When I was in Portugal, stuffing my face and losing my socks, I kept thinking back to the powerful chili* and how its popularity began with the trade routes that shuttled between colonies of the Portuguese empire. The history of the chili pepper is one of the more interesting examples of a simple, powerful food with a complex story.
The history of chili peppers begins in South America…
Chili peppers are eaten by a quarter of the earth’s population every day, in countries all over the globe. They are perennial shrubs belonging to the Capsicum family, and were unknown to a good chunk of the world until Christopher Columbus made his way to the New World in 1492.
Columbus didn’t “find” them, of course. There are several origination theories flagging Brazil, Mexico, and other parts of South America as “the” spot for where chilies came from. A 2016 phylogenetic analysis of 24 of the 35 Capsicum strains, spicy and otherwise, found that they are native to an area along the Andes of western to north-western South America. Thes wild Capsicum were “small red, round, berry-like fruits“.
Use of chilies in both South American and early Mesoamerica, the region that extends from Central Mexico to Central America and northern Costa Rica, both lead to domestication in those areas and use in local cuisine in pre-hispanic times.
In South America, researchers have identified starch grains of Capsicum on milling stones and cooking pots recovered from house floors in southwestern Ecuador dating them to around 6,000 years ago. These microfossil remains are some of the earliest chili peppers documented from the region. In addition, while many records from Mesoamerica focus on cultivation of squash, corn, manioc, and more without focus on chiles, an archeological study has shown via microfossils that the use of chiles in Mesoamerica may date all the way back to about 400 BCE.
Scientists believe that birds are mainly responsible for the spread of wild chili peppers out of their nuclear origination areas, with domestication via Mesoamerican populations thereafter. As noted below, birds don’t have receptors that feel the sting of a chili’s spice, and it doesn’t cause any harm to their digestive systems.
Capsicum annuum, the ancestor to most of the peppers commonly consumed today, was grown in pre-hispanic times in parts of the arid Southwest, and Texas, as well as in Mexico.
But first: why does eating chili peppers make your mouth burn?
Before we move onto the history: a brief foray in the pain factor. The burning and pain you feel when you eat a chili pepper is caused by a compound called capsaicin. Consuming capsaicin triggers pain receptors in the body to send out a warning to you that you’ve potentially done something a little dangerous.
The active ingredient in chili peppers is, as you can guess, capsaicin. When ingested, capsaicin triggers pain receptors whose normal evolutionary purpose is to alert the body to dangerous physical heat. In humans, this is triggered via the same temperature sensation mechanism that helps us drop a hot pan if we forget oven mitts: a temperature-sensitive ion channel named TRPV1.
TRPV1 signalling may make us feel like perhaps our mouths are on actual fire, but scientists say there isn’t any tissue damage. It’s a brain hiccup: via those pain receptors, our brain is tricked into thinking our tongue is on fire. Here’s a short video of capsaicin binding to TRPV1:
So why do we eat them if it hurts?
Scientific American thinks we like the burn, tolerating the pain for the pleasure of the whole.
In a piece entitled, “On Capsaicin: Why Do We Love to Eat Hot Peppers?” they note:
Perhaps we seek out the painful experience of snacking on chillies while consciously maintaining awareness that there is no real danger to ourselves. After all, people seem to enjoy – and actively seek out – many other sensations that are otherwise undesirable but are ostensibly safe: the sensation of falling provided by rollercoasters or skydiving, the feelings of fear and anxiety while watching horror movies, the physical pain experienced upon jumping into icy water, or even the feelings of sadness that come while watching a tear-jerker.
And in a Nautilus piece about how the chili got to China, the author notes:
Unlike most foods humans are accustomed to eating, the chili pepper causes actual pain when ingested. That pain, scientists believe, is an artifact of evolution. When capsaicin comes in contact with nerve endings it trips a pain receptor whose normal function is to detect the kind of heat that is legitimately burning hot. The receptor, known as TRPV1, is designed to keep us from doing dumb things like picking up a burning branch with our bare hands, or biting into something so hot it would physically damage our mouths.
