I’ve long been fascinated by spicy food, and have always wondered about the differences in spiciness between chili peppers. If you live in a country where chilis are eaten, this is something you are probably familiar with. Here in Japan, I’ve found that even though there are a huge variety of chilis available – ranging from the tiny jalapeno to the large, red-orange colorado – they all seem to be pretty mild.
Trying to get some answers on this subject led me to a fantastic blog called “The Seeds Of Spiciness” by Edmund Currie at the University of Nottingham. Currie has done a lot of work on the genetics and evolutionary biology of spices (including chilies), and his research definitely piqued my interest.
The most interesting thing I learned from his blog is that there is such a thing as a “super chili”. The hottest known chili at the time of writing is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, which clocks in at an average heat level of over 1 million Scoville units! That’s about 400 times hotter than a jalapeno (which averages 2,500-8,000 SHU) but not quite as hot as the Carolina Reaper which can range up to 2.
It is easy to think of the idea of “spicy” as a simple thing. But it is not. Chilis are fascinating and varied, and the history of how they came to be is equally so.
There are many reasons variations in chili heat exist. The two most important are the species of chili used, and the conditions in which that chili has been bred and cultivated.
If you’ve ever wondered how chilis work, here’s your chance to find out.
The blog post is a little long but it’s a very interesting read. It explains the process of how chilis are used in a recipe and how they contribute to the taste of the meal.
How did the chili pepper get to be what it is today?
The domestication of the chili pepper has been confirmed by a number of genetic markers and linguistic studies.
Domestication of the chili pepper is believed to have occurred in multiple locations throughout the Americas, with Brazil and Mexico having the highest diversity. The earliest evidence for chili pepper domestication comes from pottery at an archaeological site in Peru, dating back to around 3000 B.C.
Taken into account that chilies were brought into cultivation in China around 2000 BC and India 3000-4000 BC, it seems likely that peppers were being cultivated by Pre-Columbian peoples within a few thousand years of their arrival in South America.
The common ancestor of all varieties of Capsicum was most likely Capsicum annuum var. annuum, which still grows wild in Mexico and Central America (Huanuco et al., 2008; Smith, 1949; Kajitani et al., 2002). C. annuum var. annuum originated in tropical South America (Cerasiforme), but can be found growing wild as far north as Texas (Langemeier & Heiser, 1992).
Chilis are now cultivated around the world and vary greatly in pungency. The
The very first chili pepper isn’t in question. It was a wild plant, called an ariakei. The early Peruvians cultivated it, and it turned out to be good for making chilies.
Chili peppers come from two sources: the wild chilies that naturally evolved into New World varieties, and those that came from other parts of the world. The chili peppers people brought with them were mostly small round varieties called paprika. There is a variety of paprika that is incredibly hot (though not as hot as the first chilies). But people made some changes to make them more useful to eat and more likely to spread. And they succeeded so well that now we think of chilies as being distinctly New World.
Tl;dr: Chili peppers didn’t “evolve” over time – they were cultivated, and their cultivars spread by diffusion
Chili peppers are native to the Americas and have been eaten for thousands of years. Recent research by David B. Guilford, of Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History, shows that chili peppers originated in Argentina and moved northwards to Mexico and the United States.
The work has been published in the Journal of Biogeography.
The chili pepper originated in the Americas, and spread over the globe after Columbus reached America in 1492. But researchers have just recovered the oldest chili DNA yet found – from a 5,300-year-old human coprolite (preserved feces).
The researchers are not sure how chilies made their way to Europe; they may have come via Asia and the Middle East. “We think that these chilies were brought by humans, not transported by birds or other animals,” says Dolores Piperno of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. “We know this because we have recovered chilies from archaeological sites around the world.”
Representatives from a dozen countries met at the institute last month to discuss what people ate 5,300 years ago. Genetic analysis was done on seeds found in Chile’s Pichilemu site, which contains one of the earliest examples of a human settlement in South America. The first use of agriculture dates back to 12,000 years ago; food production was discovered in what is now called the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. Agriculture took about another 2,000 years to reach South America.