History of the Chilli

A lot of people in the world believe that the Chilli has its origin in India or somewhere in the Far East. Indeed,  if you were to tell some Indian, Chinese or Thai people that Chillies originally came from  South America, they wouldn,t believe you. Chillies have become so entrenched in their cultures that many of these people find it difficult believing that they aren’t native to their home turf.

Image: Columbus ships
Replica of the ship that Christopher Columbus sailed in on his voyage when he discovered the Chilli in the West Indies

In the Middle Ages, spices like black pepper were not only extremely expensive but also sometimes hard to get hold of.  With such scarcity and demand,  phenomenal profits were to be had in finding a route to the source of supply (where prices were far lower).

In 1492 Christopher Columbus, with the sponsorship of the king of Spain, set off on a voyage of discovery to do just that. He based the whole journey on a theory that by travelling West, he would reach the Spice Islands in the East.  Unfortunately, this belief proved incorrect. Instead of arriving in India, he landed up in the Bahamas (in the West Indies), where he encountered the Chilli for the first time

The Chilli had found its way to the West Indies from South America by way of either migrating birds or Paleo Indian explorers. Thinking that it was another form of black pepper Christopher Columbus called it just that “Pimiento” ( Spanish for pepper). It was through his naming of the Chilli as a pepper that today it is referred to in parts of the world as hot pepper or Chile pepper.

In a subsequent trip to the West Indies Columbus took a consignment of Chillies back to Europe with him. Old habits die hard, so while getting a lot of interest, the Chilli did not find immediate popularity amongst the Europeans. In the beginning, it was grown mainly in Portuguese and Spanish monasteries as a botanical curiosity [ Wikipedia], rather than a culinary delight.

Interestingly, it was Portugal and not  Spain that introduced Chillies to the regions of the world where the spice is most popular today. While not being a hit in their own country, Portuguese traders recognised the potential of selling chillies to other spice loving parts of the world.   They managed to procure seeds from ( an unknown) Spanish source and before long were growing chillies. In her book ” The Pepper trail  ” Jean Andrews concluded they began planting chillies in their overseas territories in the late fifteenth century. From there, they took the spice with them in their expeditions to the Far East and the rest of the world. Quite rapidly countries like India – which was a source of black pepper-  were using the Chilli in preference to it.

Within 100 years of Columbus bringing the Chilli back from the Caribbean, it had become widely used in Africa, South America and the Far East. Countries like China, Indonesia, Korea, and Thailand quickly added it to their flavour arsenal.  Chillies were also being widely used in most of the Portuguese colonies including Brazil, Angola and Mozambique.  Each country took the Chilli and adapted its use to their local cuisine. In doing so,  creating some excellent taste sensations

Today, the use of Chillies is widespread throughout the world. It is said that up to a quarter of the planet’s population eat them every day. There are few, if any, countries on the globe where Chillies do not play a part in regional cuisine. So much so, that in some countries like Mexico, India, Indonesia and Bhutan, few meals go by without the addition of Chillies

In the West, where Chillies took longer to take root (excuse the pun), they have become a firm favourite. The globalisation of the world means that cuisines in which the  Chilli has routinely been used for hundreds of years have become part of everyday Western cuisine. Curries from India, Enchiladas from Mexico, Jerk chicken from Jamaica are all dishes that most Westerners are aware of and enjoy as part of their regular diet. This is a trend that is likely to grow as more and more people get to know this great gift from nature.



Image credit: Joseph Sohm  /   Shutterstock.com


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