Over the years, scientists have theorized that the evolutionary reason chilies burn is to dissuade mammals from eating them. In “The Complicated Evolution of the Spicy Chili Pepper,” Harvard’s Cat Adams writes that scientists found that while certain mammals avoid spicy plants, birds do not, attributing this finding to the fact that birds lack the receptor to feel the “capsaicin burn,” whereas mammals have them just like we do.
So birds won’t feel any feel pain from eating even the spiciest of chilies, allowing their seeds to flourish. In contrast, if mammals like cactus mice snacked on the chili plants, they ground up all the seeds in their teeth. Not good for continuation of the plant.
So it makes sense, then, that the capsaicin would be an active deterrent for mammals—except us crazy humans who love them—and not for birds. Regardless, we can’t deny the pain. From weapons to the much less innocuous sobbing-while-eating-Sichuan-food, eating chilies isn’t for everyone.
How chili peppers helped scientists understand how humans feel pain—and led them to a Nobel Prize
All of that capsaicin was good for something else: a better understanding of how we perceive and experience specific kinds of pain. When it comes to pain associated with temperature or touch, the sensations are part of the body’s somatosensory system, a system comprising the neural pathways and peripheral receptors through which the nervous system detects and processes certain information. Information like touch (called mechanoception) and temperature (called thermoception) I already mentioned, but also pain (nociception) and how our body positions itself and moves in the world (proprioception).
All of these somatosensory processes are things that make us human and help connect us to the world we live in.
Seems important, right? But until recently, we didn’t really know much about how the body processes those experiences. Which is why the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine was jointly awarded in 2021 to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian. Their independent discoveries yielded information about the receptors that allow us to sense touch and temperature, connecting those sensations to body in a new way.
“Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us,” said the Nobel Assembly.
“Prior to the discoveries of David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, our understanding of how the nervous system senses and interprets our environment still contained a fundamental unsolved question: how are temperature and mechanical stimuli converted into electrical impulses in the nervous system?”
It was Julius’ work that brought chilies into the mix. He figured that since capsaicin is known to trigger pain, maybe if we really understood the molecular mechanisms for how that happens in the body, we could learn more about the body converts stimuli to pain.
Julius and his team built a database of millions of DNA fragments that correlate to sensory neuron genes, i.e. to cells that react to pain, heat, and touch. They then plugged those genes into cells that don’t normally react to capsaicin to pinpoint the find the single gene that causes the sensitivity.
This capsaicin receptor—TRPV1, mentioned above—is also a heat-sensing receptor. Having figured out a system that worked, the team then used it for a variety of other substances instead of capsaicin, like menthol (which led to TRPM8) and wasabi (TRPA1) and found many more temperature-sensing receptors. In turn, these discoveries uncovered the sensing mechanism for how nerves can actually be activated, and led to a Nobel Prize.
These discoveries, scientists hope, can lead to breakthroughs in treating patients with increased sensitivity to temperature and chronic pain.
All thanks to the chili, and the creativity of Julius and his team.
Now, back to the history of chili peppers…
Of course, Columbus wasn’t looking for chilies.
As many of us have learned in our high school history classes, Columbus was seeking a new trade route to Asia, with a serious hankering for black peppercorns. The peppercorns were known as “black gold” because of their value as a commodity, often used to pay rent or salaries. Until well after the Middle Ages, almost all of the world’s black pepper travelled from the Malabar Coast, in India. From there it was traded via the Levant and the merchants of Venice to the rest of Europe — that is, until the Ottoman empire cut off the trade route in the mid 1400s.
Without access to the old routes, European explorers set out in search of new riches for their crowns and new routes to those precious spices, including cloves, mace, and nutmeg from Indonesia’s Molucca Islands.
