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Chili Pepper

The chili pepper (also spelled chilli and chile) is the fruit of the plant capsicum of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family. Cu ltivated since prehistoric times in Peru and Mexico, it was discovered in the Caribbean by Christopher Columbus and named a "pepper" because of its similarity with the Old World peppers of the Piper genus. Diego Alvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus' second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, brought the first chili peppers to Spain, and first wrote about their medicinal effects in 1494.

 

The most common species of chili peppers are: Capsicum annuum, which includes many common varieties such as bell peppers and Jalapenos; Capsicum frutescens, which includes cayenne and Tabasco peppers; Capsicum chinense, which includes the hottest peppers such as habaneros and Scotch bonnets; Capsicum pubescens, which includes the South American rocoto peppers; and Capsicum baccatum, which includes the chiltepin.

Though there are only a few commonly used species, there are far more cultivars and different ways preparing chilli peppers that have different common names for culinary use. Green and red bell peppers, for example, are the same cultivar of C. annuum, with the green ones being immature. In the same species are the jalape�o, the Chipotle, which is a smoked jalapeno, the poblano, ancho (which is a dried poblano), New Mexico, Anaheim, Serrano, and others. Jamaicans, Scotch bonnets, and habaneros are common varieties of C. chinense. Species C. frutescens appears as chiles de arbol, aji, pequin, Tabasco, cayenne, cherry peppers, and others.

The fruit is eaten cooked or raw for its fiery hot flavor. Indian, Szechuan and Thai cuisines are particularly associated with the chili pepper, although the plant was unknown in Asia until Europeans introduced it there.

Well-known dishes with a strong chili flavor are salsa, New Mexican chili con carne and Indian vindaloo. Chili powder is a spice made of the dried ground chiles, usually of the Mexican Ancho variety, but with small amounts of cayenne added for heat. Bottled hot sauces such as Tabasco sauce are made from chilis such as the cayenne (not, oddly, from tabasco peppers), which may also be fermented.

The substance that gives chilis their heat is called capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide). It causes pain and inflammation if consumed to excess, and can even burn the skin on contact in high concentrations (habanero peppers, for example, are routinely picked with gloves). It is also the primary ingredient in pepper spray, which is used as a defensive weapon. The "heat" of chili peppers is measured in Scoville units. Bell peppers rank at zero Scoville units, jalape�os at 3000-6000 Scoville units, and habaneros at 300,000 Scoville units. The record for the highest number of Scoville units in a pepper would go to the Red Savina Habanero, measuring 577,000 units!

Since birds don't have the same sensitivity to capsaicin as mammals, chili peppers are a favorite food of many birds living in the chili peppers' natural range (along with many birds living in captivity). The flesh of the peppers provides the birds with nutritious meal rich in vitamin C. In return, the seeds of the peppers are distributed by the birds, as they drop the seeds while eating the pods or the seeds pass through the digestive tract unharmed. This relationship is theorized to have promoted the evolution of the protective capsaicin.

Precautions

Be careful when handling chillis. For some particularly strong chilis it is advised to wear gloves and to wash them immediately after use. If using bare hands, rub some vegetable oil into the skin before handling chilis, and wash hands immediately afterwards. The oil will help to disperse the capsaicin. Do not touch your eyes or any other sensitive body part after handling chilis. If you burn your tongue with chili, fullfat milk or yogurt is more effective at cooling the mouth - again this is because capsaicin is soluble in fat and alcohol, but not water; water merely spreads the burn. It's worthwhile to note that alcoholic drinks will not help much, as one would need to be drinking something over 80% alcohol (160 proof) for any real effect to take place. In all likelihood, the burn from the chile pepper would be preferable to the burn from the high-proof liquid.

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