Fruits, seeds or pollen have been found at sites in the Tehuacan Valley dated approximately 6000 to 7000 years ago; at Huaca Prieta in Peru about 4000 years ago; at Ceren, El Salvador 1400 years ago; and in La Tigra, Venezuela approximately 1000 years ago. So chillies became an essential food and medicine among indigenous peoples, joining corn, beans, and squash to form the “big four” staple crops in Mesoamerica. Many villages in Central America are named after the type of chilli they cultivate and still celebrate special fiestas in honour of the Chilli Saint or God. In Central and South America chillies were traditionally used in counter magic and protection rituals to ward off demons and vampires, and combined with other pungent spices, were used to fumigate homes. Chillies were also believed to ward off the effects of the so called “evil eye” and strings of chilli peppers called “chillie ristas “were worn as a protective necklace. Chillies have long enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac spice and their fiery nature was thought to ignite the flame of passion. The Aztecs were known to use chillies for this purpose, often mixing them with other plants believed to be aphrodisiacs like cocoa and vanilla.
Columbus, who went to the New World in search of black pepper and other exotic spices, took some chilli pepper seeds back to Western Europe from the Caribbean islands, but they were not really appreciated as a spice there, and for centuries were grown primarily as ornamental plants in monastery gardens. Chillies found their way into Central Europe with the Turks during the period when the Ottoman Empire extended as far north as Hungary and today Hungary is one of the leading producers of paprika. Chillies were introduced to Africa, India, and much of Asia in the 16th century by Portuguese and Spanish explorers, where they became an instant hit with the people of these regions, transforming local cuisines. Vasco da Gama brought the chilli to India where it became extremely popular, and now it is unimaginable to think of India cuisine without the hot spice. India has become world’s largest producer and exporter of chilli, and in the south, chillies also have superstitions and rites, and it is customary to hang a few chillies with a lemon over the threshold of a residence to ward off the “evil eye”.
Chillies are well-named; with the Latin name "Capsicum" coming from the Greek word kapos, meaning “to bite.” This genus includes many other edible plants like potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants. There are about 25 known wild varieties, and many hundreds of hybrids which come in all shapes, colours, sizes and degrees of pungency, making classification a difficult and confusing task, especially for the amateur gardener. The fruits can be yellow, purple, orange, red or green; ranging from tiny round berries to elongated pods, some even resemble miniature squashes while others look like miniature bell-peppers. Their degree of pungency is equally varied and depends not only on the genetic makeup of the plant, but also on the soil and climatic conditions where it is grown. In tropical regions these plants can develop into perennial bushes which live for a long time and can grow up to 2 meters high. The seeds are mostly dispersed by birds, which relish the fruits and don't seem to be affected by theheat.
The pungency of chillies is generally expressed in “Scoville units”, with the scale ranging from 0 to about 300,000. This is a somewhat subjective measurement because, to determine the heat level, volunteers are given samples of chillies, which are subsequently diluted with water until pungency can no longer be detected. Unfortunately such tests are not very reliable as a degree of tolerance is quickly developed. More recently a scientific method has been devised, known as the “high-performance liquid chromatography test or HPLC”, which measures the type and quantity of capsaicinoids present in the sample. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the hottest chilli pepper in the world is the Carolina Reaper, with a measure of 1,569,300 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). For reference, bell peppers have an SHU measure of 0, and Tabasco sauce measures in at around 2,500 SHU, making the Carolina Reaper very deserving of its name.
Birdseye Chillies are the small, bright red chillies which are close to the original wild chilies that were developed to give us all of the varieties we have today. Their bright, sharply piercing heat is just the flavour needed to cut through the richness of slow cooked pulled pork.
Thai Chilli Peppers. There is technically no "single" Thai chilli, and Thai cooks use peppers of all sizes shapes and colours, including sweet bell peppers. Red, green or yellow chillies are used to make the famous Thai curries, and although each Thai dish is usually made with a certain chilli, you can substitute red chillies if you can't find green or yellow. Botanically speaking the red Thai chilli pepper is a part of Capsicum frutescens, and out of the multitude of different Thai varieties available, the bird's eye is one of the most common types, and well known across the globe for the flavour it lends to Southeast Asian cuisine. Bird’s eye chillies can be yellow, green, red, or orange. They are about 2.5cm long and have a generally fruity taste and are pretty hot, easily packing 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville heat units! They are ideal for sauces, are great paired with fish, and wonderful thinly sliced on sandwiches. A classic Thai takeout dish, called "drunken noodles" does not refer to its alcohol content but rather to how much you’ll want to drink to combat the heat of the Thai chillies in the dish! If you prefer a little sweetness with your heat, try making your own Thai sweet chilli sauce from these chillies.
