CHILI PEPPERS. Chili peppers (genus Capsicum ) can be eaten fresh or dried, raw or cooked, alone or mixed with other foods. They add zest to any food—meat, poultry, seafood, starch, vegetable, fruit—whether eaten by themselves or as an ingredient in a prepared dish. Peppers are the most popular spice and condiment in the world. They are consumed daily by one-quarter of the world's population, and the rate of consumption is growing. Nonpungent or sweet peppers are also consumed as a vegetable, but are the less popular spice. All capsicums were pungent before being domesticated by prehistoric New World peoples and before the breeding of non-pungent (sweet) types. Peppers, both pungent and non-pungent, are the fruit of perennial shrubs that were unknown outside the tropical and subtropical regions of the Western Hemisphere before 1493, when Christopher Columbus returned from the first of his voyages in search of a western route to the East Indies. Although he did not reach those exotic spice lands as he had proposed, his return to Spain with examples of a new pungent spice discovered during his first voyage to the eastern coast of the Caribbean island of Española (Dominican Republic and Republic of Haiti) is well documented in his journal. Today capsicums are not only consumed as a spice, condiment, and vegetable; they also have many other uses—as coloring agents, in landscape design, as ornamental objects, in decorative design—and have great potential in the field of medicine.
Nutritionally, capsicums are a superior food. They are an excellent source of the B vitamins, are superior to citrus as a source of vitamin C when eaten raw, and they contain more vitamin A than any other food plant by weight. Vitamin A increases as the fruit matures and dries but is not affected by exposure to oxygen, while the production of vitamin C in peppers diminishes with maturity and drying and is, as in all plant foods, destroyed by exposure to oxygen. Capsicums also contain significant amounts of magnesium, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. Even though chili peppers are not usually eaten in large quantities, small amounts are important where traditional diets provide only marginal amounts of vitamins. However, ripe nonpungent varieties, such as bell peppers, can be eaten as painlessly as an apple while providing more food value.
Capsaicin: The Pungent Principle
A unique group of mouth-warming, amide-type alkaloids containing a small vanilloid structural component known as capsaicin act directly on the pain receptors of the mouth and throat to produce the burning sensation associated with peppers. This vanilloid element is also present in pungent spices such as ginger and black pepper. Birds and a few other creatures such as snails or frogs do not have neuroreceptors for pungent vanilloid compounds and thus capsaicin does not cause them pain.
V. S. Govindarajan (1985) has suggested "pungency" as the proper term for the perception of the hot or burning sensation humans have in response to such foods rather than to others. Consequently, the response to chili peppers should be defined as pungent rather than hot, stinging, irritating, sharp, caustic, acrid, biting, burning, and spicy. He also suggests that pungency be given the status of a gustatory characteristic of food, as are sweet, sour, bitter, saline, astringent, or alkaline.
The vanillyl amide compounds or capsaicinoids in Capsicum are predominantly capsaicin (C 69 percent), dihydrodcapsaicin (DHC 22 percent), nordihydrocapsaicin (NDHC 7 percent), homocapsaicin (HC 1 percent), and homodihydrocapsaicin (HDHC 1 percent). Several more analogues of these in trace amounts bring the number to ten (Masada et al., 1971; Treace and Evans, 1983). The primary heat contributors are C and DHC, but the delayed action of HDHC is the most irritating and difficult to quell. These compounds form a pungent group, of which capsaicin is the most important. Two of these five capsaicinoids cause the sensation of "rapid bite" at the back of the palate and the throat, while the others cause a long, low-intensity bite on the tongue and midpalate.
Most of the organs secreting these pungent alkaloids are localized in the fruit's placenta, to which the seeds are attached, along with the dissepiment (veins or crosswalls). The seeds contain only a low concentration of capsaicin resulting from this contact. The amount of capsaicin in a pepper is influenced by the growing conditions of the plant and the age of the fruit and is possibly variety-specific. The amount of capsaicin will increase under dry, stressful conditions. About the eleventh day after the fruit sets, the capsaicin content begins to increase, becoming detectable when the fruit is about four weeks old and peaking just before maturity, then dropping somewhat as it ripens (Govindarajan, 1985). Sun-drying generally reduces the capsaicin content, but when the fruits are air-dried with minimum exposure to sunlight, the highest retention occurs.
