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Chili Peppers at Painted Desert Seed Company
The chili pepper (also chile, chile pepper, chilli pepper, or chilli), from Nahuatl chīlli (Nahuatl pronunciation: [ˈt͡ʃiːlːi] (listen)), is the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum which are members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Chili peppers are widely used in many cuisines as a spice to add heat to dishes. The substances giving chili peppers their intensity when ingested or applied topically are capsaicin and related compounds known as capsaicinoids.
Cultivars grown in North America and Europe are believed to all derive from Capsicum annuum, and have white, yellow, red or purple to black fruits. In 2016, the world’s production of raw green chili peppers amounted to 34.5 million tons, with China producing half of the world’s total.
Capsicum fruits have been a part of human diets since about 7,500 BC, and are one of the oldest cultivated crops in the Americas, as origins of cultivating chili peppers are traced to northeastern Mexico some 6,000 years ago. They were one of the first self-pollinating crops cultivated in Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America.
Peru is considered the country with the highest cultivated Capsicum diversity because it is a center of diversification where varieties of all five domesticates were introduced, grown, and consumed in pre-Columbian times. Bolivia is considered to be the country where the largest diversity of wild Capsicum peppers is consumed. Bolivian consumers distinguish two basic forms: ulupicas, species with small round fruits including C. eximium, C. cardenasii, C. eshbaughii, and C. caballeroi landraces; and arivivis with small elongated fruits including C. baccatum var. baccatum and C. chacoense varieties.
Distribution to Europe
When Christopher Columbus and his crew reached the Caribbean, they were the first Europeans to encounter Capsicum, calling them “peppers” because they, like black pepper of the genus Piper known in Europe, have a spicy, hot taste unlike other foods.
Distribution to Asia
The spread of chili peppers to Asia occurred through its introduction by Portuguese traders, who – aware of its trade value and resemblance to the spiciness of black pepper – promoted its commerce in the Asian spice trade routes. It was introduced in India by the Portuguese towards the end of the 15th century. In 21st century Asian cuisine, chili peppers are commonly used across diverse regions.
|Green chili production – 2016|
|Region||(millions of tons)|
In 2016, 34.5 million tonnes of green chili peppers and 3.9 million tonnes of dried chili peppers were produced worldwide. China was the world’s largest producer of green chilis, providing half of the global total. Global production of dried chili peppers was about one ninth of fresh production, led by India with 36% of the world total.
Species and cultivars
There are five domesticated species of chili peppers. Capsicum annuum includes many common varieties such as bell peppers, wax, cayenne, jalapeños, Thai peppers, chiltepin, and all forms of New Mexico chile. Capsicum frutescens includes malagueta, tabasco, piri piri, and Malawian Kambuzi. Capsicum chinense includes the hottest peppers such as the naga, habanero, Datil and Scotch bonnet. Capsicum pubescens includes the South American rocoto peppers. Capsicum baccatum includes the South American aji peppers.
Though there are only a few commonly used species, there are many cultivars and methods of preparing chili peppers that have different names for culinary use. Green and red bell peppers, for example, are the same cultivar of C. annuum, immature peppers being green. In the same species are the jalapeño, the poblano (which when dried is referred to as ancho), New Mexico, serrano, and other cultivars.
Peppers are commonly broken down into three groupings: bell peppers, sweet peppers, and hot peppers. Most popular pepper varieties are seen as falling into one of these categories or as a cross between them.
The substances that give chili peppers their pungency (spicy heat) when ingested or applied topically are capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide) and several related chemicals, collectively called capsaicinoids. The quantity of capsaicin varies by variety, and on growing conditions. Water-stressed peppers usually produce stronger pods. When a habanero plant is stressed, by absorbing low water for example, the concentration of capsaicin increases in some parts of the fruit.
When peppers are consumed by mammals such as humans, capsaicin binds with pain receptors in the mouth and throat, potentially evoking pain via spinal relays to the brainstem and thalamus where heat and discomfort are perceived. The intensity of the “heat” of chili peppers is commonly reported in Scoville heat units (SHU). Historically, it was a measure of the dilution of an amount of chili extract added to sugar syrup before its heat becomes undetectable to a panel of tasters; the more it has to be diluted to be undetectable, the more powerful the variety, and therefore the higher the rating. The modern method is a quantitative analysis of SHU using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to directly measure the capsaicinoid content of a chili pepper variety. Pure capsaicin is a hydrophobic, colorless, odorless, and crystalline-to-waxy solid at room temperature, and measures 16,000,000 SHU.
Capsaicin is produced by the plant as a defense against mammalian predators and microbes, in particular a fusarium fungus carried by hemipteran insects that attack certain species of chili peppers, according to one study. Peppers increased the quantity of capsaicin in proportion to the damage caused by fungal predation on the plant’s seeds.
A wide range of intensity is found in commonly used peppers:
|Bell pepper||0 SHU|
|New Mexico green chile||0–70,000 SHU|
|Fresno, jalapeño||3,500–10,000 SHU|
|Piri piri||50,000–100,000 SHU|
|Habanero, Scotch bonnet, bird’s eye||100,000–350,000 SHU|