Anaheim Chillies have a mild flavour similar to a bell pepper but with a slight heat. These long fruits start off green and ripen to red. Because they are thick walled, they are great for stuffing, but have a tough skin that can become irksome to eat, so most often the skin is charred or roasted and removed. Chile relleno - a Mexican dish of a green chilli, stuffed with a cheese or a meat mixture, then crumbed and fried, and usually served with a sauce, is commonly made with fresh poblano peppers, but Anaheim or even jalapeño chilli peppers can be substituted. These chillies are just as good with fried eggs as they are with tamales - another highly seasoned Mexican dish made of chopped meat and crushed peppers, which are then wrapped in cornhusks, spread with masa (Spanish for dough) before being steamed. Use Anaheim chillies to make an amazing salsa verde, and then use a crockpot to slowly cook chicken in it until it falls apart. Salsa verde is a green sauce made with tomatillos, green chili peppers, and cilantro, ranging in flavour from mild to spicy, used as a condiment in Latin-American cuisine.
Hungarian Wax Chillies have a tangy sweetness that persists even under the medium heat of the pepper. It’s most common to see them in stores when they’re still yellow, but they get incredibly hot when allowed to ripen to orange and red. Their tangy sweetness makes them great in almost anything from sandwiches to salads. A traditional Hungarian way to use these peppers is to stuff them with cheese and bake them.
Poblano Chilli Peppers are called “ancho chillies” when dried. They are used when they are green and not fully mature because it is then that their flavour is milder. The heart-shaped fruits have fairly thick skins and a mysterious rich, kind of smoky to almost fruity flavour, behind their exuberant peppery bite. They are used in the popular dish called “chile relleno”- a stuffed chili pepper that usually contains cheese or meat and is fried or grilled. This dish is regarded as one of the most emblematic dishes of Mexico with its origins dating back to the 16th century during the period of Spanish conquest in Mexico. Poblano chillies make amazing sauces and, along with guajillo chillies, are a staple of mole sauces and also great for stuffing. The term “mole” is used for a wide variety of sauces used in Mexican cooking. Most mole sauces are brown and combine unique flavours such as hot peppers and chocolate, and many have over 20 ingredients, and range from bittersweet to spicy.
Ancho Chillies are dried, poblano peppers which are ripened to red. They are much hotter than the green poblana chilli, with a sticky texture and a dense amalgam of flavours with hints of raisin, prune and cured vanilla bean. Neutral white meat such as chicken is perfect to dress with a mole sauce featuring the subtly smouldering pungency of ancho chilies.
Jalapeño Chilli Peppers are probably the most popular and well-known chilli peppers and need little introduction. Their distinct peppery flavour is wonderful in so many savoury applications; from topping nachos, tacos and sandwiches, to sautéed, grilled, or baked dishes. Because they have thick skins they are also perfect to stuff and bake or fry. The younger fruits are milder than the mature ones. Dried, smoked jalapeños are called "chipotle peppers".
Chipotle Chillies are ripened jalapenos that have been dried and smoked until they are black and wrinkly. These wonderfully smoky and meaty chillies are great in spice rubs and add a charred, barbecue flavour to refried beans, meats and sauces.
Serrano Chilli Peppers look a bit like jalapeños, but are much skinnier and non-conical. They also taste similar - with that rich, bell pepper flavour, but a lot hotter. Use them anywhere you would use a jalapeño but want more heat. Serrano chillies often make the best Mexican salsa or pico de gallo. Pico de gallo is a relish of finely chopped jicama, jalapenos, cucumbers, radishes, onions, bell pepper, and oranges. Jicama is the large, edible, tuberous root of a tropical American plant, Pachyrhizus erosus, of the pea (legume) family, which is eaten raw or boiled.
Fresno Chillies start off green, but they’re best when eaten fully ripe and red. They’re conical like a jalapeño, and have a similar taste and heat. If they are allowed to ripen longer, they become hotter and a tad sweeter. The clean, sweet heat of these chillies and their thinner walls, make them ideal in fresh salsas, on tacos and in ceviches - a South American dish of marinated raw fish or seafood, typically garnished and served as an appetizer.
