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The Story of Chilli is One of Politics, Geography and Culture

close up of bundle of different chillies

Chilli peppers are today an essential part of almost all major cuisines in some way or the other. They are the key to Asian, African, Latin American, and constitute an important part of Britain’s ‘Indian’ cuisine. But have you ever wondered how this tiny fruit (yes, that’s right they are a fruit, not a vegetable) became such an important global commodity? The story of chilli is one of politics, geography and most importantly culture. 

But before we dive into a history lesson, here’s a quick biology one. Chilli peppers are part of the Nightshade family (which includes tomatoes, potatoes, Petunias and tobacco plants), which are produced from flowering plants. Unlike vegetables, fruits have seeds and so does the chilli. Biologists believe chillies developed their high level of capsaicin (the chemical compound which produces the burning sensation) to deter mammals and fungi. Birds, with significantly less developed taste buds, were encouraged by the plant so that they could spread the seeds

Despite acting as a natural deterrent, we humans have adapted to not just eat, but also enjoy the high capsaicin levels. Humanity has been cultivating chillies for thousands of years, and so strong is our love for them that we even have a scale to measure the heat – the Scoville scale. Developed by American pharmacist Walter Scoville, the scale measures the number of capsaicinoids in a chilli. We humans, not birds, are also responsible for chilli’s global spread. 

A representation of the Scovile Scale and the heat of different peppers. Source: The Chillumanati (Facebook)

An Accidental Discovery

The origin of chilli cultivation can be traced back to the indigenous people of the Tehuacán plain (in modern-day Mexico). 8,000 years ago, these early settlers picked smaller berries of the wild Capsicum species, before eventually cultivating chillies. From the 28 main wild species, archaeologists have found what they believe to be the first domesticated species- Capsicum annuum – in Oaxaca, Mexico. There is good proof that chillies were the first domesticated crop in America. In fact, the word chilli can be traced back to the Aztec words Chilpoctli, Chiltecpin or Chiltepin (roughly translated to hot pepper).

Right up to 1492, chillies were grown only in the Americas, with a wide area ranging from modern-day Texas to Argentina. Chilli’s global origin began in October 1492 with Christopher Columbus. Columbus sent two Spanish scouts to the Antilles (a group of islands in the Caribbean featuring the modern-day Cayman Islands, Cuba and Jamaica amongst others) in search of black pepper and cinnamon, which were at the time almost as valuable as gold. In fact, the whole purpose of Columbus’ expedition was to find a new eastern maritime route to the Orient and its ‘spice islands’.  Instead, on interacting with the natives, the scouts stumbled upon a type of chilli called ‘aji’, which Columbus found to be tastier than pepper. 

The aji, was a key ingredient in local cooking, not just in the Antilles, but throughout modern-day South America. Conquistadors found the Mayans and Aztecs ate almost everything with chilli. The word aji can be traced back to the ancient Incas, who were known to have used them as an aphrodisiac. On his return from the New World, Columbus brought chillies along with a variety of other exotic species to Spain. The Spanish however, did not take to the new spice.

Chilli’s global spread can be attributed to the Portuguese during the colonial era. Source: Legal Nomads

The Globalisation of Chillies

It was the Portuguese who spread chilli far and wide, from modern-day India to North America. In the 16th century, Portuguese garrisons in Africa began growing chillies as a way to bear the hot tropical climates. From the garrisons, the spice found its way to the local African population. When the first African slaves were sent to North America (currently Virginia), they brought chilli with them, growing it around their huts. Thus began the spread of chilli.

In 1498, when Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama set foot in India, one of the key introductions was chilli. It didn’t take long for the spice to break the Arab and Venetian monopoly – on pepper, which was the dominant spice at the time – as Indians in the south quickly took to chilli as a seasoning, replacing pepper. 

The Portuguese also introduced chillies to China, when they established a trading post in Macau in 1516. From Macau, chilli spread to the rest of South-East Asia, from Japan to Thailand. The Silk Road saw chilli spread far and wide across Eurasia, from North India to as far as Turkey and Hungary. The English affair with chillies began with their love of ‘madras curry’, first prepared during the British Raj in India.

Powdered Chilli Changes the Game

While the British empire may have brought chillies full circle, they aren’t the ones responsible for the now-ubiquitous chilli powder. Throughout the colonial era, fresh chillies were prepared by being ground with a mortar and pestle which, while ensuring their flavour, made it harder to become a staple in regional cooking since they did not stay fresh for long. The problem of freshness was solved by the invention of dried chilli powder, which can be traced back to Texas in the 1800s. There is some dispute as to who first came up with the idea of chilli powder, some believe it was German immigrant William Gebhardt while others believe the credit should go to DeWitt Clinton Pendery

If you are to believe chilli historian Joe Cooper, Gebhardt first invented chilli powder in 1896 in the town of New Braunfels. Since they were only available at the summer harvest, chillies were reserved as a seasonal spice. Gebhardt solved this issue by importing chillies in bulk, then using a meat grinder to pulverise them (adapted from the Hungarian method of making paprika). He added oregano and cumin seeds and first sold the product as ‘Tampico Dust’, later named Gebhardt’s Eagle Chili Powder. Cooper notes that this was the reason ‘Tex-Mex’ food became popular throughout America, making chillies available at times and places it would have otherwise not been.

Another version of the story traces the invention of chilli powder to Pendry, who operated a dry goods store in Fort Worth called the Mexican Chilley Supply Company. In 1890 he marketed a seasoning powder called Chiltomaline (made from chillies, oregano, cumin and other spices). Over the years it caught on, becoming (according to the Pendry family) a critical staple in Texan food. Today, Pendry’s is a Texan institution, known as one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the state.

Pendery’s has been a Texan institution for 150 years now. Source: Steve Rainwater via Flickr

Irrespective of which version you believe, the truth is that powdered chilli changed the game. It made chillies available all year round, in various parts of, not just America, but the world. Since Gebhardt/Pendry, chilli powder has been remade by various brands, each time just a little different. On your next visit to the supermarket, take a look at the chilli powders available. You will notice each one has a different composition, and thus a different colour and texture. 

This, of course, results in a lot of questions for the legions of modern-day chilli aficionados. What is a really ‘spicy’ powder and what is mild? What foods does each powder go well with? Are all powders the same? And most importantly, what does an authentic chilli powder consist of? There are no clear answers. Just like the origin, powdered chillies will always be a hotly debated topic for chilli lovers. One thing we can all agree on though is that chilli powder has become an essential and valuable spice. Whether you are American, British, Indian or Thai, chilli powder is a key part of your diet. And now you know why!

Sources: Science in the News, Harvard University, Chilli Plant.com, Legal Nomads, New Statesman, Saveur, SPICEography

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