When Columbus returned to Spain from his historic journeys to the Americas, he brought back two epoch-making botanical specimens which were to shape the destinies, fortunes, health, cuisine and even the economies of the world. One was tobacco, the other, the chilli pepper. Both, interestingly enough, along with tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes are members of the night-shade family, Solanaceae. Truly New World plants, the genus Capsicum of the family Solanaceae encompasses all of the pepper family, from the mild sweet bell pepper to the hottest of all chilli peppers, the fiery Habañero. Columbus mistakenly thought he had the seeds of the black pepper (Piper nigrum) which is an Asian shrub and totally unrelated to capsicums. Black pepper had been introduced to Europe by Marco Polo when he returned from the Orient in 1295, and even in 1492 it was rare and commanded a premium price, sometimes as high as silver in the spice-hungry markets of Europe. In January of 1493, Columbus wrote in his journal concerning the use of the chilli pepper in the New World: "The land was found to produce much aji, which is the pepper of the inhabitants. They deem it very wholesome and eat nothing without it." Happily, the Old World found chilli peppers a delightful substitute for black pepper, and by the 17th century, they were universally used and loved.
The origin of the chilli pepper is thought to be tropical South America in the Amazon Basin area of southern Brazil and western Bolivia. From there it spread northward to Central America, the Caribbean, and southwestern United States. This dispersion was facilitated by birds, which have a great fondness for both the seeds and whole pods of the plant. Apparently, they are not affected by the heat of the peppers, and the seeds pass unharmed through their gastrointestinal tracts with subsequent germination. Larger animals like squirrels and rabbits do not appear to be attracted to the hot chilli peppers, and our two Labrador retrievers, which readily eat tropical fruits like mango, canistel, and even citrus, gave them a wide berth. In addition, trade between the peoples of South and mesoamerica helped in the dissemination of the chilli pepper.
In southern Mexico, chilli peppers have been part of the human diet since about 7500 B. C. Archaeological digs uncovered the remains of hot chillies in coprolites (fossilized excrement) believed to be over 9000 years old. Some of these wild chillies are still found and gathered in the Sonoran desert today. Domestication of chillies did not take place until about 2000 years ago. From the time of the earliest Americans 10,000 years ago, chillies have been an integral part of the culinary, religious, and social customs of the indigenous peoples of the New World. In 1529, a Spanish friar living in Mexico noted that "The Aztecs ate hot red and yellow chilli peppers in their chocolate and in nearly every other dish they prepared." The Mayans revered the chilli peppers and used them extensively. For breakfast, they ate a gruel of ground maize spiced with chilli peppers, which were also used in tortillas and just about all of the Mayan dishes. To the Incas, Brother Chilli Pepper was one of the four brothers of the Creation myth.
The fascination with, and the passion for, chilli peppers is related of course to their special taste and unique hotness which is due to a very stable alkaloid called capsaicin. This substance has no flavour, colour, or odour and is not affected by freezing or heating. It is so powerful that a single drop diluted in 100,000 parts of water produces a persistent burning of the tongue, and when diluted one in 1,000,000 still produces perceptible warmth. Capsaicin is produced by glands at the junction of the placenta and the pod wall. The placenta is at the stem end of the pepper, and is the septum or partition to which the seeds adhere. This is the hottest part of the pepper, and the seeds and rest of the fruit are only about 1/20th as potent. Since the ratio of placenta to the rest of the fruit is greatest in the smaller peppers, most of the really hot varieties are less than three inches in length. The red pepper shakers found in most pizza parlors consists mostly of seeds which have little heat, in spite of what most people think.
The sensation of heat created by capsaicin is caused by irritation of pain receptors located in the mouth, throat, and stomach. They release substance P. which causes the brain to release endorphins, morphine-like pain killers, that give the body a sense of well-being and also stimulate the appetite. Substance P. is also mucokinetic, causing the nose to run ("salsa sniffles"), sinuses to drain, the eyes to water and coughing, sneezing and expectoration to commence. Gustatory sweating, symmetrical perspiration of the head and neck and facial flushing also occur. Capsaicin sprays have been successfully used to repel grizzly bears and have replaced tear gas in many police departments. They are also used by mailpersons (politically correct!) to ward off unfriendly dogs. In spite of its dramatic immediate effect, no lasting damage occurs even when sprayed directly into the face and eyes.