Capsaicin has virtually no odor or flavor, making it hard to detect by chemical tests, but a drop of a solution containing one part in 100,000 causes a persistent burning on the tongue. Although capsaicin is eight times more pungent than the piperine in black pepper, it only obstructs the perception of sour and bitter; it does not impair the discernment of other gustatory characteristics of food, as does black pepper. Eating capsaicin also causes gustatory sweating. The neck, face, and front of the chest sweat as a reflexive response to the burning in the mouth. Capsaicin activates the digestive systems by acting as an irritant to the oral and gastrointestinal membranes. That is a desirable irritation because it increases the flow of saliva and gastric acids. Very little capsaicin is absorbed as it passes through the digestive tract, an uncomfortable consequence of which is "jaloproctitis," or burning defecation.
Ingesting capsaicin by eating chilies not only increases the flow of saliva and gastric secretions but also stimulates the appetite. These functions work together to aid the digestion of food. The increased saliva helps ease the passage of food through the mouth to the stomach where it is mixed with the activated gastric juice. These functions play an important role in the lives of people whose daily diet is principally starch-based (Solanke, 1973).
Although capsaicin is not water-soluble, the addition of a small amount of chlorine or ammonia will ionize the capsaicin compound, changing it into a soluble salt. The same solution can be used to rinse capsaicin from the skin. When handling more than one or two chili pods, one should wear rubber or plastic gloves and/or keep a bowl of water with chlorine handy so that hands and skin can be rinsed immediately. Capsaicin can be quite painful if it comes into contact with the eyes, nose, or any other orifice. Capsaicin is soluble in alcohol, as are many organic compounds. Oral burning can be relieved by lipoproteins such as the casein found in milk and yogurt. The capsaicin is removed by casein in a manner similar to the action of a detergent, thereby breaking the bond it had formed with the pain receptors in the mouth (Henken, 1991). It is the casein, not the fat found in milk products, which relieves the burning; therefore, butter and cheese do not have the same effect as milk and yogurt.
Studies of the relationship of capsaicin to substance P, a neuropeptide that sends the message of pain to the brain, suggest that capsaicin can deplete nerves of their supply of substance P, thereby preventing the transmission of these pain signals (Rozin, 1990). Thus, capsiacin is being used to treat the pain associated with shingles, rheumatoid arthritis, and phantom-limb pain. Importantly, capsaicin may prove to be a non-habit-forming alternative to the addictive drugs used to control pain. It does not act on other sensory receptors such as those for taste and smell, but is specific to pain receptors. Medical researchers are finding this specificity to be a valuable aid in their studies.
Aroma, Flavor, and Color
The carotenoid pigments responsible for the color in capsicums make peppers commercially important worldwide as natural dyes in food and drug products. Red capsan-thin is the most important pigment. All capsicums will change color as they mature from green to other hues—red, brown, yellow, orange, purple, and ripe green.
The flavor compound of capsicums is located in the outer wall (pericarp): very little flavor is found in the placenta and crosswall, and essentially none in the seeds. Color and flavor go hand in hand because the flavoring principle appears to be associated with the carotenoid pigment: strong color and strong flavor are linked. Two Latin American species, Capsicum pubescens (rocoto) and C. chinense (habanero), are more aromatic and have a decidedly different flavor than those of the more commonly consumed C. annuum var. annuum.
Smell and taste are separate perceptions. Several aroma compounds produce the fragrance. The taste buds on the tongue can discern certain flavors at dilutions up to one part in two million, but odors can be detected at a dilution of one part in one billion. The more delicate flavors of foods are recognized as aromas in the nasal cavity adjacent to the mouth. Sensory cells with this function are much more discerning than the tongue.
It is difficult to determine where Capsicum originated because the genus is still not fully understood (Eshbaugh, 1980, 1993). If the genus is defined as limited to taxaproducing pungent capsaicin, the center of diversity occurs in an area from present-day Bolivia to southwestern Brazil. However, if it is redescribed to include other non-pungent taxa, a second center of diversity would center in Mesoamerica (Eshbaugh, 1993). It is certain, nevertheless, that the first ancestor of all domesticates originated in South America.
