The history of Chillies in Turkey

Meze with Chillies. Turkish cooking

Part Asia, part Europe

Being where it is, with one part in Asia and the other in Europe, the history of the Chilli in Turkey is quite complex. It is possible that it arrived there in a variety of different ways. Along with other countries like India and China. The Chilli is not indigenous to Turkey. It had to be introduced there.  In this post, we will consider various possibilities as to how this happened.

In her fantastic book “The Pepper Trail”, Jean Andrews, a distinguished alumna from the University of North Texas, mentions various ways that the Chilli could have found its way to Turkey.  While concluding that the final answer could lie in a combination of possibilities, she provided the following scenarios. Read more

The use of Chillies in China

Chillies in China

When Sichuan pepper was king

Chillies form an essential part of Chinese cooking, but this has not always been the case. There was a time when Chillies were not known in China at all. Prior to the sixteenth century, the most noteworthy spice for adding pungency to food was Sichuan pepper.   To achieve spiciness, Sichuan peppers were combined (among other ingredients) with black pepper, ginger, garlic, and mustard.  This was the way spicy food was made for thousands of years. However, once Chillies were introduced to the country, they slowly but surely became China’s favourite spice. While still used as an ingredient, Sichuan pepper became far less important.

Today, Chillies are found all over  China. It’s difficult to imagine Chinese cuisine without them.  This is particularly true of regions in the country, like the Szechuan province, where Chillies and Sichuan peppers are combined to make cuisine that is world renowned.

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Chillies in Brazilian cooking

The use of Chillies in Brazilian cooking. Feijoada
The History Of Chillies in Brazil

It should be no surprise that Chillies are used in Brazilian cooking. The fact that Brazil contains 65 % of the Amazon basin is a clue to how close this country is to the Chilli.  It is widely accepted that many varieties of Chillies, while now found worldwide, are native to the Amazon basin *.  While neighbouring  Bolivia is thought to be one of the countries where Chillies originally started, Brazil would not have been far behind in being a place where they could first be found and consumed

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Using Chillies in Mexican cooking.

The History Of Chillies in Mexico

The fact that we call Chilis, Chiles or Chillies (in UK English)   stems from the word “ Chīlli  ” from the  Nahuatl language, which says it all. This was the language of the  Aztecs before the  Spanish conquest of Mexico.  When considering that Nahuatl had been and still is (in certain parts)  spoken there for 1000s of years before the Spanish invasion of Mexico, it shows just how close the Mexicans are to the very beginnings of the story of the Chilli.

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Chillies in South African cooking

South Africa has a diverse cuisine that has been shaped by its past. It is a cuisine that has elements from many parts of the world, including Europe, the Malay archipelago  and Asia. These influences have been combined with local tastes and ingredients to form a style of cuisine that is unique to the country.

One common thread in a lot of South African cuisine is the use of Chillies. To understand how this happened, we will need to go back in time.

Many will know that South Africa has been colonised by both the Dutch and the English. While neither of these countries added much spiciness to South African cuisine, the people they brought with them, either as slaves or workers, certainly did. Their cuisine would undoubtedly have included Chillies as an ingredient. They came from counties where eating spicy food was traditional. Using Chillies in this cooking was part and parcel of how  their food was prepared

Over time,  the cuisine that they had brought with them started becoming more mainstream. It started becoming food that people outside of these communities started eating.  With this acceptance came  a  love for Chillies that has carried on until today

But did they introduce Chillies to South Africa, or were they here before they arrived? To answer this question calls for a bit of speculation.

Some background

Christopher  Columbus

With Chillies being as well known as they are today, it is heard to imagine a time when they were unknown out of South America, Mexico and the Caribbean.  Chillies only became known in Europe after Christopher Columbus brought them back with him after his 1492 voyage to the West Indies.  He believed Chillies could potentially become an alternative to black pepper, which was very expensive at the time. His idea, however, never took off. The Spanish weren’t very interested in Chillies. So Chillies lingered in the background for a while.

Somewhere along the line, the Portuguese became aware of Chillies. Portugal was a great trading nation. They immediately recognised the potential of Chillies as a spice. It didn’t take long before the Portuguese were growing Chillies and exporting them around the world.

Portugal was also a great colonial nation. Their colonies in Africa, which included Angola and Mozambique, were established in the sixteenth century.  Besides introducing Chillies to many countries (including, believe it or not, India) as part of the trade, they also took them to their colonies.  Before long, Chillies were widely grown in the Portuguese overseas territories. Chillies were certainly grown in Mozambique at that time.

The Dutch

Cape Malays

When the Dutch colonised the Cape, they were accompanied by their slaves from India, Indonesia, and Malaysia. So naturally, these slaves brought their cuisine with them, and that meant? Of course, you’ve guessed it …. Chillies.  Portuguese traders, who were very instrumental in making the  Chilli known to the world,  had been hard at work and had introduced Chillies to the countries the slaves had initially come from.

