The chili pepper (also chile pepper or chilli pepper, from Nahuatl is the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum, members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. In Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Malaysia and other Asian countries, the word "pepper" is usually omitted.
The substances that give chili peppers their intensity when ingested or applied topically are capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide) and several related chemicals, collectively called capsaicinoids.
Chili peppers originated in the Americas. After the Columbian Exchange, many cultivars of chili pepper spread across the world, used in both food and medicine. Chilies were brought to Asia by Portuguese navigators during the 16th century.
India is the world's largest producer, consumer and exporter of chili peppers. Guntur District in Andhra Pradesh produces 30% of all the chilies produced in India, and the state of Andhra Pradesh as a whole contributes 75% of India's chili exports.
Chili peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BC. The most recent research shows that chili peppers were domesticated more than 6000 years ago in Mexico, in the region that extends across southern Puebla and northern Oaxaca to southeastern Veracruz, and were one of the first self-pollinating crops cultivated in Mexico, Central and parts of South America.
Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to encounter them (in the Caribbean), and called them "peppers" because they, like black and white pepper of the Piper genus known in Europe, have a spicy hot taste unlike other foodstuffs. Upon their introduction into Europe, chilis were grown as botanical curiosities in the gardens of Spanish and Portuguese monasteries. But the monks experimented with the chili culinary potential and discovered that their pungency offered a substitute for black peppercorns, which at the time were so costly that they were used as legal currency in some countries.
Chilies were cultivated around the globe after Columbus. Diego Álvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus' second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, brought the first chili peppers to Spain and first wrote about their medicinal effects in 1494.
The spread of chili peppers to Asia was most likely a natural consequence of its introduction to Portuguese traders (Lisbon was a common port of call for Spanish ships sailing to and from the Americas) who, aware of its trade value, would have likely promoted its commerce in the Asian spice trade routes then dominated by Portuguese and Arab traders. Today chillies are an integral part of Indian cuisine.
There is a verifiable correlation between the chili pepper geographical dissemination and consumption in Asia and the presence of Portuguese traders, India and southeast Asia being obvious examples.
The chili pepper features heavily in the cuisine of the Goan region of India, which was the site of a Portuguese colony (e.g., vindaloo, an Indian interpretation of a Portuguese dish). Chili peppers journeyed from India, through Central Asia and Turkey, to Hungary, where they became the national spice in the form of paprika.
An alternate, although not so plausible account (no obvious correlation between its dissemination in Asia and Spanish presence or trade routes), defended mostly by Spanish historians, was that from Mexico, at the time a Spanish colony, chili peppers spread into their other colony the Philippines and from there to India, China, Indonesia. To Japan, it was brought by the Portuguese missionaries in 1542, and then later, it was brought to Korea.
In 1995 archaeobotanist Hakon Hjelmqvist published an article in Svensk Botanisk Tidskrift claiming there was evidence for the presence of chili peppers in Europe in pre-Columbian times. According to Hjelmqvist, archaeologists at a dig in St Botulf in Lund found a Capsicum frutescens in a layer from the 13th century. Hjelmqvist thought it came from Asia. Hjelmqvist also said that Capsicum was described by the Greek Theophrastus (370–286 BCE) in his Historia Plantarum, and in other sources. Around the first century CE, the Roman poet Martialis (Martial) mentioned "Piperve crudum" (raw pepper) in Liber XI, XVIII, allegedly describing them as long and containing seeds (a description which seems to fit chili peppers - but could also fit the long pepper, which was well known to ancient Romans).
Species and cultivars
See also: List of Capsicum cultivars
The five domesticated species of chili peppers are as follows:
- Capsicum annuum, which includes many common varieties such as bell peppers, wax, cayenne, jalapeños, and the chiltepin
- Capsicum frutescens, which includes malagueta, tabasco and Thai peppers, piri piri, and Malawian Kambuzi
- Capsicum chinense, which includes the hottest peppers such as the naga, habanero, Datil and Scotch bonnet
- Capsicum pubescens, which includes the South American rocoto peppers
- Capsicum baccatum, which includes the South American aji peppers
Though there are only a few commonly used species, there are many cultivars and methods of preparing chili peppers that have different names for culinary use. Green and red bell peppers, for example, are the same cultivar of C. annuum, immature peppers being green. In the same species are the jalapeño, the poblano (which when dried is referred to as ancho), New Mexico (which is also known as chile, Anaheim, serrano, and other cultivars.
