In 2019, 38 tonnes of raw green chillies were cultivated worldwide. And that was only the green chillies. These little fruits from the nightshade family (all cloak and dagger—more about that in another blog) pack a punch so strong everyone has heard of them and, most likely, eaten them. They weren’t always a staple around the globe, however. They have their humble origins in an area along the Andes in the West to Northwest South America. At least according to a 2016 phylogenetic analysis of 24 of the 35 Capsicum strains.
So how did the chilli pepper conquer over the world? Well, someone conquered their lands…
Before we dig into the hot history of chilli peppers, you should know the basics. You know, so you can impress your friends at the next cocktail party where someone serves a drink infused with jalapeño peppers.
Chillies are berry-fruits that belong to the Capsicum genus and are members of the Solanaceae nightshade family. Chillis contain compounds known as capsaicinoids—chief among them, capsaicin. This is what gives chillies their punch, and their medical benefits—capsaicin is a known anti-inflammatory and analgesic. While often used in medical creams, don’t try to put raw chilli on your skin—it’s going to burn! Rather go to your nearest pharmacy, or health food store, and ask for the creams and supplements!
Chilli peppers, as mentioned, have their origins in South America.
The spread of wild chillies first came about thanks to birds—lucky for the birds (and the chillies) they don’t have the same receptors for “heat” that humans have. Meaning chilli peppers don’t burn the birdies’ mouths. (Isn’t that interesting? Birds have an entirely different perspective on reality than humans!) So birds used to eat the peppers (and still do) and then poop out the seeds elsewhere. Hence, the spread of the plant in South America.
Scientists found that the receptor that tells us that we are touching something burning hot (TRPV1) literally had a hiccup at some point in history and started thinking that capsaicin was dangerous. It’s not really dangerous. Nor is it burning hot. Though, of course, as with anything, you shouldn’t over indulge!
This hiccup in evolution could have been designed by Mother Nature to deter mammals from eating the plant. Birds who didn’t chew the seeds and therefore didn’t destroyed them, but rather spread them, on the other hand, were welcome to it.
One study found that the use of chillies may date all the way back to 400 BCE—the plant itself is supposedly almost 14M years old. As for entering the human diet, they were used in cooking about 8,500 years ago and started getting cultivated in Mexico ca. 6,000 years ago.
Enter Christopher Columbus
Columbus was a bit of a stumbling fool. He was looking for a new route to Asia and ended up in America, thinking it was the East Indies. His entry in the New World as it became known, led to the Spanish and Portuguese fighting the Native Indians, which caused havoc. Many Native Indians also died due to the disease the Spaniards and Portuguese brought with them.
Though, of course, it’s easy to say this looking back. In Columbus’ time, there was no GPS, the honourable thing to do was conquering new lands, and it was thought people were born into their station in life. Meaning God judged people on birth, hence you landed where you were supposed to be—be it a servant or aristocrat, native or conquistador.
Now, on the upside, Columbus and co. brought a lot of goodies with them back to Europe. Including chilli peppers.
Back in Columbus days the only other spice that added heat and didn’t have an overpowering flavour (like say, ginger, horseradish, mustard, or cinnamon) was black pepper. As a result, it was expensive.
As black pepper was grown in Asia, it was a long journey to bring it to Europe. On top of it, the entry ports in Venice and the Levant meant that the traders there sat on all the power. And there was, at the time of Columbus, a crisis of sorts as taxes were increased on merchants who came to Egypt and Turkey. To topple it all off, there was an increase in demand for spices as the upper middle classes started growing and adapting the lifestyle of the upper classes. And those upper classes used pepper and other spices from Asia.
As a result of all the above, Columbus wanted to find a shorter route to Asia that he and his countrymen could benefit from.
That also meant that when Columbus arrived in “the Indies” he was looking for pepper. He had brought samples of black pepper, and possibly cinnamon and cloves, to ask around if it was locally grown. Instead, he found chillies. He called them peppers after black peppers.
The Poor Man’s Pepper
Unfortunately for Columbus, the chilli pepper wasn’t just too hot for the average man in Europe at the time—it was also not eclectic enough. Chillies, to the horror of the Spaniards, could be grown in any garden. Unlike black pepper that traveled many seas to reach them, the humble chilli could be grown in the backyard. As a result, it wasn’t exclusive, nor attributed any magical powers until many, many years later.
So instead of becoming desired by the rich and mighty, those who could not afford the famous black gold decided to use chilli pepper for spice.
The bell pepper may have been more successful—it’s unclear if Columbus brought this back, too. And, while this isn’t what this article is about, he brought with him allspice as well.
All in all, Columbus discovered a new world and, what he thought to be, a very healthy pepper as the natives seemed to thrive on it (there are diary excerpts indicating his thoughts on this), but it did not bring him the glory of finding a new route to spices. He was not the hero who brought home black gold.
While Columbus might have been the first person from the Old World to discover the chilli pepper, he wasn’t the one responsible for it quickly being spread throughout the world—the Portuguese were. Well, some Spaniards helped, but the Portuguese established a new route from Europe and South America to Africa via the Cape of Good Hope (first known as the Cape of Storms which is, actually, a rather apt name).
