Chilli pepper - history
OriginsThere are about 25 species in the genus Capsicum and they originate from Central and South America. Several species have been domesticated to produce many cultivated types, ranging from mild and sweet to hot and pungent.
Chilli peppers are perhaps the first plants to be domesticated in Central America, where there is evidence that they were consumed in 7500 BC.
|These chilli pepper seeds from Kew's Economic Botany Collection were cultivated in Asia.|
Mexico and northern Central America is thought to be the centre of origin of Capsicum annuum, and South America of Capsicum frutescens. These were first introduced to South Asia in the 16th century and have now become the two most important species in the region.
HistoryPungent varieties are the most valuable and frequently grown chillies in South Asia. They were introduced to South Asia in the 16th century by Portuguese and Spanish explorers via trade routes from South America. In the 16th century the celebrated musician Purandarasa described chillies in lyrics as a comfort to the poor and the great flavour-enhancer.
Exactly how the plant spread from South Asia to China and Southeast Asia is not recorded in much detail, but it is assumed that local, Arab and European traders carried the chilli via traditional trading routes along the coasts and great waterways such as the Ganges.
Chillies were readily incorporated into local South Asian cuisines perhaps because people were already familiar with pungent and spicy flavours. Mounds of red chilli powder and yellow turmeric powder give splashes of vibrant colour to every food market in India today.
Many varieties of chilli have been developed with names such as Dhani from the north east and Sannam, Nalcheti, Todappally, Jwala, Mundu and Kanthari from the south. In India distinctions are mainly made between colour and size. The smaller the chilli, the hotter they are believed to be.
FolkloreAs well as playing an essential role in South Asian food chillies have entered superstitions and rites, particularly in the south of India. The potency of chillies are firmly believed to have a supernatural element. It is customary to hang a few chillies with a lemon over the threshold of a residence to deter evil. Chillies are also used to ward off the evil eye. A handful of chillies together with other condiments such as curry leaves and a little ash from the hearth is waved over a person's head to create a shield against curses and bad spells.
Chillies are the cheapest vegetables available in India and so are eaten across all groups of people. The daily meal of many Indian labourers commonly consists of a few chillies with Indian unleavened bread, called rotis, or rice.
And rather than the Scoville Units to measure chilli heat as in America, the Asian belief and general rule is that the smaller the variety of chilli, the hotter it is.