The Origins of Chile Peppers

By Eric Vinje

Christopher Columbus didn't just sail the ocean blue and discover the New World in 1492 while trying to find a short cut to the East Indies. He sampled a plant, thought it was a relative of the black pepper, and dubbed it a "pepper."

So began several hundred years of misinformation about chile peppers. Unlike what Christopher Columbus thought, they aren't related to black pepper and they didn't originate in India.

Hot peppers actually came from somewhere in South America. There they were known as Aji [technically there should an accent over the "I" leaning towards the right]. Chile peppers, which hail from the genus Capsicum are not related to black pepper. Instead they are members of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family and are related to tomatoes, cherries and eggplant.

"Well into the 19th century, most Europeans continued to believe that peppers were native to India and the Orient, until Alphonse de Candolle, a botanist, produced convincing linguistic evidence for the South America origin of the genus Capsicum," states MSN.com's Foodies Corner.

Whether you call them aji or chile peppers, these plants were likely first cultivated as early as 5000 BC. By 1492, Native Americans had domesticated at least four species. In the West Indies, Columbus found several different capsicums cultivated by the Arawak Indians.

Columbus might not have been right about the origins, but he did help popularize chile peppers. (A chile by any other name will be just as hot, right?) He brought back samples to the Iberian Peninsula and they quickly spread about the world. And if you think that today's hot sauce explosion is amazing, check this out. According to the Foodies Corner of MSN.com, roughly 50 years after Columbus brought home peppers, they were being cultivated on all coasts of Africa, India, Asia, China, the Middle East, the Balkans, Central Europe and Italy. Peppers spread faster than kudzu.

And although Columbus brought peppers to Spain, it was the Portugese traders who actually spread their use and cultivate, according to the Foodies Corner. Portuguese trading partners in turn spread peppers to Asia and the Arab world by the early 1500s. The Turks reportedly brought the chile pepper to Hungary in the mid-15th century.

Today, no matter what language you speak, peppers are popular, especially with the Thais, who reportedly consume more chiles on a daily basis than any other people.

This article was written by Eric Vinje of Cosmic Chile.

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