Since the dawn of cooking, people around the world have added spices to their foods to make them taste better. But no other ingredient is more popular and widely consumed than the chile pepper. There is evidence that supports the notion that "countries with hotter climates use spices more frequently than countries with cooler climates".
Plenty has been written about the etymology of the various words used to describe the capsicums: pepper, chile, chili, chilli, and chile pepper, chili pepper. Pepper, of course, is derived from the early confusion with the black pepper genus, Piper, while chilli, chile, and chili are, the Nahuatl (Aztec) and Spanish spellings.
The Plant and Its Power
Chile peppers are perennial subshrubs, native to the Americas. They are a part of the large nightshade family, or Solanaceae, and are closely related to tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, and eggplants. They are not related to black pepper, Piper nigrum. The chile pepper genus is Capsicum, from the Greek kapto, appropriately enough, meaning "to bite."
The active principle that causes heat in chile peppers is a crystalline alkaloid generically called capsaicin, produced by glands at the junction of the placenta and the pod wall. The capsaicin spreads unevenly throughout the inside of the pod and is concentrated mostly in the placental tissue that holds the seeds. The capsaicin in chiles is an incredibly powerful and stable alkaloid, seemingly unaffected by cold or heat, thus retaining its original potency despite time, cooking, or freezing.
Capsaicin is one of the most pungent compounds known, detectable to the palate in dilutions of one to several million. It is slightly soluble in water, but very soluble in alcohols, fats, and oils. Capsaicin has no flavor, color, or odor. Therefore the precise amount in chiles can only be measured by specialized laboratory procedures.
There are some people more sensitive to the burn of the chiles more than others. Our human taste buds can detect sour, sweet, bitter and salty. Scientists have identified a lipid molecule called PIP2 that plays a crucial role in controlling the strength of the burning sensation caused by capsaicin. A lipid molecule is a fatty molecule, insoluble in water but soluble in fat solvents and alcohol -- just like capsaicin. In the mouth there is a capsaicin receptor called TRPV1, and the lipid molecule PIP2 is bound to it. In the presence of capsaicin, the PIP2 molecule separates from the receptor, causing a painful sensation.
In plain language, sensitivity to capsaicin is determined by genetics -- some people's lipid molecules have a stronger bond with capsaicin receptors than others. But the fact that biochemical and pharmacological mechanisms can also play a role could explain why some people become desensitized to capsaicin and can take more and more heat.
Origins of the Chile
Chiles originated in the remote geologic past in an area bordered by the mountains of southern Brazil to the east, by Bolivia to the west, and by Paraguay and northern Argentina to the south and as far north as central America and the jungles of Mexico. Not only does this location have the greatest concentration of wild species of chiles in the world, but here and only here, representatives of all the major domesticated species within the genus do grow. Scientists are not certain about the exact time frame or method for the spread of both wild and domesticated species, but suspect the birds were primarily responsible. The wild chiles (like their undomesticated cousin of today, the chiltepin) had erect, red fruits that were quite pungent, which discouraged mammals from eating them. But they were very attractive to various species of birds, which unaffected by the pungency, ate the whole pods. The seeds of those pods passed thru their digestive tracts intact and were deposited on the ground, encased in a perfect fertilizer. In this manner, chiles spread all over South and Central America long before the first Asian tribes crossed the Bering land bridge and settled the Western Hemisphere.
The earliest evidence of chile peppers in the human diet is from Mexico, where archaelogists discovered chile seeds dating from about 7500 B.C. during excavation at Tamaulipas and Teotihuacan. These pods and Peru's Guitarreo Cave (dated 6500 B.C) seem to indicate that chiles were under cultivation approximately 10,000 years ago. However, the date is extremely early for crop domestication, and some experts suggest that these specimens were harvested in the wild rather than cultivated by man.
It was in Mexico that the annuum species reached its greatest diversification of pod shapes. By the time the Spanish conquerers arrived in what is now Mexico, chile peppers of all sizes and shapes were available in the marketplaces, as recorded by historians such as Bernandino de Sahagún, who described "hot green chiles, smoked chiles, water chiles, tree chiles, beetle chiles, and sharp-pointed red chiles." Chiles were combined with virtually every meat and vegetable available, they were made into sauces and were even used in hot chocolate drinks also native to Mexico.
Dispersion Around the World
Credit goes to the most famous explorer Christopher Columbus for the dispersion of the chiles. While trying to find a short cut to the East Indies, he landed first in Mexico thinking he had made it to the sought after land of the "black pepper". He sampled a plant, thought it was a relative of the black pepper and dubbed it a "pepper". So began several hundred years of misinformation about chile peppers. Unlike what Christopher Columbus thought, they aren't related to black pepper and they didn't originate in India.
Shortly after Christopher Colombus brought back the first chile pods with seeds from Mexico, the word was out about the pungent pods. Pedro Martir, a cleric in the service of the Spanish court in Barcelona, wrote in 1493 that the new hot pepper was called "caribe, meaning sharp and strong," and that "when it is used, there is no need of black pepper."
From 1493 on, chile seeds from the Americas, were available to the Spanish and Portuguese for transmittal throughout Europe and to ports anywhere along their trade routes. Spanish and Portuguese ships returning home were loaded not only with gold and silver but with packets of the seeds of the New World plants, destined for monastery gardens. Monks and amateur botanists carefully cultivated the capsicums and provided seed to other collectors in Europe.
In 1494, papal bulls of demarcation divided the world into Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence; Portugal controlled Africa and Brazil, while Spain effectively ruled the remainder of the colonies of the New World. Thus Spanish and Portuguese traders spread chiles from both the Iberian Peninsula and other major colonies throughout the Eastern Hemisphere by way of their extensive trade routes.
Traders carried seeds to Africa and India, and from there they were dispersed to Southeast Asia, the islands of Indonesia, and then to China, Japan, and the Philippines. Eventually, chiles were transported to the islands of the Pacific.
From that point on chiles became a food craze around the world as the Spanish traded them with other countries. They spread like wild fire throughout Europe to Asia and the rest of the world in a short period of approximately 50 years. Its spread happened in a time when horse-drawn and wind-driven vehicles were the primary means of transport.
Today, chile peppers around the world are used lavishly on many dishes no matter what language you speak or what continent you live in. As the previous is a known fact, everyone knows that Columbus carried chile peppers to Spain, but why didn't the cuisine of Spain become fired up like that of India, China, or even Hungary? No one knows for certain. Chiles do not dominate the cuisine -- except in one part of Extremadura in the far west, the same region where they were introduced.
Chiles were welcomed in many cuisines around the world. An Indian curry and most of its cuisine would never be the same without the chiles, or the Szechuan cuisine from China wouldn't even exist. Imagine Thai dishes without chiles or the famous Baharat, very popular in Turkey, Berbere, from Ethiopia, and Charmoula from Morocco. The list could go on and on. One thing is for certain, chiles are very addictive and the more we eat of them the more we crave them. Chiles make everything taste better.
Chiles are not physically addicting -- you don't have withdrawal symptoms when you stop eating them, but they are psychologically addicting; spicy-food lovers miss the burn if they are deprived of spicy food for a while. When chiles are ingested, our bodies produce endorphins, which is a chemical produced by our pituitary gland that gives us the feeling of exhilaration similar to that of excitement, pain, love, and orgasm, and they resemble the opiates in their abilities to produce analgesia and a feeling of well being. Once someone starts enjoying fiery foods, they are likely to continue enjoying them for life.