Hot Hot Heat

Hot Hot Heat

A history of spice

Chilli, the word invokes to me dozens of things all at once, childhood munching of green chillies in vinegar and soy sauce, the burning sensation in my mouth of unexpectedly tasting the chillies used in my mother’s steamed fish, the chilli sauce we eat with the chicken rice dish originating from Hainan; Indian curries which were flavoured with an exotic melange of spices and flavours, given the extra zing with chilli powder. Later on, as a teenager, I discovered chilli con carne in the early 1980s which has since become a “pub grub” staple throughout England.

Chilli has always been a part of my life, but not something which has really given rise to much thought. It plays a huge part in Chinese and South East Asian cuisine and then introduced to the bland British palate in the form of much anglicised dishes. Delving deeper into the origins of the chilli shows that my most recent discovery of chilli flavoured chocolate actually goes all the way back to the most ancient beginnings of this rather innocent looking but feisty plant.

Chilli peppers are native to South and Central America and are believed to have been first cultivated for the first time around 7000 BC. Traces of chillies have been found at prehistoric burial sites around Peru. The history of chillies and chocolate are inextricably linked since the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan civilisations of South America employed both in their diet, using the two flavours to enhance each other.

The Mayan civilisation was already in decline by the time the great navigators of the 16th and 17th centuries explored the world bringing their culinary discoveries to Europe, Southern Asia and the Far East via the routes of the spice trade.

The newer civilisations of the Aztecs, in Mexico established during the 14th century and the Inca, in the country we know as Peru had their empires overcome by the Spaniards in the mid 16th century.

This leads us to the era during which the little chilli pepper began its world-wide journey when Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas during his search for a faster new route to the east during the frantic age of the spice trade. The quest was a failure, but a previously undiscovered land was found which became named the West Indies in order to convince those funding the expedition that Columbus had succeeded. The new world’ s natives were named by Columbus as Indians and their sacred chillies “red” pepper since “pepper” was one of the precious and coveted spices traded. Naturally , both the terms “Indians” and “red pepper” have caused confusion ever since.

The Spaniards found that drying and crushing the pods of the hottest chilli peppers, provided a fiery alternative for the peppercorn that was so extensively used in European cuisine. The chillies were named by the Spaniards “pimienta”.

Mature chilli pepper plants were transported by the Portuguese explorers to their settlements in the East Indies where they were given the name Pernombuco pepper where the plant rapidly overtook the humble peppercorn in popularity due to its being considerably easier to grow and a great deal hotter.

It was found that the southern European climate was ideally suited for growing chilli peppers, and its popularity increased enormously in Europe as well as in the East Indies. The humble chilli had over time become a part of diets throughout the world and is not only flavoursome but amazingly carries many health benefits with it!

Among the health benefits are the reduction of blood cholesterol, triglyceride levels, and platelet aggregation. This has been observed where cultures in which hot peppers occur in the everyday diet show a lower rate of heart disease.

Capsaicin, the active chemical component of chillies has been medically proven to reduce pain, and also to help clear the congestion experienced of a nasty cold! High levels of beta-carotene or pro-vitamin A are also found in chillies — as seen from their bright red colouring.

There is also a myth that eating too many chillies lead to stomach ulcers. The amazing fact is that they may help prevent ulcers by killing bacteria while stimulating the cells lining the stomach to secrete protective fluids preventing ulcer formation. Chillies even have the reputation of stimulating the metabolism to encourage weight loss!

All this amazing evidence as well as the fascinating history of our familiar chilli pepper, capsicum, pimento whatever you wish to name it indicates that if you aren’t already a convert to this zingy, exciting seasoning that it really should be at least given a chance.

Text: Loretta Wong 

Published in Issue 27 SPICE, 2009