Red Hot Chili Peppers
A passion for foods from the American Southwest is sweeping through the country. The main component and most popular item of this fad is the chili pepper, an item of tremendous variability and a staple of many people in Central America. In this country, chili peppers were once only found in specialized ethnic stores, but now it is just as likely to be found at the neighborhood Kroger. For most people, however, their knowledge stops here. Through this paper I hope to educate the reader on some other aspects of this intriguing vegetable, such as its history, chemistry, and uses.
There is some confusion over what a "chili pepper" is. To many it is only the hot varieties of pepper, such as the jalapeno or the serrano. Others include the milder varieties, such as the bell pepper. Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language defines a chili pepper as "... the pod of any species of capsicum, esp. Capsicum frutescens." In this paper, the term "chili pepper will be used to describe both the hot and mild varieties.
When asked to name the source of chili peppers, most people would name Mexico. However, despite the plant's popularity in that country, it is believed that chili peppers originated in South America, after which it spread to Central America. Pepper remains found in Tehuacan, Mexico, were dated to approximately 7000 B.C., showing that chili peppers were established long before Columbus arrived. In fact, chili peppers were among the first plants to be domesticated, due to its weedy nature and the easy transportability of its seeds (Andrews 1984).
When Columbus arrived in the New World, he mistook the chili peppers for a relative of black pepper, Piper nigrum, which is why it is referred to today as "peppers" (Robbins 1992). The first detailed account came from Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage. Dr. Chanca described chili peppers as the native's principle food and compared them to the turnip (Andrews 1984).
The seeds of the chili pepper were brought back to Spain, where it was grown in monastery gardens. Portuguese traders then spread the chili peppers to many far flung locations, such as India, Indonesia, and Persia (Andrews 1984).
Chile peppers became popular due to their great variability in size, shape, and color. Unfortunately, this long proved to be a problem for the taxonomists, who frequently had trouble telling the difference between a different variety and a different species. It wasn't until the 1950's that it was decided that there were five main species of chili peppers, and twenty wild ones (Proulx 1985). The five main species are: Capsicum annum, Capsicum frutescens, Capsicum chinense, Capsicum baccatum, and Capsicum pubescens. However, it is considered impossible to develop a system of classification that would cover all of the chili peppers, due to the great variation among the members of the same species, especially in places...