The heat of capsaicin is measured in two ways. The Scoville Organoleptic Test uses a panel of five tasters who grade the heat from 1 to 10 in multiples of 100 (Scoville units). Due to the subjective nature of this test, it was replaced in 1980 by high pressure liquid chromatography. This technique measures capsaicin in parts per million which is then converted into Scoville units. Thus a rating of 10 (habañero) would be equivalent to 100,000 to 300,000 Scoville units. A jalapeño would be 5, equivalent to 2500 to 5000 Scoville units; a sweet bell pepper would have a rating of 0 and 0 Scoville units. Pure capsaicin has a rating of 15 million Scoville units.
Although hot chilli peppers have been used extensively throughout Central and South America, Europe, Africa, Indonesia, India and China for centuries, it was not until the early 1970s that the introduction of diverse ethnic groups and their exotic and exciting cuisines stimulated the use these chilli peppers throughout the United States.
The almost universal passion for chilli peppers is a little hard to understand, considering the mouth-searing, tongue-numbing, lip-burning, eye-watering, sweat-inducing and face-flushing that can be so readily induced by the really hot peppers. However, it is a long way from the pleasant warmth caused by a few drops of hot sauce or jalapeño relish to eating whole hot chilli peppers. Chilli aficionados seem to acquire some tolerance for even the hottest peppers. Capsaicin-induced release of endorphins give the body a feeling of well-being and increase the taste and enjoyment of food. The same endorphins have also been implicated as the cause of the so-called "runner's high". Others believe that chilli eaters experience a 'rush' similar to that produced by psychotropic agents. This has been described as "culinary skydiving" or "mouth surfing".
Of course, all of this is medically benign and comparable to any other gustatory delight. Indeed, chilli peppers are good for you, low in calories and sodium and high in vitamins A and C as well as being good sources of potassium, folic acid, and vitamin E. As far back as 1653, Spanish sailors discovered that chillies, like citrus, prevented scurvy. In 1988, Dr David Graham and colleagues at Baylor University School of Medicine in Houston, Texas, concluded after exhaustive studies - including spraying Tabasco sauce under endoscopic examination directly onto the stomach lining - that chillies "add to the flavour and enjoyment of eating and do not appear to cause stomach lining damage".
From ancient times, chillies have been used as an aphrodisiac and for every known human ailment from acne and arthritis to hemorrhoids and vertigo. Capsaicin has been medically tested for use in several conditions including allergies, and for pain relief. Due to increasing demand, the production of chilli peppers has more than doubled in the last ten years. In 1991, New Mexico alone had 39,000 acres under cultivation, and there are large plantings in Texas, California, Arizona and Louisiana.
This love affair with chilli peppers has given rise to large subculture including magazines, newsletters, books, seed catalogs, and an incredible variety of food products and recipes from applesauce to salsas. Clothing and other articles use the familiar long red chilli pepper as a logo. We even have a well-known rock band called The Red Hot Chilli Peppers! The Chilli Appreciation Society and the International Chilli Society as well as all kinds of organizations sponsor the use of chillies in a multiplicity of foods and recipes as well as in the popular chilli "cook-off" contests.
The chilli pepper is a small woody shrub rarely exceeding four feet in height. Seeds germinate at temperatures around 55°F. at night and 85° during the daytime, the green pods appearing in 55- 75 days. Maturing fully in 70-150 days. Germination may be helped by first soaking the seeds for four hours in a solution of ½ teaspoon of saltpetre (potassium nitrate, obtainable from your friendly pharmacist) in one quart of water.
