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
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
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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