pepper heads for life

by Paul Bosland

The chile is moving out of the shadow of its sidekick, the tomato, to become a staple crop in the garden. New colors of bell peppers, which have always been popular with gardeners, sweet and mild jalapenos, novel ornamental types, and exotic chiles from around the world are inspiring new interest among gardeners. Fiery foods from ethnic cuisines are gaining influence, accelerating the popularity of chiles in cooking and in the garden. And because fresh chiles are “fat free, saturated-fat free, very low sodium, cholesterol free, low in calories, high in vitamin A, and high in vitamin C,” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, they make great additions to a healthy diet.

Chiles have not only a bright future but also a fascinating past. Chiles belong to the genus Capsicum and the Solanaceae or nightshade family. This large tropical family includes the tomato, potato, eggplant, and petunia. Chiles may be called peppers, but they are not related to Piper nigrum, the source of black pepper, nor are they related to the Guinea pepper or grains of paradise, Aframomum melegueta. So why the confusion in the name? Originally, chiles were found only in the Americas. But when Columbus searched for a shorter route to the East Indies and its prized spices, he found in the Caribbean a plant that mimicked the pungency of black pepper. He called it red pepper, probably assuming the pungent fruits were a new type of pepper, and introduced it to Europe. In 1493, Peter Martyr wrote that Columbus brought home “pepper more pungent than that from the Caucasus” [black pepper]. Chiles spread rapidly along the established spice trade routes from Europe eastward to Africa and Asia, where today they are major crops.

Most people are not adventurous when it comes to foodsówe simply do not eat unknown foods. Yet this new food, unlike the introduced tomato and potato, was accepted and integrated into the cuisines of Europe, Africa, and Asia without hesitation. Perhaps people assumed, as Columbus did, that this plant was a form of black pepper, which was affordable only by the nobility. Now the peasants could grow pepper and flavor their dishes just as the wealthy did.

Chiles diffused throughout Europe, and by the sixteenth century were grown in Italy, France, and Germany. In about 1560 they arrived in Hungary, and became the famous Hungarian paprika. Centuries later, paprika was the source of a discovery that led to a Nobel Prize. Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Gyˆrgyi, while working at Szeged University in 1931, isolated pure vitamin C, ascorbic acid, from tomato-shaped paprika. He had originally worked with the adrenal glands of cattle, but they contained such small amounts of the unknown material that he made little progress. Szent-Gyˆrgyi later described the discovery this way: He did not like the paprika dish his wife had prepared one evening, and told her he would finish eating it in his laboratory. Well, as they say, the rest is historyóby midnight of that same night he knew he had found a treasure trove of vitamin C. In 1937, he got the call from the Nobel committee.

Chiles Go to Africa and Asia

The cuisine of an area reflects, in part, the influences of its explorers, conquerors, and commercial contacts. Before chiles arrived in Africa and Asia, people there were already familiar with fiery spices. For centuries, they had used ginger, black pepper, mustard, melegueta, cloves, and other spices to season their foods. Then, during the sixteenth century, the Portuguese colonized Brazil, and subsequently introduced Capsicum chinense and C. frutescens into western Africa and the Congo basin. The shameful activities of slave ships from numerous countries were also responsible for introducing chiles to Africa, as exchanges between the Americas and Africa were common. Chiles were probably introduced into Asia by traders from Europe and Africa, and quickly became a major spice there, eventually dominating the cuisines of India and China.

No one knows for sure why chiles became a staple spice in the cuisines of Africa and Asia, but chiles did grow well there, and in many areas became a “subspontaneous crop”óit grew and replanted itself without human help. So here was a spice that was easy to grow, healthy, and tasty. Nevertheless, perhaps chile became popular in both Asia and Africa for the same reason it became popular in the Americas: It enhanced the flavor of foods. When people added chiles to dishes, they became newly aware of the flavors of their customary foods. Just as wine, invented by the Romans, was appreciated by people all over the world, chiles may have been desired for the unique and exquisite flavors they provided. Many people argue that pungency is one of the five basic tastes, along with salty, bitter, sweet, and sour.

China, India, and Pakistan are now the world’s three largest producers of chiles. Nowadays, it is so common to think of India curry or Szechuan dishes flavored with chiles, that it’s hard to believe that they were completely unknown there just 500 years ago. Chiles were so quickly incorporated into the foods of Asia that in the 1700s a French taxonomist mistook China for the origin of one of the species, and called it Capsicum chinense.

Taming the Wild Chile

The earliest chile breeders were the indigenous peoples of the Americas, who had emigrated from northern Europe 10,000 to 12,000 years ago; chiles were one of the first plants that they domesticated and cultivated. And chiles were not domesticated just once. There are five different domesticated species of chiles, so we can infer that they were domesticated at least five times, independently. The most likely ancestor of C. annuumóthe species most extensively cultivated around the world todayóis the wild chile piqu’n (C. annuum var. aviculare). It has a wide distribution, from South America to southern Arizona. Over millennia, Native Americans patiently selected and developed many of the pod types of chiles we know today from the chile piqu’n, including jalapeÒo, serrano, pasilla, and ancho, to name a few.

By the time Columbus arrived in the Americas, the Aztecs were growing not only the jalapeÒo, pasilla, ancho, and serrano, but the arbol and the mirasol. The sixteenth-century Spanish chronicler Fray Bernardino de Sahag˙n wrote that in the Aztec market there were “hot green chiles, smoked chiles, water chiles, tree chiles, flea chiles, and sharp-pointed red chiles.” He noted that the Aztecs classified chiles into six categories based not only on level of pungency (high to low), but also on the type of pungency (sharp to broad). To further illustrate the importance of the flavor differences among the different chile types, Bernardino de Sahag˙n described how each was used in dishesó”frog with green chile, newt with yellow chile, tadpoles with small chiles,” and so on.