Habanero Chillies are pretty, lantern-shaped, searing hot, orange-to-red peppers, but underneath all that heat lies an enticing tropical, fruity nuance which is unique to this pepper. This is why these peppers are often featured in fruit salsas containing mango, peach, or pineapple. They also pair beautifully with fish and shellfish of any sort, and an unexpected and tasty way to reinvent salmon.
Cayenne Chilli Peppers are very long and thin, and tend to have a wrinkly skin. They are strongly flavoured, and mostly used dried and flaked or powdered, but if freshly sliced or diced, they pack a punch of fiery heat. Cayenne pepper is a staple in Cajun seasoning and used in classic recipes like blackened salmon and rice, where cayenne powder adds spice, while the paprika adds a sweet, smoky floral quality. Similarly, cayenne pepper adds a pungent kick to sweet crustaceans like Cajun shrimp and crawfish. The beauty of the flavour of cayenne is that it even pairs perfectly with chocolate - just a pinch, added right at the end, gives a wonderful depth.
Paprika is used in many foods, from the famous Hungarian goulash and Spanish chorizo to a simple dusting atop devilled eggs. This spice is made from a variety of mild, dried and ground Capsicum annum peppers that don’t have thick skins like bell peppers, which tend to rot when left to dry. The fruits of Hungarian paprika are a little smaller than Spanish paprika. Hungarian peppers are oblong to pointy in shape with thin walls. Most have a mild flavour, but some strains can be quite hot. Spanish paprika peppers have thicker, fleshier fruits with slightly milder flavour. All types of Paprika can be mild, moderately spicy to very spicy, and the red colour of the spice does not correspond to how hot it is. The darker, browner tones of paprika are actually the spiciest while the red-toned ones are milder and sweeter. Smoked paprika, is usually cured over oak wood and is delicious in everything from potato and other vegetable dishes, to eggs and pretty much any meat and poultry, resulting in truly robust dishes.
There is no great mystery to making this spice and you can easily make it yourself from home-grown or store-bought peppers, regardless of where you live. Paprika peppers are special because they have character and are neither too sweet, nor too spicy. No matter what peppers you use to make your own paprika; you want something between hot and spicy. Collect some thin-walled red peppers of various flavours and dry them in a well-ventilated and dry place that is warm but in the shade. Drying in the sun bleaches away colour, and excess heat, like you’d get in an oven, adds an almost cooked aroma to the chillies. In all cases, humidity is the number one enemy when drying chillies because it will cause them to grow mould. Once dried break into pieces and discard most of the seeds before grinding to a powder.
Capsaicin is the compound that makes red peppers hot and is also its pharmacologically active component. It helps people’s bodies adapt to hot climates by stimulating the cooling centre of the hypothalamus to lower body temperature, and the sweating chillies induce also provides evaporative cooling. It is the capsaicin in chillies that stimulates the brain to release endorphins into the bloodstream, creating a natural high, and what makes chillies a powerful anti-depressant. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved capsaicin for relieving pain of shingles (Herpes zoster), and other clinical studies have found it an effective pain reliever for diabetic nerve degeneration, cluster headaches, mastectomy, chemotherapy or radiation, and arthritis. Capsaicin ointments are available over the counter for relief of sore muscles and arthritis pain. The white membranes inside chillies will also help to clear the lungs, improve circulation, and stimulates the flow of saliva and gastric juices that aid in digestion.
Peppers are rich in vitamin A, C and E, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and B-complex vitamins, beta-carotene and folic-acid. They are also very rich in carotenoids (orange and red colouring compounds), which are receiving current interest for their cancer-protective and strong anti-oxidant properties. Today we also know that in cultures where people eat large amounts of cayenne there are much lower rates of cardiovascular disease.
Chilli is now probably the most popular spice worldwide - what would Indian curry, Thai peanut sauce, Chinese hot and sour soup, Hungarian goulash, Italian pepperoni and Cajun jambalaya be without it! The diversity of varieties of chillies, combined with their level of ripeness and whether they are used fresh, dried or even smoked, results in a vast array of flavours. With chilies, possibilities are only limited by your creativity, and a little experimentation with their varied flavours will take your chilli experience beyond a simple incendiary sensation to enjoyment of a complex seasoning.