They are planted as annuals in cooler climates, and when containerized, can be brought inside as house plants during the winter. They will not tolerate freezing. In tropical climates, they grow as perennials, and in general, the hotter the climate the hotter the pepper. In the warmer parts of Florida, they do well although some varieties do not like our high humidity, especially in summertime, and do better if planted early like tomatoes. Although self-fertile, they are very easily cross-pollinated so that a mild pepper may become unexpectedly warm while a hot pepper may become milder if grown in the same area. This unintended hybridization results in seeds which are unreliable and will not come true to type.
Chillies come in various shapes, sizes, colours, and degree of heat. Although there are only five recognized species of domesticated hot peppers, (Capsicum annuum, C. frutescens, C. baccatum, C. pubescens, and C. chinense) there are hundreds of hybrids resulting from cross-pollination as well as numerous unclassified wild varieties. Let's now look at some of these beauties:
This is the generic South American term of Chilli pepper, but the aji pepper itself is small, pointed, yellow and very hot, 8 on the heat scale. It grows well in the Andes and is especially popular in Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and northern Argentina.
Although now more accurately classified as one of the New Mexican varieties, it is still known in supermarkets by its old familiar name of Anaheim. There are now several varieties of New Mexican peppers of variable hotness, usually 2 to 4 on the heat scale. These are the familiar long, large, green or red (when fully ripe) peppers seen all over the southwestern United States. They are sometimes stuffed (rellenos) and are used throughout the Southwest for salsas, salads, soups stews, meat and fish dishes. Dried red pods are strung together to form "ristras", which hang from every conceivable place in New Mexico, where it is the state vegetable.
(A few years ago we stopped at a small store in Taos, New Mexico. Noticing a pathetic, shriveled little orange on the owner's lunch plate, I couldn't help boasting about our plump, sweet and juicy Florida oranges. I promised to send her a box. A few weeks later, I received a thank you note and a beautiful, shiny red ristra which we still proudly display in our kitchen.)
This is a fairly large heart-shaped pepper. In its green form, it is often called Poblano (people's pepper) and due to its relative mildness - 3 on the heat scale - is stuffed with meat or cheese for the familiar chilli rellenos in every Mexican restaurant. When dried, they are dark, reddish-brown and used for making sauces and "moles", (Spanish for "mixture") as in guacamole.
This is a long, red, very hot chilli, 8 on the heat scale, from French Guiana. It is most frequently ground up to form "cayenne red pepper" but can also be used in sauces and to spice up Cajun and Asian dishes.
A small round green or red pepper, of variable heat, used primarily for pickling and frequently seen in salads or served with sandwiches. Incidentally, many of the small ornamental peppers used as house plants such as Fiesta and Fips, of varying colours - cream, purple, orange, red - can be eaten and are frequently very hot.
Also known as "pequin", "tepin" or "bird pepper", with small round or oblong fruit that derives its name form the native Indian word meaning "flea". It is a real "gringo huanuchi" - "gringo killer", with a heat index of 9. The only form of wild pepper found in the United States, it has been gathered and used by the Indians of the Sonoran desert for centuries. It is used in soups, stews and bean dishes. I gathered my own special variety while walking through the Mayan ruins at Quirigua in Guatemala.
Unequivocally the mother of all chilli peppers with a heat index of 10, it is 40-60 times hotter than the jalapeño. Supposedly originating near Havana, Cuba, it is known in the Caribbean as the 'Bahamian', 'Scots' or 'Scotch Bonnet' because of its shape. A small pepper, that when ripe is orange or red, it is the world's hottest pepper - definitely not for the faint of heart or mouth. There is a wonderful description in "Smithsonian", January 1992, where the writer experienced salsa de chilli habañero in the Yucatan peninsula: "The flavour of the peppers comes through first, and then, a few milliseconds later, the capsaicin roars to my brain with an unmitigated ferocity. They are savage, thermonuclear chillies that threaten to tear the top of my head off. My tongue, the inside of my mouth, the back of my throat and my lips are engulfed in a conflagration. I pant in and out rapidly. Sweat beads on my forehead and under my eyes. I grope for my glass of water but remember that water won't douse the four-alarm fire. It only spreads it around. Beer doesn't work either." As a matter of fact, alcohol only increase the vasodilation and sweating. The only successful fire extinguisher we know of is milk and of course, ice cream. Habañeros are used in salads, salsas and in many commercial fiery sauces. In Mexico, hard-core habañero lovers eat them roasted and served with a lime wedge and salt, along with the local "cerveza" (beer).
