The chilli pepper (also spelled chili) is the fruit of the plant capsicum of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family. Cultivated since prehistoric times in Peru and Mexico, it was discovered in the Caribbean by Christopher Columbus. He thought them as a more masculine version of Old World peppers, so he named them pimento in contrast with pimenta. This however was not understood abroad, which is why many languages know chile as pepper. Diego Alvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus' second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, brought the first chile peppers to Spain, and first wrote about their medicinal effects in 1494.
Chiles are infamous for their heat, which is caused by the substance capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide). This chemical compound causes pain and inflammation if consumed to excess, and can even burn the skin on contact in high concentrations (habanero peppers, for example, are routinely picked with gloves). It is also the primary ingredient in pepper spray, which is used as a defensive weapon. The "heat" of chili peppers is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Bell peppers rank at zero SHU, jalapeños at 3000-6000 SHU, and habaneros at 300,000 SHU. The Guinness World Record for the highest number of Scoville units in a pepper was awarded to the Bhut Jolokia in September, 2006 at 1,001,304 SHU.
Types of Chile Peppers
The most common species of chile peppers are: Capsicum annuum, which includes many common varieties such as bell peppers and jalapeños; Capsicum frutescens, which includes cayenne and tabasco peppers; Capsicum chinense, which includes the hottest peppers such as habaneros and Scotch bonnets; Capsicum pubescens, which includes the South American rocoto peppers; and Capsicum baccatum, which includes the Ají Amarillo and Lemon drop.
Though there are only a few commonly used species, there are far more cultivars and different ways preparing chile peppers that have different common names for culinary use. Green and red bell peppers, for example, are the same cultivar of C. annuum, with the green ones being immature. In the same species are the jalapeño, the chipotle, which is a dried smoked jalapeño, the poblano, ancho (which is a dried poblano), New Mexico, Anaheim, Serrano, and others. Jamaicans, Scotch bonnets, and habaneros are common varieties of C. chinense. Species C. frutescens appears as chiles de arbol, aji, pequin, tabasco, cayenne, cherry peppers, and others.
However, every Capsicum species produces edible fruit.
Consumption and Methods of Preparation
The fruit is eaten cooked or raw for its fiery hot flavor. Indian, Szechuan and Thai cuisines are particularly associated with the chile pepper, although the plant was unknown in Asia until Europeans introduced it there.
Well-known dishes with a strong chile flavor are salsa, New Mexican chili con carne and Indian vindaloo. Chili powder is a spice made of the dried ancho chiles plus other seasonings added, such as cumin and oregano. Bottled hot sauces such as Tabasco sauce are made from chiles such as the cayenne (not, oddly, from tabasco peppers, but named for marketing purposes after the town in Mexico), which may also be fermented.
Consumption by Other Animals
Since birds don't have the same sensitivity to capsaicin as mammals, chile peppers are a favorite food of many birds living in the chile peppers' natural range (along with many birds living in captivity). The flesh of the peppers provides the birds with a nutritious meal rich in vitamin C. In return, the seeds of the peppers are distributed by the birds, as they drop the seeds while eating the pods or the seeds pass through the digestive tract unharmed. This relationship is theorized to have promoted the evolution of the protective capsaicin.
Be careful when handling chiles. For some particularly strong chiles it is advised to wear gloves and to wash them immediately after use. If using bare hands, soak your hands in a soulution of 1 part bleach to 2 parts water, and wash hands immediately afterwards. The bleach will turn the capsiacin into a water-souluble salt. The water will then dissolve it. Do not touch your eyes or any other sensitive body part after handling chilis. If you burn your tongue with chiles, fullfat milk or yogurt is more effective at cooling the mouth - again this is because capsaicin is soluble in fat and alcohol, and because casein sort of blocks capsiacin, but not water; water merely spreads the burn. It's worthwhile to note that alcoholic drinks will not help much, as one would need to be drinking something over 80% alcohol (160 proof) for any real effect to take place. In all likelihood, the burn from the chile pepper would be preferable to the burn from the high-proof liquid.
- Easy Chili
- Chili con carne
- Red Chile Sauce
- Southwestern Scramble
- Texas Easy Chili
- Green Chili Stew
- Chili (Vegan)
Additional recipes can be found in Category:Chile recipes.
- Wikipedia capsicum article, covering the botanical genus
- Wikipedia Chile (capsicum) article, covering the chile pepper fruit
- Wikipedia Scoville_scale article, covering heat ratings for peppers
Note on Spelling
- Chile is actually the original spelling. When Cristopher Columbus found them, he didn't name them "chili", as most people think.
- This vegetable is not related to the country Chile, which is not a producer of chili peppers. Note: In Chile, as in many other Spanish-speaking countries, the vegetable is known as ají.