Chili peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BCE. 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.
Peru is considered the country with the highest cultivated Capsicum diversity because it is a center of diversification where varieties of all five domesticates were introduced, grown, and consumed in pre-Columbian times. Bolivia is considered to be the country where the largest diversity of wild Capsicum peppers are consumed. Bolivian consumers distinguish two basic forms: ulupicas, species with small round fruits including C. eximium, C. cardenasii, C. eshbaughii, and C. caballeroi landraces; and arivivis with small elongated fruits including C. baccatum var. baccatum and C. chacoense varieties.
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, chilies were grown as botanical curiosities in the gardens of Spanish and Portuguese monasteries. Christian monks experimented with the culinary potential of chili 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 Indigenous people shared them with travelers. 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. It was introduced in India by the Portuguese towards the end of 15th century. Today chilies are an integral part of South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines.
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).
The five domesticated species of chili peppers are as follows:Capsicum annuum, which includes many common varieties such as bell peppers, wax, cayenne, jalapeños, chiltepin, and all forms of New Mexico chile.
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, 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 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 becomes undetectable to a panel of tasters; the more it has to be diluted to be undetectable, the more powerful the variety and therefore the higher the rating. The modern commonplace method for quantitative analysis of SHU rating uses high-performance liquid chromatography to directly measure the capsaicinoid content of a chili pepper variety. Pure capsaicin is a hydrophobic, colorless, odorless, and crystalline-to-waxy solid at room temperature, and measures 16,000,000 SHU.
A wide range of intensity is found in commonly used 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 chilies 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. Chilies 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, chili 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 leaves"). 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 chilies in 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 chilies 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:Arrabbiata sauce from Italy is a tomato-based sauce for pasta always including dried hot chilies.
Puttanesca sauce is tomato-based with olives, capers, anchovy and, sometimes, chilies.
Paprikash from Hungary uses significant amounts of mild, ground, dried chilies, known as paprika, in a braised chicken dish.
Chiles en nogada from the Puebla region of Mexico uses fresh mild chilies stuffed with meat and covered with a creamy nut-thickened sauce.
Curry dishes usually contain fresh or dried chillies.
Kung pao chicken (Mandarin Chinese: 宫保鸡丁 gōng bǎo jī dīng) from the Sichuan region of China uses small hot dried chilies briefly fried in oil to add spice to the oil then used for frying.
Mole poblano from the city of Puebla in Mexico uses several varieties of dried chilies, nuts, spices, and fruits to produce a thick, dark sauce for poultry or other meats.
Nam phrik are traditional Thai chili pastes and sauces, prepared with chopped fresh or dry chilies, and additional ingredients such as fish sauce, lime juice, and herbs, but also fruit, meat or seafood.
'Nduja, a more typical example of Italian spicy specialty, from the region of Calabria, is a soft pork sausage made "hot" by the addition of the locally grown variety of jalapeño chili.
Paprykarz szczeciński is a Polish fish paste with rice, onion, tomato concentrate, vegetable oil, chili pepper powder and other spices.
Sambal terasi or sambal belacan is a traditional Indonesian and Malay hot condiment made by frying a mixture of mainly pounded dried chillies, with garlic, shallots, and fermented shrimp paste. It is customarily served with rice dishes and is especially popular when mixed with crunchy pan-roasted ikan teri or ikan bilis (sun-dried anchovies), when it is known as sambal teri or sambal ikan bilis. Various sambal variants existed in Indonesian archipelago, among others are sambal badjak, sambal oelek, sambal pete (prepared with green stinky beans) and sambal pencit (prepared with unripe green mango).
Som tam, a green papaya salad from Thai and Lao cuisine, traditionally has, as a key ingredient, a fistful of chopped fresh hot Thai chili, pounded in a mortar.
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.
The contrast in colour and appearance makes chili plants interesting as a garden plant.Black Pearl Pepper, small cherry shaped fruits and dark brown to black leaves
Black Hungarian Pepper, green foliage, highlighted by purple veins and purple flowers, Jalapeño shaped fruits
Bishop's Crown Pepper, Christmas Bell Pepper, named for its distinct three-sided shape resembling a red Bishop’s Crown or a red Christmas Bell.
Psychologist Paul Rozin suggests that eating chilies 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, the chemical in chili peppers that makes them hot, is used as an analgesic in topical ointments, nasal sprays, and dermal patches to relieve pain.
Capsaicin extracted from chilies is used in pepper spray as an irritant, a form of less-lethal weapon.
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 do not 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.
A very large study published by the British Medical Journal found some indications that humans who consume spicy foods, especially fresh chili peppers, were less likely to die of cancer or diabetes.
Birds do not have the same sensitivity to capsaicin, because it targets a specific pain receptor 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.
The three primary spellings are chili, chile and chilli, all of which are recognized by dictionaries.Chili is widely used in historically Anglophone regions of 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. In the US state of New Mexico, this spelling only denotes "chili con carne".
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 New Mexico), chile also denotes a thick, spicy, un-vinegared sauce made from this fruit, available in red and green varieties, and served over the local food, while chili denotes the meat dish. The plural is chile or chiles.
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, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico are some of the Spanish-speaking countries where chilies 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.