The chilli pepper (also spelled chili pepper, chile) is the fruit of the plant Capsicum of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family. Cultivated since prehistoric times in Peru and Mexico, it was discovered in the Caribbean by Columbus and named a "pepper" because of its similarity with the Old World peppers of the Piper genus. Diego Alvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus' second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, brought the first chilli peppers to Spain, and first wrote about their medicinal effects in 1494.
The most common species of chilli peppers are: Capsicum annuum, which includes many common varieties such as bell peppers and jalapeños; Capsicum frutescens, which includes cayenne and tabasco peppers; Capsicum chinense, which includes the hottest peppers such as habaneros and Scotch bonnets; Capsicum pubescens, which includes the South American rocoto peppers; and Capsicum baccatum, which includes the chiltepin.
Though there are only a few commonly used species, there are far more cultivars and different ways preparing chilli peppers that have different common names for culinary use. Green and red bell peppers, for example, are the same cultivar of C. annuum, with the green ones being immature. In the same species are the jalapeño, the chipotle, which is a smoked jalapeño, the poblano, ancho (which is a dried poblano), New Mexico, Anaheim, Serrano, and others. Jamaicans, Scotch bonnets, and habaneros are common varieties of C. chinense. Species C. frutescens appears as chiles de arbol, aji, pequin, tabasco, cayenne, cherry peppers, and others.
The fruit is eaten cooked or raw for its fiery hot flavor. Indian, Szechuan and Thai cuisines are particularly associated with the chilli pepper, although the plant was unknown in Asia until Europeans introduced it there.
Well-known dishes with a strong chilli flavor are salsa, Mexican chile con carne and Indian vindaloo. Chili powder is a spice made of the dried ground chiles, usually of the Mexican "Ancho" variety, but with small amounts of cayenne added for heat. Bottled hot sauces such as Tabasco are made from chillis such as the cayenne (not, oddly, from tabasco peppers), which may also be fermented.
The substance that gives chillis their heat is called capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide). It causes pain and inflammation if consumed to excess, and can even burn the skin on contact in high concentrations (habanero peppers, for example, are routinely picked with gloves). It is also the primary ingredient in pepper spray, which is used as a defensive weapon. The "heat" of chilli peppers is measured in Scoville unitss. Bell peppers rank at zero Scoville units, jalapeños at 3000-6000 Scoville units, and habaneros at 300,000 Scoville units. The record for the highest number of Scoville units in a pepper would go to the Red Savina Habanero, measuring 577,000 units!
Since birds don't have the same sensitivity to capsaicin as mammals, chilli peppers are a favorite food of many birds living in the chilli peppers' natural range (along with many birds living in captivity). The flesh of the peppers provides the birds with nutritious meal rich in vitamin C. In return, the seeds of the peppers are distributed by the birds, as they drop the seeds while eating the pods or the seeds pass through the digestive tract unharmed. This relationship is theorized to have promoted the evolution of the protective capsaicin.
Illustrated Hot Peppers
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