Deriving its name from the Mexican city of Xalpa, it rates a level of 5 on the heat scale. Grown extensively in Mexico and Texas it is used green or ripe-red in salsas, breads, sauces, soup etc., roasted, or commonly pickled and sliced as "hot peppers" on sandwiches and salads.. In 1988 a certain John Espinosa "ate" his way into the Guinness Book of World Records by consuming an incredible 29 jalapeños in two minutes flat!
Thought of as a non-pungent pepper powder imported from Hungary, paprika is a distinctive type of red pepper brought into Europe by the conquering Ottoman Turks. It has a variable heat index, and the sweeter, milder varieties are known as pimentos or pimientos. The yellow wax peppers may be sweet with a low heat index like the banana pepper, or very hot as in the Hungarian yellow wax hot variety with a heat index of 8. Both have a similar innocent pale golden-yellow appearance, so be careful to check the variety! In 1937, Professor Szent-Gyorgyi received the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his work with vitamin C, which he isolated from paprika peppers that he found in his wife's kitchen.
Named after the city of Tabasco in Mexico, this famous chilli was first introduced into Louisiana by a Colonel White, who gave some seed and sauce to Edmund McIlleny. He planted the seeds on his plantation on Avery Island, which is not really an island but an oily salt dome, seven miles south of New Iberia. In 1870, Edmund McIlleny obtained a patent on his Tabasco sauce and opened an office in London to handle the European market. Walter McIlleny attributed a great deal of the public's enthusiasm for Tabasco sauce to the surging use of vodka, especially in the form of the popular Bloody Mary, which devotees deemed completely unacceptable without dash or two of Tabasco. The sauce is essential in Cajun and Creole cuisine. In 1985, 70 million bottles of sauce were sold - no bar or restaurant in the world is without one.
Ripe tabasco chillies are harvested manually, which causes painful burning of the hands; because of this and because Louisiana growers could not compete with cheaper labour elsewhere, Avery Island's crop has shrunk to about 2%. Most of the peppers for this famous sauce are now grown in Mexico, Honduras, Colombia and Venezuela. Reports indicate Hurricane Andrew devastated sugar cane fields in the Avery Island area; the remaining tabasco plantings may also have suffered the same fate.
There are a large number of wild peppers that remain to be classified. Deep in the Honduran countryside, and off a bumpy gravel road leading to El Salvador lies the remote and beautiful Valle (valley) de Otoro. Visiting an isolated farm, I noticed some small, round, bright red chilli peppers growing against an ancient, all-but-abandoned building. My wife Jeanne immediately incorporated these into our "pupusas", which are corn tortillas filled with local Honduran white cheese. After the initial "zing", the heat and burning dissipated very rapidly, leaving our mouths pleasantly warm. It was a unique culinary experience that left both of us with a delicious feeling of increased taste awareness and satisfaction. These little gems have germinated here at home and will be a wonderful delight in the future. There are many Mayan ruins and artifacts in that area, and I feel that these peppers link us with that ancient and remarkable civilization.
This truly New World tropical fruit that Columbus introduced to Europe in 1493 is now regularly used by three-fourths of the world. It is now returning to its roots, especially in New Mexico and California, and Floridians also deserve a piece of the chilli pie! Chillies are an adventure, and I hope that this article will serve as an introduction to wonderful and exciting new taste sensations.
Oh, by the way - forget about grape jelly on your breakfast toast; it's time for jalapeño jelly (see the recipe for Jalapeño Jelly in the Recipe Section.)
(N.B. The word 'CHILE' has been changed to the English spelling 'CHILLI' for our RFCA readers to avoid any misunderstanding.)
DATE: May 1993
* * * * * * * * * * * * *