Together with corn, squash, and beans, chiles or chili peppers constitute one of the great culinary contributions of the Americas to the world. On his first voyage to the continent, Christopher Columbus noticed the use of the fruit of these plants as a condiment and noticed that they were somehow stronger than the peppers already known in Europe, a plant to which they are not related at all. The common chili pepper or capsicum is native to the Americas where it has been known since the first civilizations appeared on the continent, and it is believed to have been part of the native American diet since over 7,000 years ago, or earlier, since prehistoric peppers have been found in ancient burials in Peru. In fact, there has been evidence of its cultivation and consumption all over the Americas; and as soon as it was taken to Europe, it became very popular in the Old World as well. Several travelers and explorers have left testimony of how important it was for the Indians in that they claimed that if they did not have any chili peppers with their meals, it was as if they had not eaten.
The early European chronicles of the Americas mentioned that in Mexico and Central America, all kinds of vegetables, soups, meats, tamales, tortillas, and even drinks were seasoned and cured with chili peppers, sometimes in amounts that would be intolerable for the European palate. In general they agree that the heat and taste of the chili peppers is at first unpleasant to the uninitiated but remark how pleasant it seems to be to those who are used to its pungent flavor and heat. In fact, the plant was brought to Europe by the first Europeans who had actually discovered the New World in their search for new routes to the spice trade of Asia. All through the Middle Ages the spice trade was a source of wealth, particularly for countries with easy access to the Mediterranean, but also for those, like Portugal, that looked for new routes to the East and to the commerce of spices; toward the end of the Middle Ages, there is a period known as the era of explorations that resulted in travels around Africa and Asia and the discovery of America.
With the discovery of America, chili peppers (Capsicum annuum) were added to the list of important spices and became a worthy rival of those from Asia. Soon after their discovery in the Americas, chili peppers spread all over the world and became favorites in Asia, Africa, and even Europe. Spices had been an important commodity since the Ancient World but became even more important in the late Middle Ages and contributed to the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe. From that moment on, spices were consumed regularly by the upper classes, but even the poor had a moderate access to them. For hundreds or even thousands of years, spices were known yet uncommon and therefore expensive. Among ancient cultures, like the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, and the people of India, spices were already an important commodity. Particularly prized were black pepper and ginger, but sweeter spices like nutmeg, cardamom, clove, and cinnamon were also appreciated. In Europe, they became important with the rise of the bourgeoisie commercial class.
Most Europeans used the different spices from all over the world in cooking as condiments and preservatives, but they were also valued, perhaps even more, for their medicinal properties. The pungent flavor and burning sensation of some spices were not unknown to the Europeans who had black pepper, mustard, and ginger. But it was the discovery of the American chili pepper that revitalized the spice trade. Columbus himself wrote that they were more abundant and of better quality as condiments than the known black or melegueta pepper. Therefore soon after their discovery chili peppers were taken to Europe, first by the Spaniards and Portuguese, who took them to Africa and Asia where they started to cultivate them, and then by other Europeans. There are records of chili peppers being cultivated in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and even Moravia as early as the 1500s. Many contemporary cultures use chili peppers in their cuisine, but most of them are outside of Europe. The fact that it was very easy to transport and cultivate chili peppers in other tropical, semitropical, and Mediterranean climates means that there was never a huge commerce, since they could be grown and consumed locally, and in part that explains the low demand.
Nonetheless, this adaptability and the fervor with which it was embraced speak of the importance of chili peppers as a culinary contribution to the world. An American plant used as a condiment that became very important for cuisines as distant as Indian, Thai, Chinese, and North African is a testimony to its importance. Chili peppers most likely originated in Peru and from there migrated to Mexico, or they originated simultaneously in both places. However, ever since pre-Columbian times, the diversity of chili peppers and their importance for Mexican culture have been greater than for any other American culture. There are numerous accounts of the importance of chili peppers for the Aztecs as well as the diversity of species found. Bernardino de Sahagún and other early historians mention the different kinds of chili peppers grown, based on quality, availability, way of cultivating or picking them, and season, as well as how their commerce was regulated in the famous market of Tlatelolco in the ancient capital of the Aztec empire. Chili peppers have remained important in Mexican cuisine, and today most likely Americans associate them with Mexican or Mexican-influenced cuisine such as that found in California, New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.
Some of the most popular Mexican chili peppers are the following:
Cayenne pepper: a long, hot pepper either green or red depending on the season. The green variety appears in the summer, and the red, considerably hotter, in the fall.
Habanero pepper: a small, round, hot pepper with some hint of fruit and a yellowish color. Perfect for salsas, it can be sliced and seasoned with salt and lime juice.
Manzanilla pepper: a pepper similar to the habanero, except for its reddish or green color.
Serrano pepper: a small, long, green chili pepper that is usually boiled or charred and mashed in a molcajete or mixed in a blender with tomatillos, onions, cilantro, and salt to make salsa verde.
Jalapeño pepper: a pepper similar to the serrano chili pepper, except not as hot; it is used in the same way as well as in guacamole and pico de gallo.
Manzana pepper: similar to manzanilla but smaller and round, related to habanero but not as hot.
Cherry pepper: a red, small, round chili pepper that is perfect in salsas or pickled.
Chile güero: a pepper similar to the jalapeño, except that it is a pale yellow color.
Poblano pepper: one of the largest chili peppers, green and mild, perfect for stuffing. These are the peppers used in the classic chile rellenos.
Chilaca pepper: similar to the poblano pepper, the chilaca is longer and thinner. It is usually added to soups or stews and is perfect for a Mexican favorite, rajas con crema: a dish of peeled, seeded chilacas simmered in a sauce of sour cream and sprinkled with grated cotija cheese.
Many of these chili peppers can also be consumed dry. The most popular are these: (1) Chile ancho, which is a dry poblano pepper. When dried, it turns dark brown or even black and has a smoky, mild taste. (2) Chile pasilla: a dry chilaca, long, wrinkled, and dark and of a mild flavor. (3) Chile guajillo: similar to the pasilla but darker and of a very smooth skin. It is a little stronger in flavor than the chile pasilla. (4) Chile mulato: a dry green chili pepper. When dry, the mulato becomes very dark and its flavor stronger. (5) Chile chipotle: a dry, smoked jalapeño with a very strong and rich flavor. It is perfect for salsas, adobos, and stews; it can be canned and used in many dishes or just as a condiment. (6) Chile de árbol: a bright, red, dry chili pepper that is hotter than most of the other dry chili peppers and is the favorite for red salsas blended with tomatoes, onion, garlic, and salt. (7) Dry habaneros: a dry variety of the fresh habanero. Usually they become darker and their flavor more concentrated. Most of these dry chili peppers will have to be soaked, rehydrated, and seeded before using.
See Also Tamales; The Tamale
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