Peppers are commonly broken down into three groupings: bell peppers, sweet peppers, and hot peppers. Most popular pepper varieties are seen as falling into one of these categories or as a cross between them.
The substances that give chili peppers their intensity when ingested or applied topically are capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide) and several related chemicals, collectively called capsaicinoids. Capsaicin is also the primary component in pepper spray, a less-than-lethal weapon.
When consumed, capsaicinoids bind with pain receptors in the mouth and throat that are responsible for sensing heat. Once activated by the capsaicinoids, these receptors send a message to the brain that the person has consumed something hot. The brain responds to the burning sensation by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and release of endorphins. A 2008 study reports that capsaicin alters how the body's cells use energy produced by hydrolysis of Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). In the normal hydrolysis the SERCA protein uses this energy to move calcium ions into the sarcoplasmic reticulum. When capsaicin is present, it alters the conformation of the SERCA, and thus reduces the ion movement; as a result the ATP energy (which would have been used to pump the ions) is instead released as thermal energy.
The "heat" of chili peppers was historically measured in Scoville heat units (SHU), which is a measure of the dilution of an amount of chili extract added to sugar syrup before its heat beju
Notably hot chili peppers
Some of the world's hottest chili peppers are:
Chili pepper pods, which are berries, are used fresh or dried. Chilies are dried to preserve them for long periods of time, which may also be done by pickling.
Dried chilies are often ground into powders, although many Mexican dishes including variations on chiles rellenos use the entire chili. Dried whole chilis may be reconstituted before grinding to a paste. The chipotle is the smoked, dried, ripe jalapeño.
Many fresh chilies such as poblano have a tough outer skin that does not break down on cooking. Chilis are sometimes used whole or in large slices, by roasting, or other means of blistering or charring the skin, so as not to entirely cook the flesh beneath. When cooled, the skins will usually slip off easily.
The leaves of every species of Capsicum are edible. Though almost all other Solanaceous crops have toxins in their leaves, chile peppers do not. The leaves, which are mildly bitter and nowhere near as hot as the fruit, are cooked as greens in Filipino cuisine, where they are called dahon ng sili (literally "chili leavesy"). They are used in the chicken soup, tinola. In Korean cuisine, the leaves may be used in kimchi. In Japanese cuisine, the leaves are cooked as greens, and also cooked in tsukudani style for preservation.
Chili is by far the most important fruit in Bhutan. Local markets are never without chili, always teemed with different colors and sizes, in fresh and dried form. Bhutanese call this crop ema (in Dzongkha) or solo (in Sharchop). Chili is a staple fruit in Bhutan; the ema datsi recipe is entirely made of chili mixed with local cheese. Chili is also an important ingredient in almost all curries and food recipes in the country.
In India, most households always keep a stack of fresh hot green chilis at hand, and use them to flavor most curries and dry dishes. It is typically lightly fried with oil in the initial stages of preparation of the dish. Some states in India, such as Rajasthan, make entire dishes only by using spices and chilies.
Chilies are present in many cuisines. Some notable dishes other than the ones mentioned elsewhere in this article include:
- Chicken Paprikash from Hungary uses significant amounts of mild, ground, dried chilies, aka paprika, in a braised chicken dish.
- Paprykarz szczeciński is a Polish fish paste with rice, onion, tomato concentrate, vegetable oil, chili pepper powder and other spices.
- Chiles en nogada from the Puebla region of Mexico uses fresh mild chilies stuffed with meat and covered with a creamy nut-thickened sauce. , pounded in a mortar.
- Nam phrik is a traditional Thai sauce prepared with chopped fresh or dry chilies in fish sauce and lime juice.
- Sambal Belacan (pronounced 'blachan') is a traditional Malay sauce made by frying a mixture of mainly pounded dried chillies and fermented prawn paste. It is customarily served with rice dishes and is especially popular when mixed with crunchy pan-roasted ikan bilis (sun dried anchovies) when it is known as Sambal Ikan Bilis.
- Curry dishes which usually contain fresh or dried chillies.
Fresh or dried chilies are often used to make hot sauce, a liquid condiment – usually bottled when commercially available – that adds spice to other dishes. Hot sauces are found in many cuisines including harissa from North Africa, chili oil from China (known as rāyu in Japan), and sriracha from Thailand.