There are indications that the better-known Capsicum annuum originally was domesticated in Mesoamerica, and the next best well-known, C. chinense, originated in tropical northern Amazonia. The two less familiar species, Capsicum pubescens and C. baccatum, are more commonplace in the Andean and central regions of South America. The first two species were introduced to the Europeans after Columbus's voyages to the New World, while the other two species were not encountered until later, only recently becoming known outside their South American homeland.
The tropical perennial capsicum spread rapidly around the Old World tropics after 1492. Chili pepper has since become the dominant spice and condiment in the tropical and subtropical areas known as the "pepper belt," and in temperate regions sweet peppers are an important green vegetable and are grown as an annual. Concentrated breeding studies have produced Capsicum varieties that can be cultivated in environments quite different from their original tropical home and modern forms of transportation have made peppers of all fruit types available worldwide.
In his journal Columbus faithfully recorded his sighting of a new pungent, red-fruited plant that he called pepper, and he brought back specimens to Spain, marking the beginning of the history of capsicums for the people of the Old World (Anghiera, 1964; Morison, 1963). However, the pungent fruits were not originally discovered by Columbus. When nonagricultural Mongoloid peoples from northeastern Asia, who had begun migrating across the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age, reached the subtropical and tropical zones of their new homeland in the Western Hemisphere, they found capsicums widespread, having been carried by their natural dispersal agents, principally birds, from their nuclear area in southeastern Bolivia or southwestern Brazil to other regions (Pickersgill, 1984). Prehistoric plant remains and depictions of chilies on artifacts provide archaeological evidence of the use and probable cultivation of wild capsicums as early as 5000 b.c.e. It has also been shown that native Americans had domesticated (genetically altered) at least four species by the time of Columbus's discovery (Heiser, 1976; MacNeish, 1967). No other species have been domesticated since that time.
When Columbus arrived in the West Indies, he found at least two species of capsicums being cultivated by the Arawaks, agriculturists who had migrated north from their homeland in northeastern South America to the Caribbean Islands during a twelve-hundred-year period beginning about 1000 b.c.e. (Anghiera, 1964; Watts, 1987). Those migrants had traveled by way of present-day Trinidad and the lesser Antilles, bringing with them a tropical capsicum that had been domesticated in their homeland. They also brought the word "ají "— by which the plant was, and still is, known in the West Indies and throughout its native South American habitat (Heiser, 1969). Later a second species that had been domesticated in Mesoamerica probably came over different trade routes to the West Indies along with other Mesoamerican food plants—maize, beans, and squash (Sauer, 1966). However, chilli, the native Nahuatl name for the endemic Mesoamerican pepper plant, did not travel with it. It was that later arrival, a more climatically adaptable pepper than its earlier South American relative, which was introduced by Columbus to the Old World (Andrews 1993, 2000).
The new American plants from the tropical West Indies were not suited to the climate and day length of the Iberian Peninsula and other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean. Twenty-nine years later the conquest of Mexico, followed by that of Peru, revealed plants that were more climatically suitable to cultivation in temperate Europe and the Middle East. Within fifty years of the first arrival of capsicum peppers on the Iberian Peninsula and on islands such as Cape Verde, the Canaries, Madeira, and the Azores, American chili peppers were being grown on African coasts and in India, monsoon Asia, southwestern China, the Middle East, the Balkans, central Europe, and Italy. In 1542 Leonhart Fuchs, a German, was the first to describe and illustrate several types of peppers, which at the time were considered to be natives of India. It was not the Spaniards but the Portuguese who were responsible for the early diffusion of New World food plants to Africa, India, and the Far East, abetted by local shipping and traders following long-used trade routes. These mariners and merchants enabled the spread of the new American plants throughout the Old World with great rapidity (Boxer, 1969a).
The Route from the New World
The dispersal of capsicum is not as well documented as that of plants such as maize (corn), tobacco, sweet potatoes, manioc (cassava), beans, and tomatoes. However, it is highly probably that capsicums followed the same trade route as the "three sisters"—corn, beans, and squash. The four plants have been closely associated throughout history.