As we know, Columbus didn’t find black peppercorns or a spice route to Asia. Nonetheless, he named Caribbean islands the “Indies” and the indigenous population “Indians’. He also called the spicy plant he plucked from the shores of what is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti a confusing pimiento, after the black pepper (pimenta) that he so desperately sought. This pimiento, known locally as aji, was brought back for show and tell to the Iberian Peninsula, along with many other new foods that would become commonplace in the Old World.
By the time Columbus made it to the New World, chili peppers were already fully domesticated by the Indigenous population.
As noted above, archaeologists have traced the gradual domestication of the chili back to 5000-6000 BC, meaning that Columbus was a little late to the game. Early reports from conquistadors cited a large presence of chilies in Aztec and Mayan traditions, used not only to flavour food but also to fumigate houses and to help cure illness. The “chili” in chili pepper is derived from Nahuatl, an Aztec language. (Source: Multiple lines of evidence for the origin of domesticated chili pepper, Capsicum annuum, in Mexico).
So Columbus is responsible for their proliferation to the rest of the world?
No, not exactly.
Columbus was an early step in the more exponential spread of the chili to the Old World. As the editors of Chilies to Chocolate note, “so swiftly and thoroughly did the chili pepper disperse that botanists long held it to be native to India or Indochina, but all scholars now concur that it is a New World plant with origins in South America.”
Despite the fact that he brought the aji back to Spain, it was the Portuguese and their broad trade routes that are more responsible for the rapid adoption of chili peppers to large swaths of the world. The history of Spain and Portugal are thoroughly intertwined, though, and Spanish merchants are also responsible for spreading the chili pepper to parts of Asia. Still, the literature credits the Portuguese trade routes for the wider diffusion:
In the American Geographical Society of New York’s journal, Jean Andrews addresses this directly, noting that the Portuguese:
were far more influential the Spaniards in the diffusion of the Mesoamerican plant complex [of maize, beans, squash, and chili peppers], even though the source lay in the Spanish colonies and the complex was first discovered by Columbus on several voyages, probably including the first. (Source: Diffusion of Mesoamerican Food Complex to Europe)
Her reasoning includes the fact that the Portuguese brought a specific type of Mexican-derived pepper (C.Annuum var. annuum) rather than the South American pepper that Columbus called pimiento and transported to Spain, the C.chinense pepper.
In addition, the Spanish trade with the New World in the first part of the 16th century was quite limited compared to the Portuguese, who secretly traded in the New World despite the Treaty of the Tordesillas assigning most of the region to Spain in 1494. And then there was Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama who discovered a route from South America around the Cape of Good Hope to Africa and India in 1498, setting a path for the chili pepper to leave the Brazilian colony and fan out to the world.
In 1510, Goa fell to the Portuguese under the leadership of Afonzo de Albuquerque. Located in the spice-rich Malabar Coast, the strategic city established increased Portuguese control over the spice trade. Per Andrews, a Portuguese official in India from 1500-1516 reported that the new spice of chili peppers was welcomed by Indian cooks who, accustomed to pungent black pepper and biting ginger, already produced spicy foods. This powerful red plant would do quite well in India.
In the years that followed, New World goods and foods were funneled through Portuguese shipping routes. And the Portuguese empire grew — Brazil, islands of East Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and India — forts, factories and naval outposts dotted its coastlines, where trade between colonies thrived. In addition, the sea lanes to Melacca and Indonesia included Chinese, Gujarati, and Arabic traders, who were able to add New World crops to their existing trade bounties.
Another route of trade started at Diu, which juts out of the west coast of India. Diu fell after the Sultan of Gujarat formed an unhappy and ultimately unsuccessful defensive alliance with the Portuguese in the 16th century. The city’s location made it an important port on the trade routes of the Arabian sea. In the case of our chilies, they went from Diu and Surat on the Gulf of Cambray, inland toward the Ganges, up the Brahmaputra River, and across the Himalayas to Sichuan. Anyone who has sobbed into a plate of Sichuan food knows how important they are to that region of China.
