Let's spice it up, my friends!
November 20, 2018 7:36 AM   Subscribe

Here’s what’s astounding: Chiles are native only to Central and South America (Time Magazine, 2007). That means that until Christopher Columbus sailed for the New World in 1492, there were no chiles (Capsicum on Wikipedia) anywhere else. Not in India. Not in Thailand. Not in China or Korea. [...] For the past few years, I’ve been studying the route(s) chiles took around the globe, with an eye to understanding not just when they arrived in different lands but what happened afterward: How did chiles get so deeply integrated into these cuisines? How did that ferocious shift in food alter their cultures? And what do chiles mean to chile eaters today? How the Chile Pepper Took Over the World, an exploration and article by Matt Gross for Medium.

Uncle Steve's Hot Stuff also has a page of Chile Pepper History, and while it's a bit hodge-podge and rambling, it's also pretty broad, even including some rare breeds, including Capsicum pubescens and Capsicum baccatum, both native to Bolivia and Peru and not found too far from their origins. But there is no mention of the spicy, precious Hatch chile that is coveted around the world — but whose future is in jeopardy (Elizabeth Kuster for Mic, Nov. 16, 2018), perhaps considering it covered by the broader Capsicum annuum discussion, of which the Hatch chiles are cultivars and variants.

Really, how can you cover all the myriad of chile or chili cultivars and products, even the notable ones, and do them justice? Like Sambal, a Pungent Reminder of Home and Hardship (Natalie Pattillo for the New York Times, writing of the spicy chile paste, born in Southeast Asian villages and passed down through generations; previously), or Gochujang (/ˈkɔːtʃuːdʒæŋ/, from Korean: 고추장; gochu-jang [ko.tɕʰu.dʑaŋ]) or red chili paste, is a savory, sweet, and spicy fermented condiment made from chili powder, glutinous rice, meju (fermented soybean) powder, yeotgireum (barley malt powder), and salt, which was using black peppers and chopi before the introduction of chili peppers (Wikipedia).

If you are looking for recipes, Chili Pepper Madness isn't a bad place to start, and the site's chief chilihead, Mike, also has information on types of chili peppers, from mild and sweet to super hot.

And if you're wondering if it's "chile," "chili," or "chilli," the answer isn't going to help too much. All three may be correct depending on the usage and locale, per the Scoville Heat Scale website.
posted by filthy light thief (35 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
Larry Gonick also goes into a bit of detail on this subject for his excellent Cartoon History of the Universe series.
posted by NoMich at 7:53 AM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you like the flavor of hot chili peppers but the heat is not your thing, may I introduce you to aji dulce, peppers that look and even smell like nasty little burners but have little or no heat to them. I’ve been mixing them into almost everything I’ve cooked this past year. They have little in common with sweet banana peppers or bell peppers. They’re highly addictive and have none of the gastric consequences.
posted by ardgedee at 8:05 AM on November 20, 2018 [12 favorites]

This is why I tell Americans who complain about how hot some Indian food is: "It's all your fault!" 😛

Before Europeans invaded the Americas, the hottest thing in our food was black pepper.
posted by splitpeasoup at 8:18 AM on November 20, 2018 [15 favorites]

If you like the flavor of hot chili peppers but the heat is not your thing, may I introduce you to aji dulce

Thanks! I am also a huge fan of the New Mexico Hatch green chiles, which vary greatly in heat, but can be pretty mild but have a fantastic, unique flavor. More than heat, it's an earthiness that I now adore. Sadly, I can't eat it with every meal because my stomach starts to revolt, but I have a giant pre-prepared container of green Hatch chile salsa in my fridge, which makes me so very happy.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:21 AM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

This has affected my lunch plans. :)
posted by kevinbelt at 8:22 AM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sambal is my go to with rice and a boiled egg.
posted by infini at 8:32 AM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I discovered hot chillies wayyyy back in high school (that would be the 70's to you) It's been nothing but love ever since. As a matter of fact, I have about 15+ lbs. of roasted Hatch chilies in my freezer right now, divided up in small snack-size baggies, so I can get my Hatch fix year-round.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:37 AM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

My roommate grew some Carolina Reapers this year, and then, like a total dude, decided to eat part of one. He informed me that he was going to do it, and a couple of minutes later he was groaning about how he was going to vomit.