In 1494 the pope's Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world on a line extending around the globe at a point 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. The Spanish were granted everything discovered west of the line and the Portuguese everything to the east of it. This arrangement persisted until the Dutch, followed by other European nations, challenged this monopoly at the end of the sixteenth century. Although the Portuguese were not active in the Spanish Caribbean until after 1509, when they brought the first slaves from Africa, they had acquired American maize by some yet unexplained means—perhaps in Galicia, Madeira, or the Canaries—before 1500, and were growing it on the west coast of Africa from where it was introduced to the Cape Verde Islands in 1502 (Jefferys, 1975). From early Portuguese "factories" in Africa and/or the eastern Atlantic Islands, the American food plants went to the east coast of Africa and India on the annual voyages of the Nao da Goa and other trading ships traveling between Lisbon and Goa on the Malabar Coast of western India (Boxer, 1984). As evidence of their coming from that African area, they were called "ginnie" (Guinea) peppers.
The natives of Africa and India, who were long-accustomed to pungent seasonings such as the African melegueta pepper (Afromomum melegueta ), a member of the ginger tribe, Indian black pepper (Piper nigrum ), and ginger (Zingiber officinale ), readily accepted the fiery new spice. The Old World tropics provided an acceptable climate for the New World spice. The plants produced by the abundant, easily stored seed were much easier to cultivate than native spices, making capsicums an inexpensive addition to the daily diet. Along the Malabar Coast of India, three varieties of capsicums were being grown and exported within fifty years of Columbus's discovery of the New World (Purseglove, 1963).
Once established in India, chili pepper became part of spice shipments from the Far East along the new Portuguese route around Africa to Europe, over the ancient trade routes to Europe via the Middle East, and also on existing routes to monsoon Asia (Lobelius, 1576). The Portuguese also brought chilies to Southeast Asia and Japan. Once established in these areas, birds carried pepper seed from island to island and to humanly inaccessible inland areas.
In southwestern China, American foods were known by the middle of that century, having been transported over the ancient caravan routes from the Ganges River across Burma and across western China into India and the Middle East (Ho, 1995). This is evidenced by the fact that today the cuisines of southwestern Szechuan and Hunan use more chili peppers than any other area in China.
After the Spanish conquest of the West Indies, Mexico, Mesoamerica, and Peru, trade with the new colonies was very limited (Braudel, 1976). Once Mexico was subjugated and opened for colonization, the Spaniards virtually deserted the West Indies for the North American continent, leaving the islands inhabited primarily by African slaves brought there by the Portuguese. By that time, the indigenous peoples of those islands were essentially extinct. For the first fifty years following the New World's discovery, the Spanish rulers were more interested in problems within the Habsburg Empire than in their new acquisitions and, as a consequence, Spanish trade with the New World came to a standstill (Watts, 1987). During this period Portuguese and other European opportunists entered the Caribbean and established trading footholds.
In 1492, after ousting the Moors from Spain following their seven-hundred-year occupation, the Spaniards established dominance over the western Mediterranean while the Ottoman Turks succeeded in seizing control of northern Africa, Egypt, Arabia, the Balkans, the Middle East, and the eastern Mediterranean Sea. At that time, for all practical purposes, the Mediterranean was two separate trading spheres divided by Italy, Malta, and Sicily with little or no trade or contact between the western Mediterranean and the Ottoman Empire (Braudel, 1976). This is an important consideration in the history of the diffusion of American peppers and other economic plants.
Venice was the center of the spice and oriental trade for central Europe, and Venetian merchants depended on the Ottoman Turks to supply them with goods from the Asia. The Muslim Arab and Gujurati traders received supplies from Portuguese ports on the west coast of India and Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Goods introduced to central Europe were taken to Antwerp and from there to the rest of Europe. Antwerp, the major European shipping port, also received goods from the Far East, and from the Portuguese sources via India, Africa, and Lisbon. From these trading routes chili peppers came to be known in Italy by 1535 (Fernández de Oviedo, 1535), Germany by 1542 (Fuchs, 1543), England before 1538 (Turner, 1965), the Balkans before 1569 (Halasz, 1963), and in Moravia by 1585 (L'escluse, 1611). It was only in the Balkans and Turkey that chili peppers were used to any extent until the Napoleonic blockade cut off the supply of spices to Western Europe. Without their usual supply of spices, Europeans turned to Balkan paprika (chili pepper) as a substitute.
Most Europeans had grown capsicums only as ornamentals and believed that peppers were native to India and the Far East until the mid-nineteenth century when botanist Alphonse de Candolle produced convincing linguistic evidence for the American origin of the genus Capsicum (Candolle, 1852).
