The tale of hot chili peppers is one of jumping from plant to pot, one nation after another. Though we do not know exactly when chilies were first discovered, approximately 10,000 years ago appears to be a pretty safe bet. Chilies were among the very first crops cultivated in the Americas, somewhere around 4000 B.C. Seeds found south of Mexico City date native pepper use there around 7000 B.C., while seeds found in northern Peru show chili use there around 2500 B.C. One thing is for sure, the use of chilies caught on well, and the little burning vegetables spread quickly along established trade routes throughout Central and South America and the West Indies.
Chilies historic spread throughout the markets and culinary traditions of the world was greatly aided by explorer Christopher Columbus, who sailed the ocean blue in 1492. On New Year's Day in 1493, Columbus encountered chilies at Navidad, La Espanola, now Haiti. Writing about aji (the native name for chili) in his journal, Columbus remarked that "the pepper which the local Indians used as spice is more abundant and more valuable than either black or melegueta pepper." On each of his voyages to the New World, Columbus encountered the fiery aji. He discovered that the native people would not be without it, and that the peppers played an important role in the diets of the Indians. In his journal writings from his second voyage, Columbus remarked "In those islands there are also bushes like rose bushes which make a fruit as long as cinnamon full of small grains as biting as pepper; those Caribs and the Indians eat that fruit as we eat apples."
Fleet physician Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca additionally commented on hot chilies, saying "They use...a vegetable called agi, which they also employ to give a sharp taste to the fish and such birds as they can catch, of the infinite variety there are in this island (Haiti), dishes of which they prepare in different ways." When Columbus and crew returned to Spain from their second voyage to the New World, they brought peppers along with other plants and items of discovery.
In September 1493, Spanish court historian Pietro Martire de Anghiera wrote about the New World on the basis of information imparted by members of the first Columbus voyage. On his De Orbo Novo, Anghiera wrote "Something may be said about the pepper gathered in the islands and on the continent - but it is not pepper, though it has the same strength and the flavor, and is just as much esteemed. The natives call it axi, it grows taller than a poppy - When it is used there is no need of Caucasian pepper. The sweet pepper is called Boniatum, and the hot pepper is called Caribe, meaning sharp and strong; for the same reasons the cannibals are called Caribes because they are strong."
Though it may be hard to imagine today, the discovery of chilies was momentous and truly historic. Europe was in the grip of pepper fever, and the tiny grains of black pepper (Piper nigrum) were so precious and sought after, they were dispensed singly and as valuable as currency. Prior to the introduction of spices from the Far East, European food was bland and by many accounts spoiled. Pepper and other spices such as cloves and cinnamon excited and awoke the European palate, and covered the rank flavor and offensive aroma of bad food. Columbus and other sailors sought a quicker route to India, in part to obtain spices for an increasingly voracious European spice habit. The discovery of chilies, adaptable to a variety of climates and easy to cultivate, meant that the world had a piquant alternative to black pepper. Traders did not need to travel to India to load their ships with small grains of pepper. By bringing capsicum seeds to Africa and other parts of the world, they could plant the new found pungent spice, trade it easily, and satisfy the palates of the Old World. As it turned out, chilies caught on like wildfire.
Portuguese traders, who had developed significant centers of commerce along the coast of Africa in the 1400's, made their way to Brazil in 1500, and the West Indies in 1502. The Portuguese eagerly seized upon the commercial potential of New World crops such as maize, sugar and hot chilies, and spread them to Africa and India. A scant forty years later, three different varieties of chilies were known and cultivated in India. From the African coast, traders made their way into the dark green heart of the African continent, where chilies became dietary fixtures. Though it was virtually inconceivable at the time, New World crops would change the eating habits of the Old World. The New World offered an astonishing cornucopia of agricultural products which could be grown in many other parts of the world. Corn, squash, potatoes, coffee, chilies, cacao, tomatoes, avocados, lima beans, peanuts, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pineapples, vanilla and manioc would spread throughout the world and become staple foods. Tobacco, another New World plant, would also spread quickly, filling the lungs of the world with mildly narcotic smoke.
In the late 1520's, historian Fray Bartoleme' de Las Casas described three different varieties of aji found in the New World. Right around the same time, Portuguese sailors introduced chilies to Java. In 1535, Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes chronicled the use of peppers in the southern Caribbean, and commented that "The Indians everywhere grow it in gardens and farms with much diligence and attention because they eat it continuously with almost all of their food." Meanwhile, chilies were burning their way through Europe. By 1542 chilies were known and used in Spain, Italy and Germany. At the same time that chilies were known in Goa in the mid 1500's, they had spread to the Balkans and Moravia. Eastern and Middle Eastern traders carried chilies to New Guinea in the 1520's, and from there throughout Indonesia, Melanesia, and to Southeast Asia and China. Chilies became so integral to the cuisines of the East. They were quickly thought to have originated there. Today there is no memory of culinary traditions in India, China and Southeast Asia which did not include chilies. What is Hunan cuisine without nasty dried red chilies to scorch the mouth? What would a Goan fish curry taste like without searing chili paste to burn the mouth and throat? One can only imagine.
Oddly enough, though hot chilies originated in the New World, they did not land on the shores of North America until 1621, when they were introduced to the eastern coast of Virginia by English traders who brought them from Bermuda. Chilies have had a place in North American cuisine since then, but not the major role that they played in hotter climates. While chilies spread like roaring flames throughout dry timber between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, they warmed up in North America more slowly. In 1992 salsa overtook ketchup as America's favorite table condiment. Since their victory over ketchup in 1992, hot chilies have burned hotter and brighter in the U.S. culinary scene. Today chilies are the bursting fireworks in our culinary New Year's celebration, the strident brass section in our gustatory Mardi Gras marching band.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at www.MedicineHunter.com