Chile Pepper Facts
from The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia by Dave DeWitt
- Columbus, as we all know, believed that he had reached the Spice Islands, the East Indies, when he, in fact, landed in the Americas. Not only did Columbus misname the natives Indians, he also mistook chiles for black peppers, thus giving them the inaccurate name of "peppers."
- The genus Capsicum originated in the remote geologic past in an area bordered by the mountains of southern Brazil to the east, Bolivia to the west, Paraguay to the north, and Argentina to the south, the region with the greatest concentration of wild species of chiles in the world.
- The component that causes heat in chile peppers is a crystalline alkaloid generically called capsaicin. Capsaicin is so powerful that chemists who handle it must work in a filtered "tox room" in full-body protection. They wear suits with closed hoods to prevent inhaling the powder. One chemist who did so by mistake said, "It's not toxic, but you wish you were dead if you inhale it."
- The country people of the Andean region of Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia still eat basically Incan food that has been only slightly modified by the meats and vegetables introduced by the Spanish. Chiles are used extensively, and they are among the hottest in the world. There is a Peruvian expression about the local rocoto chiles, "llevanta muertos," meaning they are hot enough to raise the dead. In the town of Huanta, Peru, rocotos are described as "gringo huanuchi," or chiles that will kill a gringo.
- Central America has pockets of fiery cuisine, mostly in countries such as Guatemala with a Mayan heritage. For breakfast, the Maya ate a gruel of ground maize spiced with chile peppers. A favorite drink was chocolate mixed with water, honey, and chile powder. For the evening meal, stews of vegetables and meats heavily spiced with chiles were served. One of these was chacmole, which combined venison with chile, allspice, and tomato. It was an offering to the gods as well as a nourishing entree. Aztec cookery, which is the basis of modem Mexican cuisine, was as sophisticated as it was spicy. For their midday meals, the Aztecs stuffed tamales with fruit, game meat, snails, or frog, along with whole chiles, and served them with cooked chile sauces.
- Many peppers popular in the Caribbean basin, where they are often made into hot sauces, belong to the species Capsicum chinense, introduced from the Amazon basin, including the incredibly hot Scotch bonnets. One variety thought to have originated in Cuba made its way to the Yucatan peninsula, where it was given the name habanero, or "from Havana." The name of Trinidadian buljol, an Eastern Caribbean salad of shredded saltfish, comes from the French brûle, meaning burned, and geule, slang for mouth.
- A variety of peppers introduced into Louisiana from Tabasco, Mexico, were grown in quantity by Edmund Mcllhenny ofAvery Island, who transformed them from obscurity into one of the most famous peppers in history. By experimentation with tabasco peppers, which were mashed, salted, aged, and then strained and mixed with vinegar, Mcllhenny produced his famous Tabasco sauce.
- In San Antonio, chili was sold as early as 1880 from rickety stands in the municipal market by women who were called the "chili queens." The Chili Appreciation Society International, founded in 1951, has more than 200 chapters—called "pods"—in Texas alone. During the 1960s, chili cookoffs became popular, especially in Texas and California. The origin of the famous "bowl o' red" remains a matter of debate, however. One Mexican dictionary defines it as "a detestable dish sold from Texas to New York and erroneously described as Mexican."
- The word cayenne seems to come from kian, the name of the pepper among the Tupi Indians of northeastern South America. The pod type probably originated in what is now French Guiana and was named either after the Cayenne River or the capital of the country, Cayenne. Like many peppers, it owes its spread around the world to Portugal, whose traders carried it to Europe, Africa, India, and Asia.
- The Portuguese forever changed curries by introducing chile peppers, which became the principal hot spice in curries from then on, to India. Chile peppers not only transformed the masalas, or spice mixtures of India, but the chutneys as well. In India it is said "The climate is hot, the dishes are hotter, and the condiments are the hottest." It was east Indian cooks who perfected the after-dinner cool-down (which is not beer, as some may believe). They discovered that the most effective antidote for the heat of chiles is dairy products, particularly yogurt. The Indian yogurt and fruit drink called lassi is commonly served after hot curry meals, and it is sweet, refreshing, and effective.
- Chiles were not indigenous to Asia, but were transferred there through trade and quickly became a very important element in the cuisines of all the countries in the region. They were adopted by the Thai, according to one observer, "with a fervor normally associated with the return of a long-lost child," while Koreans are said to have the highest per capita chile consumption in the world. In China, Sichuan and Hunan cooks depend mostly upon chile pastes and oils to provide the heat in their dishes. Fresh peppers are more commonly used in Hunan, where small dried chiles are added whole to stir-fries. The combination of chiles with nutty products such as sesame seeds and peanuts is called ma la and is one of the essential flavors of western Chinese cooking.
- The most famous north African chile dishes, served from Morocco to Egypt, are called tajines, named after the earthenware tajine pot in which they are cooked. Just about any meat—chicken, pigeon, mutton, beef, goat, and even camel—can be used in a tajine. Due to north Africa's large Muslim population, however, tajines rarely feature pork. In Ethiopia, the most important spice mixture is a condiment called berbere, which is made with the hottest chiles available, plus other spices. According to legend, the more delicious a woman's berbere was, the better chance she had to win a husband.
- The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia
- Everything You'll Ever Need to Know About Hot Peppers,
with More Than 100 Recipes
- by Dave DeWitt
- William Morrow & Co. 1999, 2003
- $19.95; paperback
- ISBN: 0756754038
- Recipe reprinted by permission.
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Page created 2005. Modified March 2007