It was only after capsicums had become established in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe that the Spaniards played any part in the movement of New World plants to places other than Spain, Italy, and perhaps Western Europe. The Pacific Ocean route of the Spanish Manila-Acapulco galleon was established in 1565 and operated for 250 years (Schurz, 1939). This ship was a major means for transferring plants as well as trade goods between Mexico and the Far East. At approximately the same time the Spanish colonies of Saint Augustine, Florida, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, were founded. Those first European settlements in the present-day United States initiated Caribbean and Mexican trade with Florida and the Southwest, respectively, forty years before other northern Europeans began colonizing the east coast of North America. The first peppers to enter an English colony were sent to Virgina in 1621 by the governor of the Bermuda Islands.
Condiment, Spice, and Vegetable
At the time of World War II, one-fourth of the world's population, primarily in the pantropical belt and Korea, ate capsicums daily. Since that time the consumption of peppers as a spice, condiment, and vegetable has grown annually and is no longer limited to the tropical and subtropical areas. Some of the more common food products made with chilies are curry powder, cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, dried whole peppers, chili powder, paprika, pepper sauce, pickled and processed peppers, pimento, and salsa picante. In 1992 salsa picante, a bottled sauce of Mexican origin made with a base of chilies, onions, and tomatoes, overtook tomato catsup as the top selling condiment in the United States.
Throughout the world capsicums are used as a source of color/pigment not only for commercial products such as cheese, sausage, salad dressings, and meat products, but also for drugs and cosmetics. Dried red peppers are added to hen feed to ensure yellow egg yolks and in caged bird feed to enhance the natural color of plumage.
The use of capsicums goes beyond that of a comestible. The florist and landscape industries have found their ornamental qualities to be of considerable value. The multihued, variform fruits of the attractive podded plant have become popular decorative motifs, not only in the Southwest but throughout the country. They can be found on chinaware, glasses, fabrics, in flower arrangements, as Christmas tree lights and ornaments, on men's neckties, even as hummingbird feeders, to name but a few.
Ritual, Folklore, and Magic Uses
The medical profession has discovered that certain folk medical practices employing chilies, many of which are prehistoric in origin, have merit and are being used by modern physicians to treat arthritis, shingles, toothache, and other types of pain. Research in this area continues. Solanaceous plants, which include capsicums, potatoes, datura, belladona, tobacco, and tomatoes, have long been used in charms, rituals, magic, ceremonies, divination, therapeutical practices, and other customs. Pre-Columbian Indian medicine men used peppers mixed with other substances for such ailments as coughs, poor digestion, ear infection, sore throat, injuries to the tongue, and to expedite childbirth.
The shape of most chili pepper pods, and their pungency/heat and redness have led them to be associated with male sexuality. In some cultures, eating chili peppers is thought to arouse passions, while in others people abstain from eating them in particular places or under certain conditions. Ancients used them in warfare and as torture or punishment and, even today, they are used as a repellent to ward off human or animal aggressors.
The Solanaceae, which includes such plants as potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, petunias, and tobacco, is the family of which the genus Capsicum is a member. Currently, the genus consists of at least twenty-five species, four of which have been domesticated, and two others are cultivated extensively. The flowers, not the fruits, are the definitive feature of the genus. Although many of these are consumed by humans, it is those six species belonging to three separate genetic lineages that are of concern to human nutrition:
- Capsicum pubescens (first mentioned by Ruiz and Pavon, 1797). This domesticated species is the most distinctive in the genus. The flowers have comparatively large purple corollas (sometimes white infused with purple), which are solitary and erect at each node. The wavy, dark brownish-black seeds in the fruit, and those blossoms are unique among the capsicums. This extremely pungent chili, called rocoto, was domesticated in the Andean region of South America and is yet virtually unknown in other parts of the world. Its cultural requirements are cool, free-growing conditions and a long growing season. There are no sweet varieties. The fruit deteriorates rapidly because of its fleshy nature; consequently, it does not store or travel well. The best-known cultivars are rocoto, locoto, manzana, and chile caballo.