Reader, I ate a piece of that same pepper. "Yeah, it's pretty hot," I said. Sadly he did not have the necessary focus for me to stare him dead in the eye as I said it.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:47 AM on November 20, 2018 [11 favorites]

The "Columbian Exchange" WRT chiles was in fact the subject of my MA thesis; can't wait to dig in!
posted by aspersioncast at 8:47 AM on November 20, 2018 [11 favorites]

If anyone just likes to look at pictures of chilis, Jean Andrews did a series of excellent botanical drawings of capsicums; you can still find nice reproductions online.

Also I've been growing bonchi (capsicum bonsai) for several years now; highly rewarding.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:52 AM on November 20, 2018 [14 favorites]

Learning that bonchis exist just made the rest of my day better.
posted by Quasirandom at 9:32 AM on November 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

A quick search of my posting history says that I've never told either of my Grad School Chili Pepper stories on MeFi. So, since lab is quiet right now, storytime.

Necessary background: when Dr Bored for Science and I joined the lab we did our PhDs in (we started dating a semester into grad school), the lab head and all of the senior grad students and postdocs were chili-heads. Now, I like spicy, but I've never been tempted to play the "what's the hottest thing I can eat" game. The head of the lab kept ground ghost peppers in the lab kitchen to amp up his lunch.

So, back in October 2010, I'd been doing some infused vodka experiments. Mostly because I'd gone to Berkeley Bowl and found dirt-cheap raspberries, infused vodka with them and made an amazing raspberry liquor. So, I asked the lab, which at the time had a Friday drinking culture, what people wanted me to make. Got some requests for lemoncello, which I made, but that's not the focus of this story. The head of the lab asked for something spicy. OK, so I went to Berkeley Bowl the next weekend, bought half a pound of habaneros, stemmed them, tossed them in a jar with a bottle of vodka for a week, and then decanted the resulting straw-yellow liquid and brought it to lab. He had about 15ml on an empty stomach, got hiccups instantly, and said it felt like being punched in the stomach for ten minutes. He did sign my dissertation a few years later, so I don't think he bore too much of a grudge, but it was, perhaps, his first inkling that his new grad student didn't believe in moderation when it comes to food. What really drove that home was the fifteen pounds of sour gummy worms the next fall, but that's a different story.

The bottle of Habanero Pain subsequently lived in the lab freezer for a few years, occasionally being used in bloody marys, and being foisted on new lab members. Since the latter really isn't a great practice, I eventually reclaimed the bottle... and I have about an ounce of this creation left. In an eyedropper bottle. With warning labels. I hadn't so much made an infused vodka, but rather artisanal pepper spray. I have found one person who genuinely likes it, but he grew up in New Mexico, and I gather is accustomed to a level of baseline chili that's somewhat disconcerting.

About a year after the creation of Habanero DOOOOOOM, Dr Bored for Science and I found a bottle of million-scoville chili oil on a trip, and gave it to our advisor along with a blunt-tipped syringe for dosing it out (it didn't, for instance, have an eyedropper, so you needed something). This was a mistake, because at the lab party where we gave it to him, most of the lab (those who wanted!) decided to play Russian roulette with the contents of a crudité platter, where they'd grab a handful of cherry tomatoes, say, poke holes in all of them, and inject ~2cc of this chili oil into one of them. They played two rounds. The same grad student lost (or won, depending on your outlook) both rounds.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 9:56 AM on November 20, 2018 [28 favorites]