I could go on, but don’t worry I won’t.
The point is simply that the incredibly breadth of the Portuguese empire is primarily responsible for the rapid dispersion of chili peppers around the world.
But for North America the chili peppers came up through Mexico, right?
Yes and no.
I assumed the same, that chilies simply came up the relatively reasonable distance from Mexico to the United States. There are some articles that state as much. As mentioned earlier, there were wild varieties of chilies in the Southwest and Texas, as well as of course in Mexico. There were also botanical trade routes from Mesoamerica to the North America of subsistence crops like corn, beans, and squash. These trade routes have their indigenous base in the Southern Valleys of Mexico where capsicum chiles were grown.
So chilies made it to North America via pre-Columbus, smaller scale trade routes. Later, via Columbus’ “discovery” and the Portuguese, they were disseminated in larger scale and with domesticated varieties. This dissemination also includes via the trade routes for slavery, a theory mentioned in most of the books I’ve read about chilies. The theory states that while the chili pepper was available in the Southern United States via prior trade routes and Indigenous cuisine, it became widespread in during the slave trade.
Per Chili: Small Fruit Sets Global Palettes on Fire, having been introduced into West African cuisine via Portuguese colonies and trade routes, the chili played “such a crucial part of the African diet that slave traders carried large quantities with them on transatlantic voyages and plantations grew them in gardens for kitchen use.”
In Chilies to Chocolate, Jean Andrews notes that chili peppers “were to be found nowhere north of modern-day Mexico until after colonization by Northern Europeans.” This take is disputed by research of pre-hispanic chilies from Mesoamerica showing up as a cultivated crop in the U.S. Southwest. Regardless, it was the “discovery” of the New World that pushed the chili into the global spotlight, a space that was expanded when the Dutch and British empires broke the naval hegemony established by the Portuguese around 1600, and the market was flooded with more goods.
Despite use in smaller pockets prior, the chili did not take a firm root in the United States until slaves from both the West Indies and West Africa, who were already cooking with chilies brought over on prior trade routes, started growing them in the Southern United States.
More than one domestication event in the chili’s journey
The journey I’ve painted here is not the only route the chili’s explosion has followed. In terms of botany, a domestication is when humans turned the wild chili into cultivated forms, according to the interests of people.
There were multiple domestication events that scientists believed occurred along the chili’s route to world domination. Cuisines adapted in their wake. From from Central America and the Caribbean to Spain, from Brazil to West Africa and India, and back again to North America via the slave trade, the circuitous popularity of the chili pepper seemed to me worthy of its own post.
After all, it has truly spread to much of the world as we know it, now even to our drinking options. Per a 2019 piece in Bloomberg, beer infused with chilies is the next big thing.
While craft beer heads might measure a brew in IBUs (International Bitterness Units, which are used to approximately quantify the hop bitterness of beer) what about a beer’s SHUs (Scoville Heat Units, a measurement of the heat of chili peppers)? Beers with heat are hot at the moment as craft brewers experiment with exciting new flavor combinations. Whether they’re made via the addition of hot pepper juice, oils, or whole peppers, ales and lagers brewed with chili peppers are common enough for “Chile Beer” to be a recognized style on BeerAdvocate.com.
i lived in asia for 8 years, it’s a whole other ball game of behavioural norms. And if the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico has their way: space may be next!
* According to the far-too-long amount of time I spent reading about spelling of chil(l)i(e)s, American English is usually chili but can be chile, and UK English is always chilli. A bit more about this dizzying task, via the Columbia Journalism Review’s Language Corner, “The heated debate around chilies“*
Further reading about the history of chili peppers
A micro-history never satisfies me as much as a book does, so I wanted to make sure to give options for those who wanted to celebrate chili peppers in the kitchen and beyond. I’ve divided this section into different books and articles that I enjoyed and learned a lot from. I hope you will too!