- Capsicum baccatum var. pendulum (mentioned in the work of Willdenow, 1808; Eshbaugh, 1968). It has an easily recognized flower with a cream-colored corolla marked with greenish-gold blotches near the base of each petal and anthers that are whitish yellow to brownish and is solitary at each node. An elongate fruit with cream-colored seeds is most typical. It is indigenous to the lowlands and mid-elevations of Bolivia and neighboring areas. In much of South America, where all pungent peppers are called ají, C. baccatum is the "Andean ají " (Ruskin, 1989). Little known beyond South America until now, it is being discovered by pepper fans. Only this species and the common annual pepper have nonpungent cultivars. The best-known cultivars are Andean ají, cusqueno, puca-uchu, ají limon, and datil.
- Capsicum annuum var. annuum (first mentioned by Linnaeus, 1753). The flowers with white corollas and purple anthers are solitary at each node (occasionally two or more). The variform fruit usually has firm flesh and straw-colored seeds. A multitude of pungent and nonpungent cultivars of this Mesoamerican domesticate now dominate the worldwide commercial pepper market. A relationship between C. annuum, C. chinense, and C. frutescens has caused the three to be known as the C. annuum complex. This relationship creates a taxonomic predicament. Some authors still recognize the first two as distinct but tend to have difficulty determining where C. frutescens fits into the picture, if indeed it is a separate species. The best-known cultivars are bell, cayenne, jalapeño, serrano, pimento, poblano, New Mexican chile/Anaheim, and cherry.
- Capsicum annum var. glabriscululm (mentioned in the work of Dunal, 1852; Heiser and Pickersgill, 1975). It is a semiwild species known as bird pepper. Its distinct flavor and high pungency cause it to be avidly consumed throughout its natural range, which extends through the southernmost parts of the United States to Colombia. This highly variable, tiny, erect, usually red pepper is cultivated commercially in the area around Sonora, Mexico, and seems to be in the process of domestication. Birds also consume it avidly. These chilies, which have many vernacular names and almost as many synonyms (C. aviculare is the most common), sell for ten times the rate of cultivated green bell peppers. The best-known cultivars are chiltepin, chilpequin, malaqueta, and bird pepper.
- Capsicum chinense (first mentioned by Jacquin, 1776). Its flowers are always two or more small, white to greenish white corollas with purple anthers hanging at each node, often in clusters. The variform fruit has cream-colored seeds that tend to require a longer germination period than C. annuum. Its domestication occurred in the lowland jungle of the western Amazon River basin and had been carried to the islands of the Caribbean before 1492. It has diffused throughout the world but to a much lesser degree than C. annuum, probably because it does not store or dry well; however, it is becoming more widely appreciated by cooks and gardeners for its pungency, aroma, and unique flavor. Although this distinctive pepper is considered to be a part of the C. annuum complex, some authors question its position there. The best-known cultivars are habanero, West Indian hot, Scotch bonnet, ají flor, rocotillo, and red savina.
- Capsicum frutescens (first mentioned by Linnaeus, 1753). Some authors no longer consider this semi-wild species of Capsicum to be sustainable. It has two or more small white to greenish white flowers with purple anthers at each node and was once considered to be a member of the C. annuum complex, which includes three white-flowered species thought to have a mutual ancestor—C. chinense, C. frutescens, and C. annuum. The small fruit with cream-colored seed is always erect, never sweet, and often two or more may occur at each node. The tabasco pepper, limited to the Western Hemisphere, is the only variety of this species known to have been cultivated commercially. Easily transported by birds, the tiny varieties of wild C. frutescens can be found throughout the world's tropical pepper belt. The cultivated varieties are closely controlled by the McIlhenny Company of New Iberia, Louisiana. The cultivars are tabasco, greenleaf tabasco, and select.
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Chili, Chilli, Chile, or Pimento?
Columbus believed that he had arrived in the Orient when he landed on the islands of the Caribbean Sea. He was so convinced of this that he called the islands the Indies, the natives were labeled Indians, and to the confusion of all who came after him, the pungent spice they ate was named pimiento after the completely unrelated black pepper—pimienta —that he sought. The indigenous Arawaks, his Indians, called the fruit axí (pronounced "aah hee") that was transliterated in Spanish to ají (ajé or agí ).
Today the pungent varieties are still called ají in the Dominican Republic (formerly Española) and a few other places in the Caribbean and much of South America. In the Andean area the ancient words uchu and huayca are used for capsicums by some Amerindian groups. In Spain American peppers are called pimiento or pimientón (depending on the size) after pimienta or black pepper from India. However, the Spanish names did not stay with the plant through Europe; it is called peperone in Italy, piment in France, and paprika by the Slavic peoples in the Balkans.