Here's a list of New World foods unavailable elsewhere before Columbus: corn, potato, tomato, bell pepper, chili pepper, vanilla, beans, pumpkin, cassava root, avocado, peanut, pecan , cashew, pineapple, blueberry, sunflower, quinine, wild rice, cacao (chocolate), gourds, and squash...
posted by jim in austin at 10:18 AM on November 20, 2018 [21 favorites]

I just had a Thanksgiving office potluck and a coworker brought a dry red chili, dried shrimp, and fried shallot condiment from Myanmar. I work in a pretty great office. I had the stuff on mashed potatoes, stuffing, and green bean casserole. It's going to be hard to go back to eating those foods without hot and funky Burmese chili.
posted by ParticularPoncho at 10:38 AM on November 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

I had a conversation about food recently where we started talking about chili peppers being indigenous to the Americas and then went over how many countries signature cuisines were only introduced to those countries in the last couple of centuries (potatoes in Ireland, pasta in Italy, chilis in Thailand, etc...) pretty fascinating...
posted by youthenrage at 10:43 AM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Fascinating. It's one of those things that people tend not to think of, like the presence of tomatoes in Italian food or potatoes in Irish or German food, that are recent additions historically but now seem so central to the style that it's hard to imagine not having them.

Are there examples of southern Indian or maybe Thai recipes (or Szechuan, or any of the other chile-heavy regional cuisines) that would have been common before the Columbian Exchange and are still popular in more-or-less unchanged form?

I guess since Szechuan peppers are native to Asia you would have that as a possible component of the flavor profile, but Szechuan peppers are so often paired with chiles I can't really imagine what e.g. bang bang ji or other recipes that commonly use them would taste like without the heat. Huh.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:57 AM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

If I wasn't sure that 15th Century food was a disgusting glop of random stuff boiled over a flame ("It's flame-boiled!" the commercials used to say), I would want a cookbook of all these pre-Columbian cuisines, before they incorporated chiles so thoroughly after finding out they existed.
posted by rhizome at 11:02 AM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

We went on a family holiday recently to visit some friends in California and while there we ate an enormous amount of Mexican food. It was here my young son discovered that he really likes chiles. It has been fun to watch him try different hot sauces and chiles to see what he likes - Sriracha has been his gateway chile sauce but he definitely marvelled at the myriad of chile combinations present in Mexican food, particularly the fruitier flavoured chiles. As a chilihead parent I couldn't have been prouder!
posted by Ashwagandha at 11:06 AM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've always wondered this myself, thanks for posting.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 11:06 AM on November 20, 2018

There has to be someone who has an index of historical cooking documents, it's the kind of thing I know someone has to be interested in enough to do....

That's where I would look for examples of recipes from before the Columbian exchange: historical cooking documents.


Not exactly what I'm looking for, but there's a Chinese one listed from the 1300s. I wonder what there is from Thailand or SE Asia. I'm going to keep looking around to see if I can find more.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:11 AM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

dry red chili, dried shrimp, and fried shallot condiment from Myanmar

Ngapi! It's the best stuff. There's a Thai restaurant near me that sells containers of house-made, and they are so great when I want a quick meal and don't want to cook. Dump a bunch of rice and pair with a side of cold veggies, so good and fast.
posted by tavella at 11:24 AM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food is a great book about cooking and eating in the days of yore.
posted by ssmith at 11:35 AM on November 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

I read a great article one time about a traditional women's cooking festival in India, all of whose recipes were distinguished by not having any chile in them. The theory was this community had preserved pre-Columbian cooking techniques in their festival, a set of fossil recipes. Ring any bells for anyone? 50/50 I saw it on MeFi.