The Aztecs found other uses for chiles. Among the paintings in the Mendocino Codexóa visual record of Aztec lifeóis a picture of a father punishing his 11-year-old son by making the boy inhale the smoke from dry chiles roasting on the hearth. Many police departments in the United States have found chile vapors to be equally effective against unruly criminals: They issue pepper spray to the officers on their forces.

To the first inhabitants of the Americas, chiles possessed mystical and spiritual powers. The Aztec, Maya, and Inca held chiles in such high regard that they withheld them from their diets when fasting to earn favors and to please the gods. Incas worshipped the chile as a holy plant, and considered it to be one of the four brothers of their creation myth, wrote Garcilaso de la Vega in 1609 in his Royal Commentaries of the Incas.

Potent Medicine

Because of their unique pungency, chiles were used for more than just food or spice in pre-Columbian times. The wild chile fruits were first used as a medicine. Mayas used them to treat asthma, coughs, and sore throats. The Aztecs and the Mayas mixed chile with maize flour to produce chillatolli, a cure for the common cold. It was reported that the Aztecs placed a drop or two of chile juice on a toothache to stop the pain. Today, the Jivaro of South America continue the practice by applying the fruit directly to a toothache. A survey of the Maya pharmacopoeia revealed that chiles are currently included in a number of herbal remedies for a variety of ailments of probable microbial origin. In Colombia, the Tukano tribe uses chiles to relieve a hangover. After a night of dancing and drinking alcoholic beverages, the Tukanos in Colombia pour a mixture of crushed chile and water into their noses to relieve the effects of the festivities. The Teenek (Huastec) Indians of Mexico use chile to cure infected wounds. The chile fruit is rubbed into the wound and can produce pain so severe that the patient passes out. The Teenek believe that the chile kills the brujo (evil spirit) causing the illness. They put red crushed fruits on their feet to cure athlete’s foot fungus and consume a drink made from from boiled green fruits to cure snakebite.

Today, chiles are among the most widely used of all natural remedies. Creams made with capsaicin from chiles are the most recommended topical medication for arthritis: At nerve endings a neurotransmitter called substance P informs the brain that something painful is occurring. In reaction to chile’s pungency, more substance P is released. Eventually, the substance P is depleted and fewer messages are sent from the nerve endings. As the level of available substance P is reduced, long-term inflammationówhich can cause cartilage to break downóalso dies down. Mastectomy patients and amputees suffering from phantom limb pain apply creams containing capsaicin to reduce postoperative pain. And prolonged use of these creams has also been found to reduce the itching that dialysis patients experience, pain caused by shingles (Herpes zoster), and cluster headaches.

And chiles have other physiological benefits. They are an important source of vitamins and many essential nutrients. The antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E are present in high concentrations in various chile types. In addition, chiles provide high amounts of vitamins P (bioflavonoids), B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), and B3 (niacin). Chiles are richer in vitamin C than the usual recommended sources, such as citrus fruits. A green chile (medium-sized bell pepper) pod contains about six times as much vitamin C as an orange. In many diets, chiles are an important source of the provitamins alpha-, beta-, and gamma-carotene, and cryptoxanthin, which are transformed in the human digestive tract into vitamin A. The daily vitamin A requirement is met by consumption of one-half tablespoon of red chile powder.

Chiles Today

People around the world today eat chiles as a fresh vegetable or in their dehydrated form, as a spice. In many households, chiles are the only spice used to enhance an otherwise bland diet. By volume, pungent and nonpungent red chile products are among the most important spice commodities in the world. Foods that contain chile or its chemical constituents are numerous; they include ethnic foods, meats, salad dressings, mayonnaise, dairy products, beverages, candies, baked goods, snack foods, breading and batters, salsas, and hot sauces.

Chiles are often associated with hot climates, an association that people explain by noting that chiles cause you to perspire, and if you are in a hot climate, that perspiration will cool you off. A more plausible explanation for chiles’ association with warm climates is that the chile plant is native to the tropics and grows best in similar climates. Perhaps chiles never caught on in northern Europe because the growing season was too short. Hungarians selected varieties that would grow and fruit in their short growing season and cool climate. Another attribute of chiles is that they have antimicrobial effects, an important benefit in warm climates, where food spoilage is common. The capsaicin and other unidentified antimicrobial compounds in chiles have the power to rid the body of internal parasites that are common in those regions.

Throughout history, the uses of chiles have been as diverse as their colors and shapes: Chiles have been used as currency, tribute, spice, vegetable, ornament, medicine, and to invoke spiritual sensations. During the last two decades, chiles have been the subject of a surge of interest here in the United States. Trade shows, festivals, magazines, Internet web sites, and even an institute are dedicated to the chile. This popularity is due to several factors: First, people have emigrated to the United States from regions such as Southeast Asia and Latin America where chile is an everyday ingredient in food. Chiles are also gaining popularity here because younger people enjoy spicy foods; they relish piquant snacks like buffalo wings, stuffed Jalapenos, and chile-flavored corn chips. To satisfy these new cravings, the food industry has embraced spicy foods, delivering many new pungent products. As more safe and reasonably priced fiery foods become available, more people are trying them. And the phenomenon grows: Americans want more flavorful, varied, and healthy food and chiles deliver.

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