In the highlands of central Guatemala, the city of Cobán has made a name for itself cultivating cardamom and coffee. But Cobán has a hot secret: Ever since the Maya era—as far as back as 250 A.D.—locals have grown a regional pepper now known as chile Cobanero. This fiery, inch-long specimen has played a key role in centuries’ worth of indigenous cuisine.
The rare variety of Capsicum annuum (a group that includes guajillo chiles and bell peppers) imparts an earthy, fruity aroma and a smoky warmth to grilled meats, stews, and salads by way of spice mixes, rubs, salsas, and hot sauces. Some tasters note a sweetness amidst its bright spiciness, which, at 30,000 to 50,000 in Scoville units, delivers heat akin to a cayenne pepper. By far, the pepper’s most essential role is in making kak’ik, a Q’eqchi’ Maya turkey stew loaded with chiles, tomatoes, and achiote.
Farmers cultivate the raw fruit, which reddens as it vine-ripens, in areas around Cobán. And while the chile can be eaten fresh, it’s the process of smoke-drying that imparts its distinct hue and flavor. Most often, Guatemalan cooks seek Cobaneros from local farmers’ markets. Should you be so lucky as to find yourself near the pepper’s epicenter, you’d be well-advised to stock up while you can.
Where to Try It
Los Tres Tiempos Website6a Avenida "a" 10-13 zona 1, Azotea del Centro, Guatemala City, 7832-5661, Guatemala
This cafe uses cobanero chiles in dishes featured throughout its menu.
Ix Restaurant43 Lincoln Rd, Brooklyn, New York, 11225, United States
Ask for this Guatemalan eatery's B'alam Q'tün hot sauce (toasted cobaneros and garlic ground with black salt and blended with olive oil). You can also buy a jar to take home. They also include the chile in their pepian stew.