7″ x 14″, 2018
The mention of chilies instantly conjures up an aroma of spicy, piquant food from Asia to Mexico and North Africa. For millennia Asian cuisine was spiced with ingredients such as ginger, assorted radish, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, mace and cinnamon and black peppercorns, but with no trace of chilies whatsoever. A 180° longitude west, in Mesoamerica and parts of South America, the chili plant had been cultivated for over 5,000 years. So how did this remarkable ingredient become such a vital ingredient in the diet of people half-way across the planet?
The answer lies in a phenomenon called the Columban Exchange. In the 15th century spice trading in cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, cloves, nutmeg, mace and the most prized of all, black pepper, was a booming international business between Europe and the East. However, with recurring political strife, especially the Ottoman expansion, commerce via established land and sea routes was disrupted, so alternatives were needed—fast. This is where maritime nations such as Spain and Portugal became critical players in the discovery of sea passages to the Indies.
We are all familiar with Columbus’s dauntless efforts to find a westward route to the spice lands of the fabled East. Arriving in the Caribbean he was certain he was in India and the friendly native people must, of course, be Indians. Various unfamiliar plants such as maize, tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, capsicum were under cultivation—but no pepper was to be seen. On returning to Spain with these and other curiosities, venture capitalists enthusiastically supported future trade and transactions.
Of the many items exchanged, it is the Capsicum plant that is of primary interest to us, so let’s track its onward journey. From Spain it traveled to neighboring Portugal where it was deemed more significant than a mere curiosity. In the wake of Vasco da Gama’s voyage eastward, it rounded the Cape of Good Hope and landed in Goa, on the Malabar Coast of southern India, where the Portuguese soon established a colony. The Capsicum was introduced, it took root promptly, its taste appealed to the inhabitants and very soon it was integrated into Indian cuisine, folk medicine and folklore. The local pepper plant and the newly arrived Capsicum were both appreciated for their distinctly different attributes. It’s popularity spread to neighboring countries and islands of the Far East.
The Columbian Exchange was operating at full force, but although pepper still came from the Malabar Coast, its name was applied to Capsicum as well. Since the fruit of the Capsicum plant had a kick and a bite reminiscent of peppercorns familiar to Europeans, the recent American import was referred to as chili pepper, despite there being no botanical resemblance nor relationship between P. nigrum and C. annuum. Chili itself was a Nahuatl word from an Aztec language.
What’s in a name, you may well ask, so let’s find out if and why it matters. Peppercorns are the fruit of Piper nigrum, members of the Piperaceae family, native to the Malabar Coast of southern India. Their distinctive flavor comes from a resin called chavicine. Precious peppercorns had served as currency for the payment, amongst other things, of rent, dowry, ransom or taxes. In Ancient Rome pepper was valued not just as a seasoning but even more so for its purported aphrodisiac powers.
The Capsicum plant has a very different history. In Latin capsa refers to a case, a cylindrical container, a box or repository—the origin of the genus name, Capsicum—which holds within it numerous seeds attached to ribs which divide the interior into distinct compartments. Annuum suggests an annual plant, but this is misleading since in the tropics some C. annuum can last several years. Capsicum belongs to the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which includes nicotine, tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants, as well as less benign plants, such as belladonna, datura, brugmansia and mandrake, to name a few.
The Capsicum puts out small white flowers which give way to fruit or berries, (not true vegetables in the botanical sense), in an assortment of shapes and sizes, colors and flavors. Their colors range from bright green (when less mature) to yellow, orange, red, dark brown and purple; their taste varies from sweet or mild to diabolically fierce.
And what accounts for that unmistakably intense sensation that most people describe as “hot” or fiery? The hotter the better for some, a little goes a long way for many, while others have zero tolerance and avoid it totally. Chilies contain a substance known as capsaicin which activates a brain receptor and pain sensor TRPV1. It responds to capsaicin as it would to noxious heat stimuli. TRPV1 is involved in the body’s thermal regulation so cooling mechanisms are triggered—profuse sweating breaks out, eyes start to water, nose to drip, face to flush. Biting into a capsaicin-loaded red or green chili can do all this to the unprepared, causing acute distress, making the mouth feel it’s on fire. Under these conditions “hot” seems an appropriate description, wouldn’t you say? Only one variety C. annuum is the sole exception—it does not produce capsaicin, so it does not irritate the mucous membrane or cause any discomfort—and this is the sweet bell pepper.
The voluntary ingestion of hot chilies—seeking pleasure and pain simultaneously—may strike one as a masochistic tendency. Perhaps participants in chili eating contests could be perceived as such, especially when thunderclap headaches and temporary vasoconstriction are the result and require a trip to the nearest hospital ER. Despite such occasional misadventures the world consumption of chilies and ultra hot condiments is on the rise.
Cultivators and breeders are in perpetual competition to break previous world records for the hottest chili ever grown—Carolina Reaper, Ghost Pepper, Naga Viper, Trinidad Scorpion, Dragon’s Breath and the mysterious Pepper X are amongst the highest-ranking varieties. Their capsaicin concentration is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), named after the American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, who introduced his scale in 1912. Today we use high-performance liquid chromatography for greater accuracy but results are still expressed as SHU. For instance, Bell peppers which have no capsaicin are rated as 0-100 SHU, Cayenne 10,000-100,000 SHU, Carolina Reaper 800,000-3,200,000 SHU.
Capsicum has a significant role in folk medicine—from treating toothache, headache, malaria, fever, arthritis, neuralgia to improving digestion and circulation and even exorcising demons—practices begun thousands of years ago and still current. Modern biomedical and pharmaceutical research is highly invested in understanding more thoroughly the nature and therapeutic value of capsaicin, especially in relation to TRPV1 and pain cessation.
And let’s not forget there are still many who to this day will burn dried red chilies, as did their ancestors, to fumigate their homes in order to drive out bugs and rodents, the evil eye or evil spirits, vampires, ghosts and other undesirables. Modern-day police and law enforcers use pepper spray (main ingredient Capsaicin), to tackle rioters and control mobs; while private citizens carry pocket-sized canisters of the stuff for self-protection against attacks from dogs, bears and other humans.
I had long planned to paint a cayenne plant but had left it too late; the plant had fruited and looked exhausted, the season had changed to Autumn. Then an exceptionally warm sunny September and October brought forth new foliage and tiny buds and the plant began another cycle of growth. I was thrilled to portray what I observed.
This common, abundant ingredient has braved long journeys, thrived in new surroundings, gained instant popularity in a variety of cuisines—all without any show of hauteur or snobbery. From the gustatory heights of shahi korma to a pauper’s meal of a roti wrapped around a single sharp green or red chili—it is universally appreciated and still affordable, of interest to researchers and breeders and an identity quite its own, despite the confusion around its name.