the International Airport at Mexico City for our trip back to Europe. While passing through the baggage check my bag with the chillies sounded off an alarm. Apparently capsaicin — at least a lot of it — can set off the explosive substance detectors. In the end the guards who opened and carefully checked the bag concluded that this was just a European nutcase hooked on Mexican food. They simply laughed at me.

But the others in my group, who saw this happen, wanted to be briefed on what I was transporting. World class chess grandmaster Levon Aronian asked me to show him some of the chillies. I pulled out a bag of dried pequin chilis and handed him a few, with appropriate warnings (they are 30,000–40,000 on the Scoville scale). Levon ate them like popcorn. Peter Svidler, top Russian grandmaster from St. Petersburg, joined the fun and, after tasting a few, made snide remarks about how mild they were. Insulted and bent on revenge, I pulled out one of the — habaneros!

I tried a tiny bit from the tip and was initially disappointed. But then it suddenly came— that terrifying burning sensation that causes your brain to produce endorphins, natural opioids, which ultimately leads to hot foods addiction. Of course the tip is nowhere close to the bottom half with the seeds, which is the deadly part. Levon demanded and reluctantly got half of this. He chomped away at it and looked somewhat dazed: “Okay, that is seriously hot,” he said. But he survived very nicely. And I bowed to him, saying: “In Germany I am the king of hot foods — people come from near and far to watch me eat chillies. But you — you are the ultimate master, compared to you I am a simple amateur.” — “A chilli wuss,” Lev confirmed.

Peter Svidler had watched this all and was consumed with jealousy. “Give me the other half,” he said. “No way,” I replied, “I don’t want to end the life of one of the world’s strongest chess players.” But Peter grabbed it out of my hand and munched away at it, seeds and all, with a contented smile on his face. So I bowed to him and repeated the accolade I had bestowed on Lev. That an aristocratic St. Petersburg boy can take undiluted habaneros was utterly beyond my comprehension.

After the above transpired I went to get some coffee, and when I returned Peter had vanished. “He’s having trouble with your chillies,” the others said. I raced down the hallway searching for him, in panic. I could see the headlines: “Stupid German journalist kills world class chess grandmaster at Mexican airport.” I finally found Peter in the men’s toilet, splashing soapy water from a basin into his face. “I touched my eyes,” he told me, and looked up. They were completely red, almost crimson where the whites normally are. I led him back to the others, where he covered his eyes and said “It is not his fault!” before he took down his hands and showed them what had happened. Peter also had a rough night on the plane, with stomach aches and grumbling. I think he learned an important lesson for life.

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One more little tale: I once bought a bottle of Dave’s Insanity hot sauce. It came in little wooden box with a “Caution” banderol around it and a warning booklet that made sure you knew what you were buying. I tried it out at a dinner: I opened the bottle and touched the rim with the sharp edge of a dinner knife. Then I drew a line on a plate with the sauce. It was barely visible. A young lady who was translating for us at the event took her knife and drew the tip across the line, at 90 degrees. Then she touched the knife briefly to her tongue. She didn’t speak to me for a week.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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