In 1933, riding on the back of a second-rate horse, it took the late anthropologist Ralph L. Beals two full days to reach the Mixe town of Ayutla from the Central Valleys of Oaxaca in Mexico—a distance of approximately 90 miles. As he twisted his way up the precipitous hills, Beals found towns clinging to the mountains, sitting among the clouds. At the time, he was among a handful of outsiders allowed within Mixe territory, located on the northeastern highlands of the Sierra Norte.
Even today, when it’s only a four-hour drive from Oaxaca City, visiting this land proves nearly as difficult. But these remote towns are the birthplace of—and one of the only places that grow—a prized culinary product: the chile pasilla Mixe.
While the pasilla has been a staple of Oaxacan gastronomy for at least a century, it’s appeared in the menus of high-end restaurants in New York City, Los Angeles, and Mexico City only in the past decade. Several types of pasillas grow throughout Mexico, but they vary in fragrance, flavor, and purpose. The Oaxacan pasilla is regarded as very high quality, a fact reflected by its price tag: around 300 pesos ($16) in Oaxaca City, and $40 to $60 for a pound in the United States. In her book, Peppers of the Americas, chef and food historian Maricel Presilla describes it as “one of the finest smoke-dried Mexican peppers.” But even motivated chefs with deep pockets can struggle to get their hands on one. The area is simply too remote and production is low and dwindling.