Here's some other links on pre-Columbian Indian food: one, two. Common theme is the use of black pepper for heat. Indian food is full of elaborate spices though, capsicum is just one element. I'm really curious about pre-Columbian foods in intensely chile forward cuisines like Thai.
posted by Nelson at 11:36 AM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's not recipes but one book I've seen refered to a number of times in scholarship regarding India and pre-Colombian food is B.G.L. Swamy's Namma hotteyalli Dakshina amerika, I've never read the book (I've never seen an English translation) but it covers the botanical introductions from the Americas into India. Curry: A Tale of Cooks And Conquerors covers a bit of the history of Indian food in a fairly lively way. In a quick search I stumbled on A Soup for the Qan: Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era As Seen in Hu Sihui's Yinshan Zhengyao which looks interesting.
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:05 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Cooking from the Archives concentrates on mostly English recipes from the 17th and 18th century. Can't recall any capsicums at all in their recipes, or any other New World ingredients. There's even a Maccarony and Cheese with sherry that I've made - surprisingly delicious.

Polish cuisine is surprisingly rare in capsicums in recipes that aren't Hungarian import. Proper eye-watering fresh horseradish seems to be enough for most. (Potatoes, on the other hand, are a must. I hear that before they were available, we ate kasha.)
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:34 PM on November 20, 2018

Are there examples of southern Indian or maybe Thai recipes (or Szechuan, or any of the other chile-heavy regional cuisines) that would have been common before the Columbian Exchange and are still popular in more-or-less unchanged form?

Not that many! Capsicum seems to have been pretty universally adapted into world cuisine, and started showing up in Vedic and Chinese medical texts almost immediately (in cultural exchange terms anyway). Kimchee was basically sauerkraut until chilies were introduced to the peninsula. Or ghoulash? Don't get me started on ghoulash.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:44 PM on November 20, 2018

That breakfast of toast with poached egg and Scotch bonnet slivers sounds amazing, although I’d be tempted to add to it by tempering with some fat (like a beurre blanc, nothing so heavy that it draws attention to itself) and then maybe sprinkle some green onions and grate a little manchego on top.
posted by invitapriore at 8:40 PM on November 20, 2018

Just had a delicious dinner of ngapi on jasmine rice with a side of carrot salad, inspired by the above. Chilis are the best.
posted by tavella at 9:04 PM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was going to compliment you on your usage of the correct spelling of “chile”, but then I saw who posted this, and well, of course a fellow New Mexico resident would spell it correctly!

This past September, my SO visited me here in southern NM as a prerequisite to moving here, and the one place he insisted we had to go was to the Chili Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, to replenish his supply of the ghost pepper mustard I sent him, which is really amazing stuff. While we were there, we discovered they also make ghost pepper ketchup, so he bought a bottle, thinking it would be “interesting”. Reader, he has since declared it the Best Thing Ever, and ever since has been bemoaning the fact that he didn’t buy several bottles. Guess what he’s getting for Christmas?
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:45 PM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Making note of the two Peruvian species mentioned above for my trip to Lima in January...!
posted by Sheydem-tants at 3:38 AM on November 21, 2018

I’m in bhutan right now and just about everything there has chili in it. The rooftops are covered with chili’s that are drying in the sun. The national dish: Ema Datshi is chili with cheese. I’ve never been to a place where chili is so ubiquitous. It’s one of the most isolated place on earth yet chili completely took over at some point.
posted by SageLeVoid at 5:44 AM on November 21, 2018

I believe that Mexican cuisine uses more chilies than any other on the planet.
posted by DJZouke at 6:11 AM on November 21, 2018

This was a great article and all the comments are great viewpoints and I love chilis and I'm very happy right now
Also I might have to grow a bonchi. Does anyone know what variety gives those purple peppers?
posted by Adridne at 7:11 AM on November 21, 2018

I can't imagine how boring and shitty world cuisine was before chiles. Like, italian food without tomato and peppers... what even? Peppers of all kinds seem like such fundamental components to almost any dish. I can't remember the last time I cooked without involving at least one kind of pepper somewhere along the way.
posted by GoblinHoney at 9:51 AM on November 21, 2018

« Older "Classic acid house, with a german accent"   |   There may be some real life fallout Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments