June 8, 2023

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Delicious food

The Legend of a Mexican Dish That Tells a Country’s Origin Story

Usually appearing on menus in late August ahead of Mexican Independence Day on September 16, the iconic chiles en nogada is a dish to celebrate. Meaning “chiles in walnut sauce,” the plate symbolizes the convergence of religions and traditions that occurred five centuries ago in what is now known as Mexico.

The recipe for chiles en nogada calls for ingredients, flavors, textures, and cooking techniques from across the world. Ground meat (typically beef and pork) is mixed with dried fruits and nuts and swaddled in a mildly spicy poblano pepper. The dish is finished with a light walnut sauce, then sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, and often garnished with parsley. The choice of a poblano pepper — a staple of this delicacy’s birthplace — as the plate’s centerpiece seems like a deliberate act of poetry.

As beautiful as it is delicious — dressed in the Mexican flag’s green, white, and red — chiles en nogada appeals to sight, smell, taste, touch, and identity. Part Spanish and part indigenous, the plate is an allegory of the complexity of the Mexican people. Its emblematic colors and the myths woven around its birth have made chiles en nogada an icon of patriotic pride.

A green chile being roasted on a gas burner

Two well-known legends speak to the creation of chiles en nogada, and both point to Puebla as the fertile Central Mexican ground where it flourished. Surrounded by volcanoes, the colonial city was prosperous and diverse. Its privileged location at the midpoint between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz (the gateway between Spain and the New World) provided its cooks with access to new ingredients and cultures, and thus, culinary sophistication.

A mix of history and myth, the most popular tale places the birth of chiles en nogada at the Convent of Santa Mónica, where Augustinian nuns conjured it up in the 1820s. Famous for their cooking, the nuns were commissioned to prepare a meal for Mexican Emperor Agustín de Iturbide, commander of the Trigarante Army (the unified troops consisting of Spanish and Mexican forces) Iturbide planned to stop in Puebla on his way to Mexico City after signing the Treaty of Córdoba in Veracruz, which declared Mexico’s independence from Spain. His arrival would coincide with the feast of Augustine, his patron saint.

According to legend, to represent the colors of the Trigarante Army, the nuns searched for available green, white, and red ingredients. Iturbide would later design the Mexican flag bearing the same colors.

In his book, Sala de Tapices, Artemio de Valle-Arizpe, a 20th-century writer, added to the dish’s legacy with a story that credits three women — girlfriends of three Trigarante soldiers — with its creation. The sisters, who lived in Puebla, were supposedly excited about the return of their partners and the victory of Iturbide’s mission. The trio asked San Juan Baylón, a patron saint of cooks, for intercession. The women incorporated seasonal ingredients that represented the colors of the Trigarante uniform into their creation.

A green chile roasted and split open on a red cutting board.

A ground beef mixture being spooned into a green pepper.

Both tales recount a delightful plate that represents the identity of a nation and captures the minds and hearts of Mexicans of all walks of life for centuries.

“This is a dish of tradition,” says Alfonso Sotelo at 5 Rabanitos in Pilsen. Sotelo finds great pride in serving a dish “that celebrates Mexico and that represents the flag that we carry in our hearts.”

Beyond the emotions elicited by seeing your country’s emblematic colors on a plate, particularly while being away from it, for many of us, the preparation and enjoyment of a chile en nogada is also an act of communion — an opportunity to bridge the gap that separates us from home, and a means to participate in a collective ritual that is taking place across time and space.

Pomegranate being sprinkled on a green pepper smothered with a cream sauce.

Like many Mexican dishes, making chiles en nogada requires time and hands, and is usually a group activity. Its preparation is a delicate balance between adaptation and preservation. Considering that every cook in every family seems to have a secret recipe, and that the dish’s original ingredients, like candied biznaga — a type of endangered cactus — are no longer available, there is generally room for flexibility within recipes, with one exception: el capeado. For the people of Puebla in particular, el capeado — dipping the pepper in egg batter and then frying it — is fundamental.

Usually appearing on what seems to be every menu on August 28, to coincide with the feast of St. Augustine, the dish recently turned 200 years old. As its popularity continues to skyrocket in Mexico, the long anticipation of enjoying this iconic dish has recently shortened a bit. Provided the availability of the ingredients, this festive delicacy can now be had as early as July.

In Chicago, the plate is also gaining visibility. According to restaurateurs, the demand for chiles en nogada comes from both established fans and new converts who have learned about it through travel, word of mouth, or social media. And while seasonal access may not always be an issue (some eateries do serve them year-round), finding them in Chicago is not always easy.

Here is a list of some of the best, as well as details on their availability.

Chiles en nogada finished on a plate.

The finished product at Más Allá del Sol.

5848 N. Broadway, Edgewater

Much like the nuns from the Santa Mónica convent, Más Allá del Sol’s chef and owner Adan Moreno humbly shares that when members of local religious leadership tried his food, he was commissioned to cook for a group of visitors including the Archbishop of Mexico City.

Moreno decided to incorporate chiles en nogada into his menu after his customers requested them. The plate is demanding, as it requires several steps: from sourcing the ingredients at their peak; to the preparation of the sauce; to the roasting, peeling, and cleaning of the peppers; to the stuffing, and final assembly.

The delicacy became so popular that Moreno now serves it around Mexican Independence Day and brings it back when the green, white, and red must be broken out (Cinco de Mayo, for example).

This year, the Edgewater eatery will have the dish starting on September 15 and again early in May. He recommends calling ahead to confirm availability. Moreno’s recipe does not feature capeado, but he can add it on request.

3023 N. Broadway, Lakeview

Chef Natalie Oswald says her “regular customers are already counting down the days, and first-timers say it tastes like Christmas.” For Oswald, two elements stand out in a successful execution of chiles en nogada: a poblano pepper that is thoroughly cooked but still firm, and a warm sauce that is not burnt or curdled.

Chilam Balam will have chiles en nogada on the menu starting September 3 through mid-October.

1758 W. 18th Street, Pilsen

Chef Alfonso Sotelo talks with excitement about chiles en nogada, which he serves at his Pilsen restaurant for Fiestas Patrias, or Mexican national holidays.

Sotelo’s recipe incorporates pork and beef, which he mixes with a selection of fruits, including plantains, pears, and peaches. The poblano pepper is simultaneously a flavor, a texture, and a vehicle. “It has to be just right,” he adds.

The plate is available at 5 Rabanitos starting Labor Day weekend and will remain on the menu for the entire month of September.

2834 W. Cermak Road, Little Village

Chiles en nogada fans rejoice, as this dish is on the menu year-round at La Casa de Samuel in Little Village. But this is no easy feat: The elaborate preparation and need for certain ingredients demand commitment and discipline. “We are always, always on the lookout for pomegranate,” says chef Arturo Linares. Already an established destination for traditional Mexican plates, here chiles en nogada holds its own due to its emblematic nature, emotional charge, and flavors. According to Linares, “We are fully invested in the plate’s preparation process, and we are proud and excited every time we serve it.”

Try it with their hand-made tortillas.

1116 Madison Street, Oak Park

According to the suburban team at New Rebozo, calls from patrons asking if chiles en nogada is available pour in as the season approaches. Famous for his mole, another jewel in the crown of Mexican Baroque cuisine, chef Francisco Lopez, also known as “Chef Paco,” has featured the dish since he opened his suburban restaurant 30 years ago: “Back when not many people knew about it,” he says. In his cuisine, Chef Paco finds his guiding philosophy: “Savory, sweet, spicy, soft, crunchy, a chile en nogada is like life. A good one has balance.”

The dish is available now through January.