chile pepper (also chili or chilli; from Nahuatl chilli
via Spanish chile)
is the fruit of the plant Capsicum from the nightshade
chile peppers and their various cultivars are grown around the
world because they are widely used as spices or vegetables in cuisine, and even
since prehistoric times in Peru and Mexico, it was discovered in the
by Columbus and named
a "pepper" because of its similarity with the Old World peppers of the Piper genus.
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.
most common species of chile peppers are:
paprika fruits from Mexico
there are only a few commonly used species, there are many cultivars and
methods of 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,
the green ones being immature. In the same species are the jalapeño, the chipotle
(a smoked jalapeño), the poblano, ancho (which is a dried poblano), New Mexico,
Anaheim, Serrano, and other cultivars. Jamaicans, Scotch bonnets, and habaneros
are common varieties of C. chinense. The species C. frutescens appears
as chiles de arbol, aji, pequin, tabasco, cayenne, cherry peppers, and others.
substances that give chiles their heat are the alkaloid capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide)
and four related chemicals, collectively called capsaicinoids. Each capsaicinoid
has a different effect on the mouth, and variation in the proportions of these
chemical is responsible for the differing sensations produced by different varieties.
Capsaicin 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 "less-than-lethal" weapon.
"heat" of chile peppers is measured in Scoville units. Bell peppers
rank at zero Scoville units, jalapeños at 3,000–6,000 Scoville units, and habaneros
at 300,000 Scoville units. The record for the highest number of Scoville units
in a pepper is assigned by the Guinness Book of
Records to the Red Savina Habanero, measuring 577,000 units.
However, a recent report was made of a pepper from India called the Naga Jolokia measuring
at 855,000 Scoville units. Both the Red Savina and the Naga Jolokia claims are
disputed as to their validity, and lack independent verification. Pure capsaicin
rates at 16,000,000 Scoville units. (http://www.fiery-foods.com/dave/assam_chile2.asp)
fruit is eaten cooked or raw for its fiery hot flavor which is concentrated along
the top of the pod. The stem end of the pod has glands which produce the capsaicin,
which then flows down through the pod. Removing the seeds and inner membranes
is thus effective at reducing the heat of a pod.
dishes with a strong chile flavor are Mexican salsas, Tex-Mex chili con carne, and Indian
vindaloos and other curries.
Chili powder is a spice made of the dried ground chiles,
usually of the Mexican chile ancho variety, but with small amounts of cayenne
added for heat. Bottled hot sauces such as Tabasco
sauce are made from chiles such as the cayenne (not, oddly, from tabasco peppers),
which may also be fermented.
Szechuan and Thai cuisines
are particularly associated with the chile pepper, although the plant was unknown
in Asia until Europeans introduced it there.
bonnet chile peppers in a Caribbean market
peppers are popular in food, despite the pain and irritation they bring. Capsaicin
has an antibacterial effect, so
food cooked with chiles keeps for longer without spoiling. Chiles are rich in
and are believed to have many beneficial effects on health. The pain caused by
capsaicin stimulates the brain to produce endorphins, natural opioids which act
and produce a sense of well-being. Psychologist Paul Rozin suggests that eating
chiles is an example of a "constrained risk" like riding a roller coaster, in
which extreme sensations like pain and fear can be enjoyed because we know they
are not actually harmful.
do not have the same sensitivity to capsaicin as mammals, as capsaicin acts on a
specific nerve receptor in mammals, and avian nervous systems are rather different.
Chile peppers are in fact a favorite food of many birds living in the chile peppers'
natural range. The flesh of the peppers provides the birds with 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. It is interesting to note that the chemical used to give an artificial
grape flavoring to food items such as grape soda does have a similar effect on
birds as capsaicin has on humans.
- Chile is the most
common spelling which refers specifically to this plant and its fruit. This orthography
is universal in the Spanish-speaking world, even though in some parts chile
is better known as ají.
is also quite popular, but its use is discouraged by some, as this word is more
commonly used to refer to a popular Southwestern dish (chili is the official
state dish of Texas (http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/ref/abouttx/symbols/chili.html)),
as well as to the mixture of cumin and other spices (chili
powder) used to flavor it.
alternative spelling chilli is used in non-American English speaking
countries such as the UK and Australia.
name of this plant bears no relation to Chile, the country, which is named
after the Quechua chin (cold),
tchili (snow), or chilli (where the land ends).