Importing the New World pepper to Europe contributed to the dethronement of the old pepper and the resultant drop in its price. The Portuguese and Spaniards called the new pepper “Turkish pepper”, which explains why there was some confusion over its name. In the Caribbean, it is described as ahi and in Mexico, as chilli or tchili and Brazil, as quixa, while the Mayans blended spicy peppers with chocolate to prepare a drink that Hernan Cortes and his retinue were unable to drink.
Its pungent taste was exploited by Incas, Mayas and Aztecs during torture sessions. It was also smeared on arrowheads. Its antiseptic properties led to it being sprinkled on food of doubtful freshness. So when it was brought to the Old World around 1521, it immediately found an audience eager to try it out as a substitute for peppercorns, which were expensive back then. Not all Europeans, however, were prepared for its pungent taste.
The Germans and French added it to beer, so as to intensify its flavour and conserve it. The English used it in marinades. In 18th century a milder strain of pepper with large fruit, which was being consumed both raw and cooked, appears in recipes. The inhabitants of Africa, Arabs and Asians treated it as a genuine revelation. The chilli probably reached the Balkans and Central-East Europe from Asia and Indonesia, where it was being popularised by the Spaniards and Portuguese.
Paprika is the Hungarian’s national spice. They season their famous goulashes with it. Ground mild pepper can only be obtained from seeds, while the darker and stronger spicy paprika is the dried fruit ground whole.
The “chorizo” sausages, today regarded as a speciality of Catalonia and the Basque Country, owe their colour and flavour to this paprika. It is also an ingredient in harissa (a flavouring for couscous), a sauce from Oruz, achards from Réunion, Indian chutneys and curry, Chinese Kung Pro with fruit and La Jiao You red chilli oil, not to mention a multitude of Mexican mole sauces.
Why it “burns” so much and how to extinguish this sensation
The pepper (or capsicum) belongs to the nightshade family, and its throat-searing properties result from the action of capsaicin. This is a crystalline alkaloid which irritates and burns the tongue.
There is however some recompense for those affected too severely by a chilli, for capsaicin is also a stimulus triggering the production of endorphins, as well as containing a significant amount of vitamins A and C.
- Fruit pepper (Capsicum frutesceus) – a pepper growing on branches which is picked as soon as it takes on a red colour. It never becomes mild. Its fruit can be stored for a long time – even after drying, it is very pungent. It is cultivated in tropical regions. The fruits are used as a culinary spice. When dried and ground into a powder, they are sold as “Cayenne pepper” or “Guinea spice”.
- The Annual pepper (Capsicum annum) species includes our chillies. In Europe, it is cultivated as an annual plant, but in tropical climates it is a perennial. The fruit of the sweet varieties are cultivated as a vegetable and the varieties with a spicy flavour are cultivated as a spice. During the course of ripening, they change colour from green to yellow and red, and become fleshy and ribbed. It is from the fruit of the annual pepper that the Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi first managed to isolate vitamin C and establish its chemical composition.
- The habanero pepper (Capsicum chinense), customarily known as the habanero, is one of those species of pepper whose fruit are among the spiciest and most pungent in taste. The 17th-century botanists who first described it, mistakenly thought that it originated in China (hence its scientific name). It is mainly cultivated on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico (the yellow and orange varieties) and the Caribbean (the red variety). For a long time, it was regarded as the spiciest pepper in the world. If we get habanero juice on our hands, under no circumstances should we touch our eyes or face.
Before you get down to eating an unfamiliar pepper, check its SHU.
SHU (Scoville Heat Units) measure a pepper’s spiciness. This test was discovered in 1912 by an American scientist, Wilbur Scoville. He did this by selecting several kinds of chilli, which he ground down and mixed with a solution of sugar and water. When the testers begin to detect the pepper’s heat, the degree of dilution is marked on a scale. For example, a rating of 580,000 on the SHU scale means that the pepper in question must be diluted in water 580,000 times before its heat stops being detectable. The Indian chilli called Naga Jolokia attains what for me is a terrifying rating of up to 1,041,427 on the SHU scale, and is the current record holder. For the purposes of comparison, tear gas has an SHU rating of between 2,500,000 and 5,000,000.
These days, research is conducted using analytical methods, because sensitivity to capsaicin varies from individual to individual. SHU values are calculated on the assumption that an SHU rating for pure capsaicin would amount to somewhere between 15 and 16 million. If 10% of the mass of our chilli is composed of capsaicin, it will get a SHU rating of 1,600,000.
And finally – something about Chilli Con Carne
There are many theories about the origin of this dish.
One of them says that chilli con carne dates from 1731, when the King of Spain sent a group of colonists to the village of San Fernando de Bexar. The local women were supposed to have prepared a spicy “Spanish” stew for the occasion that was very similar to today’s chilli con carne.
According to another anecdote, it was served to prisoners in Texas in the 19th century, and was so good that they wrote letters to the facility after their release asking for the recipe.
The most plausible story states that chilli con carne was prepared from 1850 by Texan cowboys and became a staple on the trail. In order to prepare a quick meal, they blended dried beef with fat added pepper, salt and chilli to create the “bones” of the dish (and the first instant meal). A meal prepared in this fashion could be cooked in any conditions. During the Great Depression (1929-1933), chilli con carne was served in most American cities, probably saving many people from death through starvation.