Finding edible treasures of the world only available in their home regions is becoming increasingly rarer, thanks to today’s global economy lush with specialty food importers and exporters. Tasting the world without leaving home is a cinch when you can order Amazonian acai on Amazon.com, grab imported Italian pastas off shelves at your local grocery store and purchase jamones from Spain from a website dedicated to spreading Spanish porky joy across the Atlantic.
However, on a recent trip to Guatemala, I encountered a new spice, wholly unlike anything I’ve tasted: Chile Cobanero.
Sourced from the small central Guatemalan city of Cobán (population 250,000), this pepper, a hyper-regional variety of Capsicum annuum (other family members include the common chili pepper, the guajillo chile and bell peppers) is dried, smoked and pulverized to create a tongue-tickling spice similar to hot paprika.
With a manageable heat level that dresses up pretty much any savory dish – not unlike Frank’s Hot Sauce and Sriracha – you’ll want to sprinkle chile cobanero on everything.
I first discovered the cobán chile on the table at Kokum, an upscale Mayan restaurant in Guatemala City. The bright red powder sat unassumingly in a small bowl, which I used to flavor my pepían, an ancient Mayan stew made with chicken, sesame paste and slow-cooked tomatillos. One sprinkle of the surprisingly flavorful red flakes (think Italian red pepper flakes, but more savory and coarsely ground) wasn’t enough – I was instantly entranced by their incomparable flavor. A quick inquiry to my server about what this mysterious red powder was informed me that I better stock up: Chile cobanero is nearly impossible to source outside of Central America.
A less ethical person may have snatched the small bowl off the table, determined to bring this rare seasoning back stateside; the unique depth of flavor pretty much unknown to North American spice cabinets was making me greedy. Instead, I garnered advice back at my hotel.
Originally from Chile, Patricio Gandasegui, executive chef at the Courtyard by Marriott Guatemala City, is a fan of the Guatemalan spice, sprinkling it on pizza and using it as an ingredient in his sauces, soups and broths. Gandasegui recommends buying chile cobanero in Alta Verapaz, the central region of Guatemala from which the raw pepper is sourced. But if you can’t make it to the area, the spice is distributed to local supermarkets around Guatemala, where, yes, you should probably stock up with as much of this obscure red spice as you can carry home.
*This article was first published in October 2017.