The History of Mexican Chile Rellenos

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The History of Mexican Chile Rellenos
The History of Mexican Chile Rellenos (Image: JoePhoto: Flickr.com)

Chiles rellenos, or stuffed chiles, are one of the most emblematic dishes in Mexican cuisine, with origins dating back to the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century. A variety of chile relleno, the chile en nogada, has an especially important significance in Mexican cultural identity because of its historic connection with Mexico's independence from Spain.

Origins

As with Mexican culture as a whole, much of Mexico's culinary tradition derives from the mixture, or mestizaje, of Spanish and indigenous customs. The chile relleno, a roasted poblano chile stuffed with cheese or meats and covered in an egg batter and fried, is part of this tradition. According to the Mexican culture website mexicolindoyquerido.com, the chile relleno resulted from a "fortunate mixture of indigenous and European ingredients---a fusion of the native vegetable ... with the foreign filling of sardines, cheese or picadillo (pork diced with raisins, nuts and seasoning). ... And that's how chiles rellenos increasingly became one of Mexican society's most requested foods."

Puebla Connection

Because the chile relleno is traditionally made with a poblano chile, and poblano is a term used to refer to people and things from the city and state of Puebla, the chile relleno is widely considered to have originated in Puebla. In fact, nuns from Puebla are credited with having invented a variety of the chile relleno called the chile en nogada, perhaps modern Mexico's most patriotic dish.

The chile en nogada is a known for its patriotic color scheme. (Arturo Sanchez: Flickr.com)
The chile en nogada is a known for its patriotic color scheme. (Arturo Sanchez: Flickr.com)

Chile en Nogada

According to legend, Agustin de Iturbide, the one-time royalist who engineered the final defeat of the Spanish army in Mexico, decided to celebrate the day of his patron saint, San Agustin, in Puebla on Aug. 28, 1821. He was on his way back to Mexico City from the state of Veracruz after having just signed the Treaty of Cordoba granting Mexico independence from Spain.

The celebration was held at a local convent, where nuns created a special dish for the occasion: a chile relleno covered in nogada, a walnut-cream sauce that takes its name from the Spanish word nogal, meaning walnut tree. On top of the white sauce they sprinkled green parsley and red pomegranate seeds, giving the dish the red-white-and-green color scheme of the Mexican flag. And thus was born a patriotic culinary tradition.

Doubters

Historian Jose Luis Juarez Lopez notes in an article published in the September 2005 edition of the journal Correo del Maestro that while chiles rellenos were documented for hundreds of years in Mexico, chiles en nogada did not appear in Mexican culinary references until decades after Iturbide's legendary stopover in Puebla. Even an 1849 "Manual for the Cook" published in Puebla made no reference to chiles en nogada. Instead, it gave a recipe for hen in nogada sauce.

According to Juarez Lopez, the first published culinary reference to chiles rellenos covered in nogada sauce came in 1858 in the book "Nuevo cocinero mexicano en forma de diccionario," or "New Mexican Cooking in Dictionary Form," which provided a recipe for "chiles rellenos en nogada." This recipe was for a poblano chile stuffed with pork and covered with walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds, although Juarez Lopez notes that the pomegranate seeds were optional, listed as "if you wish." It was not until the 1920s that the chile en nogada became a fixture in Mexican cookbooks, he says, adding that: "One of the basic aspects of Mexican culinary history is the construction of the imaginary."

In Season

Chiles rellenos are found on Mexican menus throughout the year. Because of its connection to the Day of San Agustin and Mexican independence, which is celebrated on Sept. 16, chiles en nogada are most common in late August and early September.

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