What does the Cape of Good Hope has to do with chilli, you ask?
Well, the Cape of Good Hope was first discovered by Bartolomeu Dias, but it was Vasco de Gama who circumnavigated it and ended up in India. To prove it, he brought with him home the black gold and other spices. Finally, someone had a discovered a new route to the lands of spices!
As black gold was very popular, this route quickly became an established route for the Portuguese. In turn, as they sometimes sailed from South America (which they were busy conquering together with parts of India where they docked their boats to collect their “gold”), they brought with them chillies.
Chilli peppers soon spread across India and from there across the Silk Road.
Chilli also spread across the southern parts of Africa thanks to the Portuguese sailors stopping by there and, eventually, creating settlements there. This is where, eventually, the now world-famous peri-peri sauce was invented. (And the one we sell is made from a genuine African recipe right on the farm in South Africa!)
With the Treaty of Tordesillas, the New World got divided between the Spanish and the Portuguese. This meant that for the Spanish it did not make sense to sail to Asia via the Cape of Good Hope, as they were on the “wrong” side of the Americas for that. Instead, they discovered that by crossing the Pacific they had finally discovered a new route to Asia. As they explored this new route, the chilli went with them and landed in Manila and from there spread to China.
It’s hard to imagine that before the 1500s there was no chilli in the food in Africa, India, and Asia—places we now associate with hot and spicy food. Hot food made hot by chilli peppers, that is!
In America, trade routes on the continent had already been set up by the natives, so it appears chilli could be found in the southernmost parts of the US before Columbus and, consequently, the Portuguese, entered the scene.
You’ve heard of it. You’ve had it. You either fell in love or ran away with your tongue burning.
You have had it, right? Otherwise, get yourself a bottle right now. Knowing about chilli sauce and not having had tabasco is like drinking soft drinks never having tried Coca-Cola. Bad for you as it may be, Coca-Cola is still the king of soft drinks. And their stevia version may even be semi-acceptable health wise.
But we digress.
With the cultivation of chilli and its increasing popularity, it started becoming a staple in foods across the world. And as the industrial revolution came upon mankind (or mankind created the industrial revolution, should we say), the production of chilli sauce begun. And one of the first ones was tabasco.
Some of chilli’s popularity can, no doubt, be traced to this famous sauce. The McIlhenny Company in Louisiana shipped its first bottle in 1869, having produced the first one in 1868. The story goes McIlhenny stole the recipe from someone else.
We promise our recipes have not been stolen, but tabasco sauce is, admittedly, even more famous than our beloved peri-peri. However, it’s a different taste experience altogether. It’s like comparing chipotle sauce with peri-peri—it’s incomparable. One contains smoked jalapeño peppers, the other has fermented birds eye chilli in it. Not even the level of heat is the same!
Another development was selling manufacturing and selling dried and ground chilli.
Dried and ground chilli was first sold in Texas. By whom and in what year is debatable. Some say it was William Gebhardt who started selling it in his café in 1894 or 1896. Others claim it was DeWitt Clinton Pendery who first started selling it back in 1890.
As both gentlemen lived in Texas one thing is for sure—the powder was first sold in Texas.
Gebhart labelled chilli powder as Tampico Dust (FYI Tampico is a seaport in Mexico). We think Devil’s Dust would have been more appropriate. However, that might not have gone down well with the religious folks back in the day.
The Scoville Scale
Back in 1912 Wilbur Scoville—a pharmacist—developed what was later labelled the Scoville Scale. Basically, he invented a way of measuring the heat (pungency) of chillies. This is done by measuring the amount of capsaicinoids found in various peppers.
Thanks to Scoville we can all now rejoice in the fact that we can check the heat scale on the hot sauces that we buy—no nasty surprises. Unless, of course, you add a touch too much to one to your dish by accident…
Today chilli is everywhere—it’s no longer a food for the poor, but a food for everyone. However, stronger spices appear to go hand in hand with the weather—chilli is used more in warmer climates than in colder climates. This may be because the pain receptor for heat is activated when eating it, making you feel heat rising as you start sweating (though this is genetic—some don’t), which in turn helps you cool off.
In warmer climates it’s also harder to keep foods fresh and chilli doesn’t just pack a punch when it comes to heat—it also kills bacteria.
These days, you’ll also find that chilli has made its way into a lot of sugary foods around the globe. While this may appear like a modern invention (your British grandma likely did not have chilli in her chocolate), it’s an old tradition dating back to the Native Indians. They made a drink called xocolatl with water cacao, vanilla and chilli. The famous molo sauce used for meat also contains both cacao and chilli.
If you visit Mexico and certain other places, you’ll also find a delicious sweet made from tamarind paste, sugar, chilli, and salt. It’s sweet, salty, sour, and hot all at the same time. Mainly, it’s sweet and sour with a hot edge to it.
So there you have it—the history of the chilli pepper and how it spread from its native America to the rest of the world. Quite the story, don’t you think? Chilli peppers may be small, but they certainly are powerful.