The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Galveston District (SWG) celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM) with a presentation and taste testing at the district’s headquarters, October 5, 2023.
SWG’s Hispanic Employment Program Manager Carlos Gomez and a group of panelists presented ‘¡Caliente!: A presentation on the origins of spicy food’ to the attending audience and those tuning in remotely via WebEx.
Gomez began by posing a question he has heard many times: “Is Latino/Hispanic food spicy?”
“The short answer, yes. It can be very spicy,” Gomez said. “While all Hispanic food isn’t spicy, you could argue that spicy foods—specifically anything incorporating chili peppers—are Latin American in origin.”
According to many scientists and anthropologists, the chili pepper originated somewhere in between Central and South America. Researchers at the New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute specifically traced its origins to an area in Brazil they refer to as the ‘nuclear area’ for having the greatest variety of chili pepper species in the world, Gomez said.
It’s in this area that scientists believe birds—who lack the receptors to feel the heat of the chilies—would eat the plants and then disperse the seeds in their migrations throughout the Americas.
Furthermore, according to the Chile Pepper Institute’s research, chili pepper plants evolved capsaicin—the chemical that makes them spicy—as a defense mechanism to keep mammals from eating them.
The Scoville scale—named for its creator, pharmacist Wilbur Scoville—is a measurement of pungency (spiciness, or ‘heat’) within chili peppers. The different varieties of chilies all rank differently on the Scoville scale due to their different concentrations of capsaicin, Gomez said. The capsaicin concentration in chilies is measured in Scoville heat units, or SHUs.
“Anything from one to 1,000 won’t really do much to you,” Gomez said. “This includes your garden variety bell peppers.”
Chilies ranging in the 1,000 to 2,500 SHUs include poblano, ancho, and cascabel varieties. “You get some heat from these, but it’s still manageable,” Gomez said.
Jalapeños and red Fresno chilies are found between the 2,500 and 15,000 SHU range. “You might start to break a little sweat here,” Gomez professed.
“When you start to move up to the 15,000 to 50,000 range, the capsaicin really starts to do a number on your palette,” Gomez laughed. “Maybe even your sinuses.” This range includes cayenne, serrano, and ‘chile de arbol’ (tree chili) peppers.
Chilies clocking in between 50,000 and 500,000 SHUs might cause severe distress, Gomez warned. “The ability to feel your sinuses is all but gone and you might actually start to feel some real discomfort in your taste buds, mouth, and even your throat.” Habaneros and ghost peppers are found in this range.
Gomez continued with the global spread of the chili pepper.
Christopher Columbus was looking to establish a new spice trading route when he landed in the new world, Gomez said. It was on the island of Hispaniola—home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic—where the Taino natives introduced him to the spicy fruit of the chili plant.
“It has been documented that when he at the fruit he felt a burning sensation, much like the heat from black pepper. So, naturally, he called it pepper,” Gomez said. “That is why we call them peppers to this day.”
Columbus took the chili pepper plant back to Spain with him, which then spread across the eastern hemisphere, throughout the rest of Europe, into the Middle East and Africa, and further east into the Asian continent via established Portuguese trade routes.
Chili peppers are now grown in nearly every country on the globe, Gomez said. They are also used in various cuisines, including Thai, Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Jamaican, Ethiopian, Mexican, and Peruvian.
Gomez and panelists Neil Hoover and Kendell Barber then began their taste tasting of a variety of homemade salsas and hot sauces provided by their SWG colleagues. They invited the audience in attendance to try the salsas—available with tortilla chips at a side table—along with them.
Security Specialist Allen Longoria’s homestyle salsa was first. “This salsa is Allen’s very own recipe which is packed with serrano peppers,” Gomez said. “He won’t say what else is in there, but he proudly stands by his recipe.”
Barber and Hoover both lauded the freshness of the salsa and the bright, biting flavor of the serrano peppers.
“A solid first entry,” Gomez said.
The panel then moved onto a Puerto Rican house salsa made by Senior Project Manager Orlando Ramos-Gines.
Ramos-Gines’ salsa clocked in at about 33,500 SHUs, due to its use of pickled serrano peppers and fresh jalapenos.
The name of the serrano pepper refers to the mountains, or ‘sierras’, of the Puebla and Hidalgo regions of Mexico, where the variety of chili originated, Gomez added.
Barber, Gomez, and Hoover all agreed the thicker chopped vegetables—red onions and tomatoes—made this salsa heartier and enjoyable. The sweetness of the onion also tempered the heat, Gomez said.
The panelists then moved on to what was unanimously the hottest entry of the tasting: a ‘chile del monte’ sauce. The sauce was from Visual Information Specialist Tina Ybarra’s father, Geronimo.
“This sauce is powered by the tiny, but potent, ‘chile pequin,’ commonly known as ‘chile del monte’ or ‘mountain chili’,” Gomez said.
Pequin chilies are found in the wild and grow from Northern Mexico throughout the Southwestern United States, Gomez added. They measure about 85,000 SHUs.
Gomez’s head notably began to sweat after trying the ‘chile del monte’ sauce, much to the audience’s amusement.
Next, the panelists tried a Dominican-style table sauce from a recipe passed down to Gomez from his father, Tomas. The recipe calls for two varieties of the Scotch bonnet pepper—regular and sweet—and ripe, red jalapeños. “This sauce would accompany nearly every meal at my father’s house,” Gomez said.
Barber and Hoover enjoyed the sweeter flavor of the Scotch bonnets. Gomez appreciated the use of vinegar in the recipe to tone down the Scotch bonnet’s extreme heat. “I’m still hurting from the last one,” Gomez laughed.
The last entry was a pineapple and habanero salsa hailing from the Yucatan region of Mexico. The region is also the world’s largest producer of habanero chilies, Gomez said.
Hoover immediately noted the “sweet and heat” balance of the salsa.
“Fun fact: In 1999, the habanero was listed by Guinness World Records as the world’s hottest chili, but has since been displaced by other peppers,” Gomez said.
“I thought the presentation was very informative and fun!” said Lesa Prokopchak, an SWG project scheduler who attended the presentation. Though she enjoyed learning about the origins of the different chilies and how they spread across the world, getting to actually taste the salsas and hot sauces was her favorite part.
“I especially got a kick out of watching Carlos’ head start to glisten as the salsa’s got spicier,” Prokopchak said.
After the taste testing, Gomez thanked the panelists for their bravery in trying out the salsas and the audience for their participation.
“Growing up Hispanic, food is such an integral part of the culture,” Gomez said. Having friends and family members from all over Latin America, Gomez noticed the one common staple on everyone’s dinner table: chilies. “I always thought it was interesting that no matter where in the diaspora they were from—Mexico, Guatemala, Columbia, Puerto Rico—there was always something spicy available to add to their foods.”
Gomez became very intrigued by the concept and decided to look into it further. “The research I came across on the subject was so interesting to me. I thought other people might find it interesting, too.”
Other cultures besides Latinos also enjoy spicy foods, Gomez acknowledged. “That’s why I thought this could be a fun topic to explore while also sharing some information about the culture most might not be aware of.”
The United States celebrates HHM annually from September 15 to October 15. The observation started in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week, under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded it to a month and made it official with the approval of Public Law 100-402.
For more news and information, follow us on Facebook, www.facebook.com/GalvestonDistrict, Twitter, www.twitter.com/USACEgalveston.