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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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09.10.08

Chile

Food History


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Chili Bunch

I think that Christopher Columbus said it best. When he wrote about his first experience with the New World delicacy, chile peppers, he described them as “violent fruit.”

Well, perhaps they were violent, but they were almost instantly popular. The use of chilies sped around the world, even while Europeans held the chile’s close relatives, tomatoes and potatoes, at arm’s length, worried about their safety. In fact, chiles moved around the world so swiftly, and were adopted so absolutely into local cuisines, that before long, people were thinking of chiles as “native” to any new home they had found. Indeed, who can imagine the cuisines of India, Africa, Asia, or even much of Europe without some form of chile pepper.

But, as much as it seems at home elsewhere, the colorful, varied genus of fruit known as Capsicum began in South America. Fossil evidence shows that wild chiles were being consumed in Brazil and Peru by around 6500 B.C., and there are indications that the chile had been domesticated by 2500 B.C. Chiles were the primary seasoning of the Incas and then the Aztecs.

Travel hadn’t waited for Columbus, however. Chiles were on the move early, arriving in Tenochtitlán in Mexico as tribute from conquered peoples. They spread across Mexico, throughout the Aztec empire. It was in the Oaxaca region that the chile was diversified, bred to create more varieties of heat, color, and flavor—and even today, Oaxaca has a larger variety of chiles than anywhere else in the world. But the fiery fruit did not stop in Mexico; it continued heading north, into what is now the southwestern United States, where it became very popular among the Pueblo Indians, who still favor green chile stew.

What we call this fruit has always been something of a mess. Chile, chilli, and chili can all mean the same thing: capsicum. However, chili usually means mixed chili powder or the spiced stew made with chili powder. Chilies usually means hot peppers. Chilli probably means you’re reading an Indian recipe that uses hot chilies, since Indian recipes seem to be the only place one regularly sees this spelling. Oddly, however, chilli is the original Nahuatl word. Chile is the Spanish form of the Nahuatl chilli. Sweet peppers are also capsicums, but are usually not called chilies in English, though they are chiles in Spanish.

In Central and South America, the hot peppers are called ají, which the Spanish picked up from the Arawak axi. Pepper became part of the confusion because the Spaniards called their new discovery pimiento, which was the same name used for black pepper. Part of this may have been because they thought they were in India, and part of it was probably because pepper was the only other “hot” food they could think of. (And, if you haven’t tried Indian pepper, believe me, it’s a lot hotter than the insipid pepper, mostly from grown in Brazil, that we find in most pepper shakers in the U.S.—so it wasn’t an unimaginably weird connection for a bunch of soldiers to make.)

There are several species and hundreds of varieties of chile, with great variations in size and color, but even greater variations in heat. The heat is produced by a substance called capsaicin. Ironically, the heat is a defense mechanism, designed to keep animals from destroying the plants. That’s why it works in those self-defense sprays. Also ironically, though capsaicin causes pain, it is also a useful pain killer in certain applications. Most (though not all) of the capsaicin is in the seeds and white membrane inside the chile, so removing these can subdue the heat, if you’re trying to keep the flavor but tone down the pungency.

Interestingly, the heat can be objectively measured—you may get accustomed to the heat, but the actual amount of heat present is dependent on the chile, not on the consumer. Growers and dealers generally rate chiles on a scale that ranges from 1 to 120. Sweet peppers are one. Jalapeños are 15. At the extreme end of the range, you have such torrid chiles as habeñero and Scotch bonnet, which are among the hottest chiles in the world. (This is a newer, more sophisticated, more objective scale than the earlier Scoville scale, which went up to 16 million, for pure capsaicin. The Scoville scale was based on taste tests, but the new ASTA scale utilizes High Performance Liquid Chromatography testing, which calculates capsaicin in parts per million. However, the Scoville scale is so widely known, ASTA pungency units are sometimes converted into approximate Scoville units. I guess all the extra zeros look more impressive.)

While you don’t have to worry about sweet peppers, some care needs to be taken with the hotter members of the family. Never touch your face, especially not your eyes, when you’re cutting chiles. With hotter peppers, it is wise to wear rubber gloves, as the really hot chiles can actually raise blisters on tender skin. Also, when you wash chiles, wash them in cold water. Heat causes the capsaicin to vaporize, and it can leave you gasping if you breathe it (trust me—I’ve done it, and you don’t want to).

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