Chilli Peppers – Articles and Recipes from around the world
The Chilli Pepper
Chili pepper (also chile pepper or chilli pepper, from Nahuatl chilli) is the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum, members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. The term in British English and in Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia and other Asian countries is just chilli without pepper.
Chili peppers originated in the Americas. After the Columbian Exchange, many cultivars of chili pepper spread across the world, used in both food and medicine.
Chili peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BC. There is archaeological evidence at sites located in southwestern Ecuador that chili peppers were domesticated more than 6000 years ago, and is one of the first cultivated crops in the Central and South Americas that is self-pollinating.
Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to encounter them (in the Caribbean), and called them “peppers” because they, like black and white pepper of the Piper genus known in Europe, have a spicy hot taste unlike other foodstuffs. Upon their introduction into Europe chilis were grown as botanical curiosities in the gardens of Spanish and Portuguese monasteries. But the monks experimented with the chilis’ culinary potential and discovered that their pungency offered a substitute for black peppercorns, which at the time were so costly that they were used as legal currency in some countries.
Chilies were cultivated around the globe after Columbus. Diego Álvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus’ second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, brought the first chili peppers to Spain, and first wrote about their medicinal effects in 1494.
From Mexico, at the time the Spanish colony that controlled commerce with Asia, chili peppers spread rapidly into the Philippines and then to India, China, Indonesia, Korea and Japan. They were incorporated into the local cuisines.
An alternate account for the spread of chili peppers is that the Portuguese got the pepper from Spain, and cultivated it in India. The chili pepper figures heavily in the cuisine of the Goan region of India, which was the site of a Portuguese colony (e.g.,vindaloo, an Indian interpretation of a Portuguese dish). Chili peppers journeyed from India, through Central Asia and Turkey, to Hungary, where it became the national spice in the form of paprika.
The substances that give chili peppers their intensity when ingested or applied topically are capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide) and several related chemicals, collectively called capsaicinoids. Capsaicin is the primary ingredient in the pepper spray used as an irritant weapon.
When consumed, capsaicinoids bind with pain receptors in the mouth and throat that are responsible for sensing heat. Once activated by the capsaicinoids, these receptors send a message to the brain that the person has consumed something hot. The brain responds to the burning sensation by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and release ofendorphins. A 2008 study reports that capsaicin alters how the body’s cells use energy produced by hydrolysis of ATP. In the normal hydrolysis the SERCA protein uses this energy to move calcium ions into the sarcoplasmic reticulum. When capsaicin is present, it alters the conformation of the SERCA, and thus reduces the ion movement; as a result the ATP energy (which would have been used to pump the ions) is instead released as heat.
The “heat” of chili peppers was historically measured in Scoville heat units (SHU), which is a measure of how much a chili extract must be diluted in sugar syrup before its heat becomes undetectable to a panel of tasters. Bell peppers rank at 0 SHU, New Mexico green chilis at about 1,500 SHU, jalapeños at 2,500–5,000 SHU, and habaneros at 300,000 SHU. The modern commonplace method for quantitative analysisof SHU rating uses high-performance liquid chromatography to directly measure the capsaicinoid content of a chili pepper variety. Pure capsaicin is a hydrophobic, colorless, odorless, and crystalline-to-waxy solid at room temperature, and measures 16,000,000 SHU.
Chili pepper pods, which are berries, are used fresh or dried. Chiles are often dried to preserve them for long periods of time. Preserving may also be done by pickling fresh chilies.
Dried chilies are often ground to powders, although some Mexican dishes including variations on chiles rellenos may use whole reconstituted chilies, and others may reconstitute dried chilies before grinding to a paste. Chilies may be dried using smoke, such as the chipotle, which is the smoked, dried form of the jalapeño.
Many fresh chilies such as poblano have a tough outer skin which does not break down on cooking. For recipes where chiles are used whole or in large slices, roasting, or other means of blistering or charring the skin are usually performed so as not to entirely cook the flesh beneath. When cooled, the skins will usually slip off easily.
Chili pepper plant leaves, mildly bitter but nowhere near as hot as the fruits that come from the same plant, are cooked as greens in Filipino cuisine, where they are called dahon ng sili (literally “chili leaves”). They are used in the chicken soup, tinola. In Korean cuisine, the leaves may be used in kimchi. In Japanese cuisine, the leaves are cooked as greens, and also cooked in tsukudani style for preservation.
Chili is by far the most important fruit in Bhutan. Local markets are never without chili, always teemed with different colors and sizes, in fresh and dried form. Bhutanese call this crop ema (in Dzongkha) or solo (in Sharchop). Chili is a staple fruit in Bhutan; the ema datsi recipe is entirely made of chili mixed with local cheese. Chili is also an important ingredient in almost all curries and food recipes in the country.
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