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 Mesoamerica
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 completely unknown to most of the world until Christopher Columbus made his way to the New World in 1492.
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, 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 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 native population. They originated in Mesoamerica, the region that extends from Central Mexico to Central America and northern Costa Rica. Archaeologists trace their gradual domestication back to 5000 BC, in the Tehuacán valley of Mexico — 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).
So Columbus is responsible for their proliferation in the rest of the world?
Uh, not exactly.
Columbus was the first step in the spread of the chili, but despite the fact that he brought the aji back to Spain, it was the Portuguese and their broad trade routes that can be credited with the rapid adoption of chili peppers elsewhere in the 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.”
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)
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 directly responsible for the incredibly rapid dispersion of chili peppers around the world.
But for North America the chili peppers came up through Mexico, right?
It seems that this is not necessarily the case.
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. But the predominant theory from the books I’ve read (see the further reading section below) is that the chili pepper became widespread in the United States during the slave trade, despite being used by Native Americans for cooking prior.
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.” (Source)
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.” Around 1600, Dutch and British empires broke the naval hegemony established by the Portuguese, and the market was flooded with more goods. Despite this change, the chili did not take root in North America until the plantation system and African slavery were instituted. Slaves from both the West Indies and West Africa already cooked using chilies, and they grew easily in the Southern United States.
There is a term I learned about in high school called “The Columbian Exchange.” This refers to the exchange of diseases, ideas, food crops, and populations between the New World and the Old World following the voyage to the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Chilies are one example, but so are many others — coffee in Colombia, tomatoes in Italy, potatoes in Ireland, and the many domesticated animals and infectious diseases that followed.
The chili has undergone a series of Columbian Exchanges as the naval and trade routes changed and 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.
Post-article update: My friend Tyler reached out to Mark Miller, who is one of the foremost chili experts in this world. I had wanted to know about which of the theories for North America was correct, if any. His response was essentially that there were wild chilies growing in Texas and the more arid Southwest, and that they were used in Native American cooking. So the plant was known by the Native American Indians and thus there was no specific need for a more domesticated variety.
In addition, he adds that botanical trade routes from Mesoamerica to the North American civilizations are well documented for all the important varieties of subsistence crops, corn (400 varieties in North American from Baja to Maine), beans and squash — which all have their indigenous base in the Southern Valleys of Mexico where capsicum chiles were grown.
He notes, “your link seems correct as far as large scale of domesticated chilies in North America”, but he added that European explorers were poor botanists, and it is likely that Native Indians ate chilies despite their records only referring to corn.
I have long wanted to write more of these history pieces since they are a good part of why I love to write about food. I have done so over at the G Adventures blog with a shorter version of the chili peppers post, as well as here with a history of fish sauce.
Further reading about the history of chili peppers
(*Note these Amazon links feature affiliate links)
Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, by Rachel Lauden (highly recommended)
The Great Chile Book, by Mark Miller (the angst I had trying to decide whether to spell it chili or chile…)**
Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots along the Pepper Trail (this is about climate change as seen through the lens of the chili (or chile, I can’t even at this point) pepper.
Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, by Alex Stupak
Food and Drink in American History, by Andrew F. Smith (3 giant volumes, and quite expensive)
Food: A History of Taste, by Paul Freedman
Spice: A History of Temptation, by Jack Turner
Curry: a Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, by Lizzie Collingham
The Cuisines of Mexico, by Diana Kennedy
Chili-Lover’s Cook Book: Chili Recipes and Recipes With Chiles, by Al and Mildred Fischer
The guide to the chilies of Mexico, Lucky Peach
The Columbian Exchange: A history of disease, food, and ideas, The Journal of Economic Perspectives
Because it’s gorgeous: Chiles of the World, by Mark Miller.
And my own poster: a food map of Mexico!
** According to the far-too-long amount of time I spent reading about spelling of chilis, American English is usually chili but can be chile, and UK English is always chilli.
And finally, a big thanks to my brother for the photo of a horse warily eyeing chili peppers, taken from his travels to Nepal.
I hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season so far!