The Spanish word “enchilar” means to apply chile to something. The verb’s most famous form, enchiladas, has come to refer to a pile of tortillas and cheese to which chile has presumably been applied. But a more literal meaning of the dish is something, presumably tortillas, that has been seasoned with chile (or chili, if you’re from outside of the region where it actually comes from).
While enchiladas scored the marquee use of the word, most anything can be enchilado (seasoned with chile), from eggs to meat to potatoes to rice and beans. All it takes is a squirt of hot sauce, a pinch of flakes, or the thick, rich sauce I’m going to teach you how to make.
Outside of the southwest it’s often called enchilada sauce, but in the region it just goes by chile sauce, or even just chile. Given that chile is both noun and verb, both names mean literally the same thing, and both refer to the classic southwestern way of bringing chile into contact with food.
But a question lingers, at least in the minds of the uninitiated. Por que enchilar?
Much has been made about the feelings of pain and heat that chile brings to the table, and these qualities are certainly part of its appeal. Even though enchilando one’s self doesn’t raise one’s body temperature, it will still make one sweat. And the pain…well, it triggers endorphins, which in turn have the effect of dulling pain, even while one’s lips are burning.
There is a tribe of culinary masochists who participate in an extreme form of this fiery cycle of addiction, members of which base their entire eating experience on how much pain they endure. This kind of obsession is behind an arms race among plant breeders to create the spiciest chiles. The long-reigning hottest pepper ever, the Red Habanero, touched 500,000 Scoville Units (the official unit of capsiacum heat). It was eventually usurped by a chile from the jungled mountains of India, known as the Naga Bhut Jolokia, or ghost pepper, which can hit a million Scovilles. The Jolokia was in turn surpassed in rapid succession by the New Mexico Scorpion, Infinity, Naga Viper, and finally the Trinidad Scorpion Butch L., which by some estimates can hit 2 million Scovilles, which, in terms of dosage, is approaching pepper spray-like territory.
To me, eating chile with the exclusive purpose of getting burned from the inside out would be like drinking wine for the singular purpose of getting really drunk.
The wine buzz is nice, but I’m drinking primarily because it does something important to the flavor. Sometimes the flavor is so good with wine that I get more buzzed than I would have liked, and something similar can happen with chile. Chile heat pain produces its own kind of endorphin-fueled buzz, not unlike runners’ high, and it can be fun. The joy of chile is truly in the whole package, however sometimes I need to focus on the flavor of my food. In addition to making food spicy, chile delivers a range of tastes that include bitter and sweet tones, with a pungent aroma and an earthy terroir. But if the chile is so damn hot that it slows me down, I end up eating less of it than I wanted. That’s why when cooking at home I use mild or medium: so I can eat more chile. If I need more heat I can always add it, but it’s extremely difficult to remove.
Hot sauce applies its spicy flavor with the assistance of a tasty vinegar solution, and is without equal in providing surgical chile support where you need it. If you’re lucky enough to have roasted green chile on your hands, that can simply be chopped applied to your food. Same with fresh Jalapenos and other great chiles. In the southwest, homeland of the chile lifestyle, the enchilando mostly happens via a red chile sauce. This blood red gravy has body and gravitas due to its density of chile.
Once a taste for red chile gets into your bones, it can be tough to shake. Luckily, it’s a habit that’s cheap, and wherever you are, the ingredients are easy to find. And it’s about as easy to make as a box of macaroni and cheese.
I should qualify: there is more than one kind of chile sauce, and there are various tricks and surprise ingredients. Some purists will use only the whole dried pod when making chile, and never powder. That is, admittedly, a special way to make chile.
But the kind I’m referring to, the one made with chile powder and roux, is the most common.
Here I’m giving the basic recipe because it is not only easier to make, but its one that you can make anywhere, with ingredients from the ethnic aisle of the Shop ‘n Save in the middle of middle America. You can always get red chile powder. The darker the better. Preferably without any spices mixed in.
The simplest and cheapest form is also the purest, in terms of authenticity. The recipe appears consistently in many cookbooks, with nearly identical proportions and language, as if arrived upon by committee.
New Mexico Red Chile
3 tablespoons fat (I like a mix of butter and olive oil)
2 tablespoons flour
1 garlic clove, minced, smashed or pressed
½ cup chile powder
2 cups water or stock
salt to taste
Optional: a pinch of oregano or Mexican oregano (added with chile powder)
Extra-retro options: pulverized toasted pumpkin seeds instead of flour; add chocolate powder to the finished product; or both
Extra-Controversial: cumin (addition of which, if not mere mention, will get you chewed out or worse in some corners)
Heat the fat on medium. Stir in garlic, cook for a moment, and stir in the flour. Cook until the flour browns, about three or four minutes, pressing out all the lumps with a fork. Turn heat to low and slowly incorporate the chile powder, and then the stock. Bring to a simmer and turn off, or cook slowly if you want something thicker.
So that is red chile sauce. Use it to enchila your tortillas, fold it into your eggs, dip your fries in it, smear it on your burger, or pour it on shrimp, diablo-style.
But one thing you shouldn’t do, by the way, is walk the streets of Albuquerque trying to come off as local by dropping various conjugations of enchilar. Admittedly, none of the various forms that I’ve been using are in common use down south, other than enchiladas. As for enchilando (chile-ing) and enchilla (chile as verb), not to mention the infinitive, enchilar, not so much. If you ever find yourself in chile country, don’t be this goofy. But the sauce itself is no joke.