Although many blame the seeds for harbouring the heat, capsaicin is actually more concentrated in the white membranes of the fruit, not in the seeds or flesh. Most cooks remove these membranes and most of the seeds, during preparation. A general rule when selecting chillies is - the smaller the pepper, the more intense the heat, and dried chillies are hotter then fresh ones.
Some chillies are so hot they can actually blister the skin, so it’s important to wear gloves when handling them, and be very careful to keep the juice out of your eyes.
Be adventurous with your favourite chillies and the next time you make healthy sautéed vegetables, add some chili peppers to turn up the spice volume. Add some finely diced jalapenos to your favourite tuna salad recipe, or add minced chilli to yogurt and use as a condiment or dip. Even adding chilli peppers to your favourite corn bread recipe will give it an extra spark! You could even try making your own Harissa, a condiment popular in the some Middle Eastern and North African countries. Harissa is a Maghrebi hot chilli pepper paste which is most closely associated with Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco. In fact, Harissa is sometimes described as "Tunisia's main condiment". The main ingredients are roasted red peppers, Baklouti pepper, serrano peppers and other hot chilli peppers, combined with olive oil and other spices and herbs like garlic paste, coriander seed, saffron and caraway.
Cayenne pepper is perhaps the hottest of ground spices, and a small amount goes a long way. It is used to give fiery flavour to Mexican, Indian, and some Southeast Asian cuisines and especially useful in spicing Creole and Cajun specialties. Cayenne pepper and lemon juice make great complements to cooked bitter greens such as collards, kale and mustard greens. In fact, cayenne pepper lends itself to most vegetable or bean stews, curries, chillies, spicy cold noodle dishes, and hot-and-sour dishes. If you prefer a milder flavour try using paprika when making tomato-based sauces, pastas, French-style salad dressing, and potato dishes. Its bright red colour makes it an excellent garnish sprinkled on casseroles, vegetable pies, dips, and pâtés.
To store peppers, place them unwashed in paper bags or wrap in paper towels and store in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator, where they should keep for at least one week. Avoid storing peppers in plastic bags as this may result in moisture accumulation, which will cause them to spoil more quickly. Fresh peppers can be hung to dry and used to make freshly ground chilli powder. Dried chilli powders should be kept in a tightly sealed jar, away from direct sunlight.
In the Garden:
All peppers, and especially chilli peppers, with their masses of colourful fruits, can be so pretty if artfully combined with flowering annuals and other herbs in the summer garden. Try mixing them with parsley, sage, Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights’, alyssum, marigolds, salvia and lobelia; or try some bold combinations of your own.
Companion Planting: Basil grows especially well with peppers and pyrethrum is a good insect repellent that will keep slugs at bay.
Cultivation and Harvesting:
The varieties will vary in height and spread, and in tropical regions they can develop into perennial bushes with quite a long life span. These tropical plants are ideally suited to hot and moist tropical and subtropical conditions, however, they are very adaptable and will do well even in semi-arid regions. In colder regions frost kills them off so they only grow as summer annuals, and because the growing season is short, it is best to plant them out as soon as all danger of frost is over. It is essential that peppers have full sun and well-drained soil. For best results they must grow quickly, so prepare your beds thoroughly, adding lots of compost and old manure with a dressing of organic 2:3:2. The ideal pH is 5.5 to 6.5. Water regularly, never allowing the plants to dry out totally and feed occasionally with a fertiliser that is high in nitrogen, but once the plants start flowering feed them every 4 weeks with a balanced organic fertiliser that is high in potassium; like 3:1:5. Peppers will produce fruit for many months, until the onset of cold weather and will start bearing about 11 weeks after transplanting. Start picking the fruit as soon as it is big enough by cutting it off with a sharp knife. Leaving the fruit on the plants for too long will inhibit the production of flowers.
Pests & Diseases:
Peppers are relatively pest and disease free but fruit flies can become a problem and cause a lot of damage. If the leaves become wrinkled and distorted by aphids, spray them off with soapy water. The green vegetable bug and leaf-eating caterpillars can also become a problem. Powdery mildew can attack the plants, especially in very humid conditions, if the plants are receiving too much shade, or air circulation around the leaves is insufficient. In these conditions, when irrigating, try not to wet the leaves and try to water early in the day to ensure that the leaves are dry before sunset. During very hot, dry weather, poor flowering and bud drop can be a problem. Keep your plants mulched and well -watered, and spray the leaves down with water to help alleviate this problem.
The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, recording the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.