Chili pepper

Source: Wikipedia

On January 15, 1493, Christopher Columbus, who thought himself had arrived India, wrote in his log: “There is also plenty of aji, which is their pepper, which is more valuable than [black] pepper and all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome.”(from “Spice: The History of a temptation”). The “aji that is more valuable than pepper” he found was actually chili pepper. Since Columbus called peppers of the pepper family pepper and chili peppers of the Solanaceae family Capsicum genus as peppers also, in order to distinguish them later, the Aztec word “chili” was added in front of the pepper to become chili pepper; and pepper is usually called black pepper or just pepper.

Why on earth did Columbus call chili pepper as pepper? It may be because it is also spicy, or it may be because Columbus thought he had found India, so of course he thought the spicy plants found in India were pepper. In addition, Europeans had the habit of referring to all spices as pepper at that time. Maybe Columbus just wrote it like this.

Although chili pepper did not receive much attention at the time, it soon became the most widely accepted and cultivated spice plant in the world among all the plants discovered by Columbus in the New World; unlike tomatoes, corn, and potatoes, chili peppers spread across all continents in a short period of time . In 2014, the world’s fresh chili pepper production was 70 times that of pepper. The most commonly used seasoning in the world is salt. The second place is chili pepper, and the amount is five times that of the third place (pepper).

Chili peppers are native to tropical and subtropical America. They may have been domesticated at the border between Mexico and Guatemala, and were cultivated in 5000 BC. There are about 25 species under the genus Capsicum, 5 of which have been cultivated by humans. The most important of these five types is annual peppers (Capsicum annuum). From green peppers, which are not spicy at all, to wild peppers with a spicy degree of 50,000 to 100,000 SHU (Scoville Heat Unit), which grow on the border between the United States and Mexico, they are all members of this family; the second type is C. frutescens, which is a semi-domesticated variety. The most famous strain is the Tabasco pepper used to make the famous “Tabasco Sauce”; the third type is Chinese pepper (C. chinense), and the hottest is here: including Havana Chili and the hottest “Carolina Reaper” in the world (1,569,300 SHU). The fourth is C. baccatum and the fifth is C. pubescens.

The hotness of peppers is usually based on the “Scoville Heat unit” as the standard. It was formulated by Wilbur Scoville (1865–1942) of Parke-Davis in 1912: dilute the pepper extract with sugar water and let five trained experts taste the diluents until five experts can’t taste the spiciness, the dilution factor is its spiciness. Due to the problem of inaccuracy when measuring with people, it has been changed to use instruments to measure.

The hotness of chili pepper comes from the nine kinds of “capsaicinoid” compounds it contains that trigger human physiological reactions, of which capsaicin is the most important source, accounting for 70% of the irritating substances contained in ordinary chili peppers. All capsaicinoids are oil-soluble, so when you accidentally bite a chili, drinking ice water will not extinguish the burning sensation caused by it; drink milk, eat yogurt, ice cream and other fatty substances or substances containing fat will be effective. Chili pepper’s pungent chemicals are located in the placentation (the tissue that connects the seeds) of chili pepper, so as long as the placentation and seeds can be removed carefully, it should be able to effectively reduce the spiciness.

Although the word “spicy” is often used, spicy is not actually a sense of taste; capsaicin acts on our TRPV1 channel, causing pain and burning. The TRPV1 channel of mammals responds to capsaicin, but birds do not, so birds can eat chili peppers without being “burned”. Originally, capsaicin was synthesized by capsicum because it was not expected to be eaten by creatures other than birds (because birds can help it to spread seeds), but humans fell in love with its spicy taste and started to grow it in large quantities, which is really unexpected.

Although chili peppers were probably introduced to Taiwan from the Netherlands during the Qianlong period of the Qing Dynasty, the Han people in Taiwan really began to eat chili peppers because of the influence of other ethnic groups from China who moved in after World War II. Local people called chili pepper “barbarian’s ginger” (huan-kiunn) because it is spicy and from western world. Hualien and Taitung’s famous chili product “peeled chili” is made by removing the seeds and skin of deep-fried green chilies, and then soaking them in a sauce for one to two days. Because of the extra skin removal process, it is called “peeling” pepper; but because the placentation is not removed, it will still be spicy! In addition to peeled chilies, Kaohsiung Gangshan is also famous for its spicy bean paste (doubanjiang) made from fermented beans (mainly soybeans) mixed with chili paste. Doubanjiang was originally made by Mr. Mingde Liu , an officer of the Air Force, in 1950. Later, more people invested in it and it was hailed as one of the “Three Treasures of Gangshan.” The internationally renowned Tabasco chili sauce was made by Mr. Edmund McIlhenny of Louisiana (1815–1890), USA in 1868. The Tabasco chili paste was salted and aged for three years, then the seeds and skins were filtered and vinegar was added and stirred occasionally for a month. Currently, 720,000 bottles are produced every day and sold to 180 countries.

In the past 50 years, the world population has only increased by 2.2 times, and the total value of the chili pepper trade has increased by 25 times. Why do people love chili peppers so much? Many studies have tried to find out why people fall in love with the taste of chili pepper, and even go further to challenge more spicy food. Perhaps the spicy feeling provides us with a safe stimulation!

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葉綠舒 Susan Yeh

黑手老師、科普作者、資深書蟲 Educator, popular science writer and bookworm.