Books about Chiles and the Cuisines that Use them
Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, by Rachel Laudan (highly recommended). Laudan’s long book takes us through history, spanning the rise and fall of the world’s most renowned cuisines. Less a micro-history and more a celebration of culinary philosophy and food culture over time, she teaches us about how food affects everything in society, from health, the economy, politics, society and the gods. The result, seismic shifts in how people eat, yielding new cuisines that dominated the world.
The Great Chile Book, by Mark Miller. If you’re wondering about chilies themselves, this full-colour handbook will give a deep-dive of 100 different chilies, each with description, hotness scale, and description. While there’s little culinary anthropology here, the book is a good start as it does include backgrounders on how chilies are used in cuisines around the world.
Chile Peppers: A Global History, by Dave DeWitt (2020): Dave DeWitt, a world expert on chilis, travels from New Mexico across the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia chronicling the history, mystery, and mythology of chiles around the world and their abundant uses in food and medicine. He also includes 70 recipes in the book.
Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots along the Pepper Trail, by Gary Paul Nabhan, Kraig Kraft, and Kurt Michael Friese. Chasing Chiles carries a weightier political message, assessing both the effects of climate change on how we harvest and grow our foods, and on where we can turn to if agriculture becomes unrecognizable inc oming years. The authors chose to do this via the lens of the chili because it has “captivated imaginations and taste buds for thousands of years” around the world, making it a universal crop that this book can use as an effective messaging tool. While chiles may be grown away from their original locations, some heirloom species are suffering under the weight of changing soil and environmental conditions. The book interviews farmers, chefs, and ethnobotanists, and includes not only research (and field research!) but also history and recipes from around the world.
Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, by Alex Stupak. Alex Stupak’s restaurant, Empellón Taqueria in New York, is a favorite for many. This cookbook, a further dive into the humble taco, is a beautiful read with glossy photos that will make your mouth water. From the basics – using masa to make tortillas – to condiments, salsas, and moles, this book makes the argument that the late, great Anthony Bourdain made, that Mexican food is ” OT melted cheese over tortilla chips. It is not simple, or easy. It is not simply “bro food” at halftime. It is in fact, old—older even than the great cuisines of Europe, and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated.”
Food: A History of Taste, by Paul Freedman. This illustrated coffee table book aggregates essays from historians around the world to share a detailed chronology of food. Sweet foods, spicy foods, and everything in between – from antiquity to the present day – the book covers not just history but also food etiquette and today’s taste preferences. It’s truly a beautiful book, and one that makes a fabulous present for a food lover in your life.
Spice: A History of Temptation, by Jack Turner. Written by Jack Turner, a Brit with a great sense of humor, this history of spices and the spice trade takes you through the ages and into the minds and palates of explorers from hundreds of years ago to present day.
The Cuisines and Flavors of Mexico, by Diana Kennedy. This is a link to the inimitable Diana Kennedy’s full works on Amazon, as she is clearly an authority on Mexican cooking. She’s written nine books overall, including the one I started with, The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, and the huge (10lb!) Oaxaca Al Gusto, my flavor bible after I moved to Southern Mexico.
2022 note: The guide to the chilies of Mexico, from Lucky Peach is sadly unavailable because Lucky Peach is now defunct. I’ve taken the fun ancho chilies gif below to share, however. RIP Lucky Peach!
The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas, by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian. Citation: The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Spring 2010), pp. 163-188
- Because it’s gorgeous: Chiles of the World, by Mark Miller.
- And my own poster: a food map of Mexico: designed by me and inked by Ella Frances Sanders, these are available in black or white background, on acid-free, museum quality paper. Perfect for a kitchen wall, for those who love to eat. There are 12 countries in all. I’ve also put Thailand’s map below, since it too is a cuisine that features a lot of chili peppers.
And finally, a big thanks to my brother for the photo of a horse warily eyeing chili peppers, taken from his travels to Nepal.