|Chili pepper or Chile pepper (from Nahuatl chilli, chilli pepper, chilli, chillie, and chili) is the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum, members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae.
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.
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 chilis’ 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.
From the Americas, at the time the Spanish colony that controlled commerce with Asia, chili peppers spread rapidly into the Philippines and then to India, China, Indonesia, Korea and Japan. They were incorporated into the local cuisines.
An alternate account for the spread of chili peppers is that the Portuguese got the pepper from Spain, and cultivated it in India. The chili pepper figures 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 it became the national spice in the form of paprika.
The five domesticated species of chili peppers are:
Capsicum annuum, which includes many common varieties such as bell peppers, wax, cayenne, jalapeños, and the chiltepin
Assorted bell pepper fruits from Mexico
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 colorado), 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 the primary ingredient in the pepper spray used as an irritant 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 heat.
The “heat” of chili peppers was historically measured in Scoville heat units (SHU), which is a measure of how much a chili extract must be diluted in sugar syrup before its heat becomes undetectable to a panel of tasters. Bell peppers rank at 0 SHU, New Mexico green chilis at about 1,500 SHU, jalapeños at 2,500–5,000 SHU, and habaneros at 300,000 SHU. 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.
According to Guinness World Records, as of March 1st, 2011, the world’s hottest chili pepper is the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper with a Scoville rating of 1,463,700 SHU.
In 2007, Guinness World Records certified the bhut jolokia, also known as the ghost pepper/chili pepper, as being the world’s hottest chili pepper at 401.5 times hotter than Tabasco sauce.
Currently, Scoville ratings are highly controversial among the pepper growing community and tests with more rigorous scientific standards are yet to be conducted on the many peppers vying for the title of the “world’s hottest”.
Chili pepper pods, which are berries, are used fresh or dried. Chiles are often dried to preserve them for long periods of time. Preserving may also be done by pickling fresh chilies.
Dried chilies are often ground to powders, although some Mexican dishes including variations on chiles rellenos may use whole reconstituted chilies, and others may reconstitute dried chilies before grinding to a paste. Chilies may be dried using smoke, such as the chipotle, which is the smoked, dried form of the jalapeno.
Many fresh chilies such as poblano have a tough outer skin which does not break down on cooking. For recipes where chiles are used whole or in large slices, roasting, or other means of blistering or charring the skin are usually performed so as not to entirely cook the flesh beneath. When cooled, the skins will usually slip off easily.
Chili pepper plant leaves, mildly bitter but nowhere near as hot as the fruits that come from the same plant, 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 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.
Chilies are present in many cuisines. Some notable dishes other than the ones mentioned elsewhere in this article include:
Paprikash from Hungary: uses significant amounts of mild, ground, dried chilies, aka paprika, in a braised chicken dish
Fresh or dried chilies are often used to make hot sauce, a bottled condiment to add spice to other dishes. Hot sauces are found in many cuisines including harissa from the Middle East, 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.
Eating chili is viewed as a warrior’s ritual in Japan because of its spicyness that gives individual fear and mental block. By forcing themselves to eat chili, warriors’ mental state gets stronger and may even feel invincible when stepping onto the battlefield. Eating chili has been a popular practice among the karate athletes who use it to strengthen their minds and determination.
Capsaicin is a safe and effective topical analgesic agent in the management of arthritis pain, herpes zoster-related pain, diabetic neuropathy, postmastectomy pain, and headaches.
Capsaicin extracted from chilis is used in a spray as a non-lethal weapon.
Farmers in Africa and South Asia have found the use of chilis effective in crop defense against elephants. The chilis are spread on fences and other structures to keep the elephants away. Because the elephants have a large and sensitive olfactory and nasal system the smell of the chilli causes them discomfort and deters them from feeding on the crops. 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 chilis contain high amounts of vitamin C and carotene (provitamin A). Yellow and especially green chilis (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 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 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.
Spelling and usage
The three primary spellings are chili, chile and chilli, all of which are recognized by dictionaries.
Chili is widely used, although in much of South America the plant and its vegetable are better known as ají, locoto, chile, or rocoto. However, this spelling is discouraged by some in the United States of America, since it also commonly refers to a popular Southwestern-American dish (also known as chili con carne (literally chili with meat), the official state dish of Texas), as well as to the mixture of chili powder and other spices used to flavor it. Chili, as in the case of Cincinnati chili, has come to be used for stews that do not actually contain any chile peppers. Chili powder and chile powder, on the other hand, can both refer to dried, ground chili peppers.
The name of the plant bears no relation to Chile, the country, which is named after the Quechua chin (“cold”), tchili (“snow”), or chilli (“where the land ends”). Chile, Panama, Peru and Puerto Rico are some of the Spanish-speaking countries where chilis are known as ají, a word of Taíno origin.
There is also some disagreement on the use of the word pepper for chilis because pepper originally referred to the genus Piper, not Capsicum; however this usage is included in English dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary (sense 2b of pepper) and Merriam-Webster. The word pepper is commonly used in the botanical and culinary fields in the names of different types of chili peppers.