It  is  not inconceivable that Chillies found their way across the border to South African from neighbouring Mozambique well before the arrival of the Dutch in the seventeenth century. The Dutch established their first settlement in the Cape of Good Hope in 1632.  It is however improbable that Chillies had found their way to the Cape before they arrived.  The distance between Mozambique and the Cape would have been too much for the time. So instead, seeds for Chillies were probably carried into the Cape colony by the slaves that the Dutch brought with them.

It is likely that the Chillies they brought with them were Birds-eye Chillies. The Birds -eye was a Chilli that Portugal introduced to the Malaysians over a hundred years ago. It is  probable that is the same species of Chilli that  entered Soiuth Africa from Portugal's Mozambique colony.

The English

Indian cooking

In 1859 ,The owners of sugar cane plantations in the British colony of Natal began employing indentured labourers from India to work in the sugarcane fields. Under this arrangement, the labourers were brought to the country to work for five to seven years and then would be entitled (in theory) to a paid return journey back to India.

Naturally, these labourers arrived in the country with the cuisine they had grown up with. The Chilli was definitely part of their ingredient list. The Indians had also been introduced to the Chilli by the Portuguese through their colony in Goa.  Indian cooks had previously only used black pepper  and other aromatics to add pungency to their food. However, once they became aware of Chillies, that soon changed. Chillies became an essential ingredient In Indian cooking.

While Chillis were likely brought into the country by these labourers, they may have already been there. Because of the common borders between Natal and Mocambique ,it is quite possible that Chillies found their way into South Africa well before the Indians arrived.

The Portuguese


The Portuguese were highly instrumental in how Chillies got to South Africa. Besides the scenarios sketched above, subsequent events involving Portuguese speaking people from Africa shaped the popularity of Chillies in South Africa even more.


Many Portuguese people who had previously lived in former Portuguese colonies emigrated to South Africa.  Their cuisine came with them.  Spicy dishes with Chillies like Piri Piri Chicken and prawns made with African Devil Chillies were soon adopted as South African favourites. These dishes are now considered part and parcel of South Africa cuisine and are regularly eaten in restaurants and at South African barbecues (Braais).

One common thread that runs throughout. . That thread is the role the Portuguese played in introducing Chillies to the various players that laid the foundation to an important part of  what South African cuisine is today.


it is quite possible  Mozambican tribespeople brought  Chillies to  South Africa due to the free movement of the indigenous people on the Natal/Mozambique border. Alternatively, it could have been South African natives who brought Chillies back with them  when they visited Portuguese occupied Mozambique . The Chilli they brought back would almost certainly have been the African devil

I would like to imagine  Chillies have been used in South African cooking well before the arrival of the Dutch or English. After all,   Chillies are now widely used in making a spicy tomato and onion relish (Sheba) that is served with Phutu. (a crumbly  firm corn  porridge similar to grits or polenta)

Phutu has been staple that has been eaten by the  Zulu people in Natal for hundreds of years.  With Natals’  proximity to Mozambique, Chillies may have been used in the  Sheba that is served with it for the same length of time.

Image credits


South African Recipes



Chillies in Peruvian cooking

Chillies in Peruvian food
The History Of Chillies in Peru

Before spreading itself around the world, the origin of the Chilli goes way back to the Amazon basin in South America. Studies have hypothesised  that the Capsicum genus, the broad biological classification of Chillies, originated in an area in upper Peru that is now Bolivia. It then spread, through the dispersal arms of nature, to areas throughout South America and to the West Indies (where Christopher Columbus first encountered it and took its journey to Europe).

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The use of Chillies in Turkish cuisine

Chillies  in Turkish cuisine

Chillies play an important role in Turkish cooking. Both fresh Chillies ( hot or sweet ) and a variety of dried formats in colours that range from black and dark orange to different shades of red find themselves in Turkish cuisine.   Chillies are used either pickled or as paste, added as an ingredient to dishes or served as a condiment that is sprinkled over food after cooking.  Examples of  Turkish cooking where chillies are used include  Biber Salcasi ( red pepper paste), Sirkeli Biber  (pickled chillies), Cilber (Turkish eggs with Chilli), Hunkar begendi ( Lamb stew with aubergine puree) and Bulgur Lahana Kapuska   (Meat stew with cabbage, bulgar and peppers) and finally, not forgetting, of course, the wonderful Doner Kebab with chillies and a Chilli sauce

Chillies are commonly used in Turkish cuisine,  in the form of red pepper flakes or "pul biber" in Turkish.  These flakes are  often sprinkled on top of dishes such as pizza, lahmacun (Turkish flatbread with minced meat topping), soups, and stews.

Chillies are also used in the following ways :

  1. In dips and sauces: Chillies are also used to add heat to dips and sauces such as muhammara (a dip made with red peppers and walnuts), acılı ezme (a spicy tomato and pepper dip), and cacık (a yogurt and cucumber dip).
  2. In meat dishes: Chillies are used in many meat dishes in Turkey, such as kebabs, meatballs, and stews. For example, "Adana kebabı" is a spicy kebab dish made with minced meat and red pepper flakes.
  3. In breakfast dishes: In some regions of Turkey, a traditional breakfast dish called "menemen" is made with tomatoes,