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.
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 a compound called 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 mechanism that helps us drop a hot pan if we forget oven mitts: the temperature sensation receptor TRPV1.
The working theory is that eating chilies gives us the same sensation as if we were to actually eat too-hot bite of food, hence the burn. The TRPV1 receptor 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.
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.
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.
Now, back to the history of chili peppers…
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.
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: Multiple lines of evidence for the origin of domesticated chili pepper, Capsicum annuum, in Mexico).
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: 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 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: Chili: Small Fruit Sets Global Palettes on Fire)
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, 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.
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 chilis, 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“***
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.
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.
Books about Chiles and the Cuisines that Use them
Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, by Rachel Lauden (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.
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.
Articles about Chili Peppers
The guide to the chilies of Mexico, Lucky Peach. Sadly because Lucky Peach is now defunct, we have lost this amazing piece with animated chilies to delineate between the many in Mexico. From their Ancho section: “Dark brown and triangular in shape, ancho chilies are actually just dried, fully ripe poblano chilies. They taste tangy, like dried fruit with a slight green note, and while they are generally not that spicy, you’ll occasionally find an angry one in the litter. Along with guajillos, anchos are one of the workhorse chilies of the Mexican kitchen: abundant, inexpensive, and ubiquitous in many traditional recipes.”
More via this summary.
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
Posters Featuring Chilies and Spicy Meals
Because it’s gorgeous: Chiles of the World, by Mark Miller.
And my own poster: a food map of Mexico!
And finally, a big thanks to my brother for the photo of a horse warily eyeing chili peppers, taken from his travels to Nepal.