My friend Sandra was born in Puebla, Mexico, the site of the famous Battle of Puebla commemorated on Cinco de Mayo. Every year as the holiday approaches, I ask her to share a traditional Mexican recipe with me. This year she shared her Ensalada de Frutas con Chile – Mexican fruit salad with chile pepper powder. The idea of a spicy, salty, lemony fruit salad intrigued me. I asked Sandra why she adds spicy chile powder to a sweet fruit salad. “In Mexico we put chile on everything,” she said with a smile.
Chile peppers arrived in Mexico from Peru many centuries ago. They are considered a staple item in traditional Mexican cuisine, a part of the country’s cultural and culinary identity. The majority of traditional Mexican recipes contain some type of chile or chile powder. Chile peppers are not always used to add heat; they are valued for their unique flavor that can enhance both sweet and savory foods. Early European reports of the Americas mention chile peppers being added to everything from soups and vegetables to meat and beverages. The strong, spicy flavors were almost intolerable to the European palate, but it was noted that over time the taste became more and more pleasant. Today, many Americans have become accustomed to the spicy flavor of chile peppers in large part due to the influence of Mexican cuisine.
This fruit salad is simple, sweet and unexpected. The blend of sweet, salty, tart and spicy is surprisingly addicting. We used watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, orange and mango, but you can add a variety of other fruits and even cucumber or jicama in the mix. The preparation contains no added sugar, but when made with fruit is sweet enough to serve as a light dessert. The chile, lemon and salt give it a savory depth, making it a nice side dish for a Mexican-style buffet. Careful when adding the chile powder, it is ultra spicy… start with a little sprinkle, then add more as you grow accustomed to the heat.
- 1/2 cup dried chile de árbol
- 12 cups fruit diced into 1-inch chunks - any combination of watermelon, cantaloupe, mango, papaya, pineapple, orange, coconut, jicama and even cucumber works well
- 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, or more to taste
Skillet, spice grinder or mortar and pestle, salad bowl
- Toast the dried chile de árbol peppers in a skillet over medium heat for about 5 minutes till fragrant and toasted-- the seeds should turn golden. Careful not to let the chili toast too much or burn.
- Take the toasted chile peppers out of the skillet, leaving the loose seeds behind to discard.
- Combine the toasted peppers and 1 tsp salt, then make the toasted chiles into powder. You can use a mortar and pestle to grind the chiles and salt to a powder-- this will take 10 minutes or so and a lot of elbow grease. Or, you can grind the peppers and salt together in a spice grinder. Either way, be careful not to inhale the powder-- it's really spicy and will make your nose burn! Also don't touch your eyes while working with the chiles and chile powder.
- In a salad bowl, toss the cubed fruit with fresh lemon juice and 1/2 tsp salt. Add additional salt or lemon juice to taste, if desired.
- Serve fruit salad alongside the toasted chile powder. Guests can sprinkle the chile powder onto their individual salad serving to taste. Younger and spice-sensitive guests may prefer the salad without the spicy powder, and people like varying degrees of spiciness, which is why the chile powder is traditionally served on the side. You may have some chili powder left over, which you can use for future fruit salads, or to sprinkle on chicken or fish-- anywhere you need a salty, spicy kick! Also, Sandra recommends drinking the juice at the bottom of the fruit salad bowl because it is delicious. :)