Psychologist Paul Rozin suggests that eating chilis is an example of a "constrained risk" like riding a roller coaster, in which extreme sensations like pain and fear can be enjoyed because individuals know that these sensations are not actually harmful. This method lets people experience extreme feelings without any risk of bodily harm.
Capsaicin is considered a safe and effective topical analgesic agent in the management of arthritis pain, herpes zoster-related pain, diabetic neuropathy, mastectomy pain, and headaches. However, a study published in 2010 has linked capsaicin to skin cancer.
Conflicts between farmers and elephants have long been widespread in African and Asian countries, where pachyderms nightly destroy crops, raid grain houses, and sometimes kill people. Farmers have found the use of chilies effective in crop defense against elephants. Elephants don't like capsaicin, the chemical in chilies that makes them hot. Because the elephants have a large and sensitive olfactory and nasal system, the smell of the chili causes them discomfort and deters them from feeding on the crops. By planting a few rows of the pungent fruit around valuable crops, farmers create a buffer zone through which the elephants are reluctant to pass. Chilly-Dung Bombs are also used for this purpose. They are bricks made of mixing dung and chili, and are burned, creating a noxious smoke that keeps hungry elephants out of farmers fields. This can lessen dangerous physical confrontation between people and elephants.
As birds have a lessened sensitivity to the effects of chili it can be used to keep mammalian vermin from bird seed (see Evolutionary Advantages below).
Red chilies contain large amounts of vitamin C and small amounts of carotene (provitamin A). Yellow and especially green chilies (which are essentially unripe fruit) contain a considerably lower amount of both substances. In addition, peppers are a good source of most B vitamins, and vitamin B6 in particular. They are very high in potassium, magnesium, and iron. Their very high vitamin C content can also substantially increase the uptake of non-heme iron from other ingredients in a meal, such as beans and grains.
Birds do not have the same sensitivity to capsaicin, because it targets a specific pain receptors in mammals. Chili peppers are eaten by birds living in the chili peppers' natural range. The seeds of the peppers are distributed by the birds that drop the seeds while eating the pods, and the seeds pass through the digestive tract unharmed. This relationship may have promoted the evolution of the protective capsaicin. Products based on this substance have been sold to treat the seeds in bird feeders to deter squirrels and other mammalian vermin without also deterring birds. Capsaicin is also a defense mechanism against microbial fungi that invade through punctures made in the outer skin by various insects.
Spelling and usage
The three primary spellings are chili, chile and chilli, all of which are recognized by dictionaries.
- Chili is widely used in the United States and Canada. However, it is also commonly used as a short name for chili con carne (literally chili with meat). Most versions are seasoned with chili powder, which can refer to pure dried, ground chili peppers, or to a mixture containing other spices.
- Chile is the most common Spanish spelling in Mexico and several other Latin American countries, as well as some parts of the United States and Canada, which refers specifically to this plant and its fruit. In the Southwest United States (particularly northern New Mexico), chile also denotes a thick, spicy, un-vinegared sauce, available in red and green varieties, and served over the local food.
- Chilli was the original Romanization of the Náhuatl language word for the fruit (chīlli) and is the preferred British spelling according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although it also lists chile and chili as variants. Chilli (and its plural chillies) is the most common spelling in Australia, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore and South Africa.
The name of the plant is almost certainly unrelated to that of Chile, the country, which has an uncertain etymology perhaps relating to local place names. Chile, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico are some of the Spanish-speaking countries where chilis are known as ají, a word of Taíno origin. Though pepper originally referred to the genus Piper, not Capsicum, the latter usage is included in English dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary (sense 2b of pepper) and Merriam-Webster. The word pepper is also commonly used in the botanical and culinary fields in the names of different types of chili plants and their fruits.
- Capsaicin, the heat simulating chemical in Chili pepper
- Chili grenade, a type of weapon made with chili peppers
- Chili oil, a condiment for adding heat to food
- History of chocolate, which the Mayans drank with ground chili peppers
- Ristra, an arrangement of dried chili pepper pods
- Sweet chili sauce, a condiment for adding a sweet, mild heat taste to food
- Taboo food and drink, which in some cultures includes chili peppers