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Chiles (in English, chilies) are hot peppers that are indigenous to the New World and are one of the significant food contributions to the world following the Columbian period. Members of the Capsicum genus number over two hundred, with over one hundred Mexican species. Chiles vary in shape, size (from the huge chile de agua to the half-inch-long pequín), and color (common green and red to unusual black, yellow, and white). They are used fresh, dried, pickled, and smoked in various cuisines, especially in Mexican cooking.

Known for their spicy character, each variety has a distinctive taste and piquancy, from mild to hot. Chile aficionados rely on Scoville units, devised by Wilbur L. Scoville, to measure the hotness of the capsaicin (an enzyme) contained in the peppers.

Besides their use as a spice, chiles have also been an essential ingredient in numerous folk remedies of the Americas. Medical science today acknowledges that chiles are higher in vitamin A than carrots and higher in vitamin C than most citrus fruits. Chiles are used as a decongestant and expectorant, and as an aid in weight loss and pain relief. Promising experiments are under way by arthritis and rheumatism researchers using capsaicin in lotions that reduce pain and inflammation in joints. One 2006 study suggested that capsaicin may stop the spread of prostate cancer. Other capsaicin creams have been successfully used to treat severe itching that affects many patients who undergo kidney dialysis.

The most widespread use of chiles is in the production of salsa, or hot sauce, which has become so popular in the United States that it has surpassed the rather bland catsup in consumer purchases. In the early twenty-first century, even more exotic varieties of chiles, such as the chipotle (a smoked ripe jalapeño), have become popular in U.S. cuisine.

See alsoFood and Cookery: Medicinal Plants; Nutrition.


Diana Kennedy, The Cuisines of Mexico (1972).

Janet Long-Solís, Capsicum y cultura: La historia del chilli (1986); Dallas Morning News, 7 December 1992, sec. C, pp. 3-4, and 9 June 1993, sec. F, pp. 2, 4.

Additional Bibliography

Alvarez, Robert R., Jr. Mangos, Chiles, and Truckers: The Business of Transnationalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Long Solís, Janet, Manuel Álvarez, and Aranzazú Camarena. El placer del chile. Mexico City: Clío, 1998.

                                      William H. Beezley