In 1519 when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, the Nahuatl-speaking natives called their fiery fruit chilli. The main interest of the initial Iberian explorers was conquest, then gold and silver; chilies and other plants were of little concern to them. Fifty years later a different type of Spaniard arrived. Dr. Francisco Hernandez, physician to the King of Spain, was the first European to collect plants in the Americas. Hernandez lived in Mexico from 1570 to 1577, and when he returned to Spain, he produced four books on the natural history of the plants and animals he had found in New Spain. He heard the Nahuatl speakers pronouncing the name of their pungent native spice "chee yee." Consequently, when he wrote about that plant, he gave the Nahuatl word a Spanish spelling, using the double ll to reproduce the "y" sound he had heard the natives make. The Nahuatl stem chil- refers to the chili plant. It also means 'red.' To the generic word "chilli" the term that described the particular chili cultivar was added (e.g., tonalchilli for a chili of the sun or summer, chiltecpin for a flea chili, etc.). At some point the Spanish speakers in Mexico changed the original Hernandez spelling to chile. Today, that word refers to both pungent and sweet types of chilies and is used Nahuatl-style combined with a descriptive adjective, such as chile colorado (for a red chili) or chile poblano (for a Pueblo chili). Confusingly, the same Mexican variety can have different names in different geographic regions, in various stages of maturity, or in the dried state.
In Portuguese pimenta is used for capsicums and qualifies the various types—pimenta-da-caiena, cayenne pepper; pimenta-da-malagueta, red pepper; pimenta-doreino, black pepper; pimenta-da-jamaica, allspice; while pimentão is pimento, red pepper, or just pepper. Ají and chile are not found in a Portuguese dictionary, nor did Portuguese settlers or explorers carry these words with them in their travels.
The Dutch and English were probably responsible for introducing the current capsicum names to the eastern part of the Old World because in Australia, India, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia in general, chilli (spelled chillies or sometimes chilly ) is used by English speakers for the pungent types, while the mild ones are called capsicums. Each Far Eastern language has its own word for chilies—prik in Thai and mirch in Hindi, to name but two.
The most confusion with regard to spelling exists in the United States, especially in California and the Southwest. Here, one finds both the anglicized spelling chili (chilies ) and the Spanish spelling chile (chiles ) used by some for the pungent fruits of the Capsicum plant, while "chili" is also used as a short form of chili con carne, a variously concocted mixture of meat and chilies. The Oxford English Dictionary offers chilli as the primary spelling, calling chile and chili variants. Webster's New International Dictionary prefers chili, followed by the Spanish chile and the Nahuatl chilli. Chilli remains the spelling most used by English-speaking people throughout the world.
For the sake of clarity and consistency, it would help if capsicums or peppers were used when speaking of the fruit of the Capsicum in general, both sweet and pungent; chilli or chilli pepper for the pungent types; chili for the spicy meat dish; and pimento for the sweet, thick-fleshed, heart-shaped red capsicum. Chile (in italics) should refer to a native Mexican cultivar or, in its not italicized form, it should refer to the long green or red variety from New Mexico or California. Whenever possible, the name of the specific fruit type, group, or cultivar name should be used.
Pepper seed should not be planted directly into the soil outdoors; they are best transplanted. Start the seed in a greenhouse, in flats, or in hotbeds at least six weeks before the first frost-free date. Sow them as thinly as possible on a sterile medium and cover no deeper than the thickness of the seed. Water carefully from the top so as not to dislodge the seed. From the time of sowing until transplanting and well started, never permit the seed or seedlings to dry or wilt. Germination will require twelve to twenty-one days at a constant temperature of 70°F (21°C) for Capsicum annuum var. annuum, but longer for the other species. When four or more true leaves are well formed, transplant the seedlings into containers or flats containing equal parts peat, sand, and loam. Grow them at 70°F (21°C). After the plants attain a height of 12 to 15 centimeters and all danger of frost is past, transplant them deeply in friable soil that is not below 55°F (13°C). Space the plants 12 inches apart in rows 15 inches apart. Add a cup of water to each transplant and cover with a hot cap; irrigate immediately. Full sun and a well-drained soil are necessities. Peppers are a warm-season crop that grows better in a moderate climate, one that is not so cold as to cause freezing or too hot to set fruit. If night temperatures rise above 80°F (27°C), the plant will not bloom. The optimum temperature for good yield is between 65°F (18.5°C) and 80°F (26.5°C) during fruit setting (Andrews, 1993).
Selection, Preparation, and Serving
Capsicums are a fruit that is used like a vegetable. Any type of pepper can be gathered when it is green, but when fully mature it is red, orange, yellow, purple, or brown. The two compounds that produce the pungency and flavor do not develop immediately, but increase gradually with maturity. As a consequence, immature fruits are less pungent and less flavorful than mature ones. A chipotle, or fully dried ripe red jalapeño is much more pungent than the green jalapeño, and a mature red bell pepper is much sweeter and flavorful than a green one. Until recently, the consumer had to settle for green rather than ripe fruit because the latter did not ship or store well. Better, faster shipping and storage facilities are changing that so that one may savor the flavor of a fully ripe pepper. Except for green bell peppers, capsicums are a seasonal crop, and the best selection will be available in the summer and fall. The most desirable fruits are those with glossy, smooth skin that is firm to the touch.
Peppers are best stored in the refrigerator. They may be kept there for weeks only if the fresh pods are dried with a clean cloth, and placed in an airtight container or a tightly sealed heavy zip-lock plastic bag. It is important to remove as much of the oxygen as possible before placing the tightly closed container in the refrigerator. Each time the container is opened, the unused pods must be dried and air removed before resealing. Once a week the peppers should be removed from the refrigerator and allowed to return to room temperature, then wiped dry, returned to the container, and sealed. If they cannot be stored this way, it is best to freeze them and then use them for cooking. If they are to be kept out of the refrigerator or if there is no time to withdraw the air, they should be placed in a paper container. If they are put in an air-filled plastic bag, they will rapidly spoil.
Dried peppers will keep almost indefinitely if properly stored. They should be kept in tightly closed jars or heavy plastic bags in a dry, cool place, preferably the refrigerator or freezer. Freezing the dried peppers before storing will kill any insect larvae and eggs. The peppers should be monitored for insects or mildew.
Before peppers are used in a favorite recipe, they must be washed, stemmed, veined, and seeded. Some cooks prefer to remove the skin but this is only necessary when using tough skinned poblanos or the New Mexican chile and any of its varieties. The large bell types, ethnic peppers (Cubanelle, Italian), pimentos, and others of these types should be parboiled or blanched for 2 to 3 minutes before being used whole for stuffing or filling, if the filling is not to be cooked in the pepper shell. Remove them from the heat immediately and plunge them into iced water to stop the cooking process. Small chilies need only to be washed, stemmed, seeded, and veined without skinning. Usually, if a recipe calls for a pepper to be roasted or blistered, it is not only to remove the skin, but also because the charred flavor is desirable.
Frozen peppers can be used for seasoning and cooking or as stuffed peppers; they are too soft for salads. If the skins are left on before freezing, most of the nutritive values is retained. When freezing pungent chilies, parboiling before freezing will prevent capsaicin loss. Dry small chilies and spread on a pan before freezing. When frozen hard, remove from the pan and immediately place them in a dry plastic bag. Return to freezer. Open bag and pick out a few as needed, being careful to prevent the thawing of those remaining in the bag. Return to freezer.
Peppers can be sun-dried, oven-dried, smoked, or dehydrated, but none of these methods are very practical for the modern home cook who is pressed for time. Sun-drying is an ancient method best adapted to arid climates, but is not feasible in humid areas. It takes several days in a dry, sunny locale. Oven-drying is a tedious process requiring the peppers to remain in a 140°F oven for up to 24 hours. Smoking is another method of artificially drying peppers that is seldom used in the United States. It is the procedure by which jalapeños are slowly dried and imparted with a smoky flavor to become chipotles. Dehydration is drying with heat from a man-made source. This process is not only faster, but also produces a much better product than the other methods.
The dried product can be placed in a processor or blender and flaked or powdered. The ground product will keep better once refrigerated. Whole pods may be used in recipes that require a long cooking time and a large amount of water such as those for soups or stews.
Many widely available and popular cookbooks provide directions and recipes for preparing and serving capsicums.