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The Chili Pepper Arms Race Rages On

The Chili Pepper Arms Race Rages On

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For the past few years, chili growers from all around the world have been fighting to breed the hottest chili pepper. Now, the competition is more deadly than ever with the heat being raised over 14 million Scoville units over the past three years, the Wall Street Journal reports.

In 2010, Gerald Fowler’s Naga Viper pepper was measured for 1.382 million Scoville Heat Units and named the hottest pepper grown in the Guinness World Book of Records. Only four months after the Naga Viper’s crowning, chili grower Alex de Wit and his brother created the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T. with 1.464 million Scovilles, which ended up stealing the title.

Although the Butch T. holds the current title as the hottest pepper, even more potent breeds have been created. Alex and Marcel de Wit, who own the Chilli Factory in Morisset, Australia, are planning to submit a more powerful form of the Butch T. pepper to Guinness; Paul Bosland, head of New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute, claimed to break 2 million Scovilles with his new Trinidad Moruga Scorpion; Nick Moore of Dr. Burnörium’s Hot Sauce Emporium is about to unveil his Psycho Serum which has 6.4 million Scovilles; and New Jersey entrepreneur Blair Lazar released his Blair’s 16 Million Reserve with pure capsaicin crystals, which topped our list of spiciest hot sauces this year.

Considering there are peppers and sauces out there with such high potency, it might come as no surprise that ingesting these sauces can be quite dangerous.

“After 800,000 Scoville units, you've got to be careful," Alex de Wit told the Journal. "You'll pay the consequences—you'll be on the floor for hours. We've had people go to the hospital.”

Although it is rare, chili peppers have put people in the hospital. In 2012, chef Arif Ali collapsed when he tried his restaurant’s “ultimate flaming hot chicken wings” with ghost chili pepper sauce, and over 100 Fed Ex workers were hospitalized after a barrel of chili pepper extract (capsaicin) was punctured. Chili extract can burn the skin, so chili growers make sure to handle the peppers with protection.

"Once you break them open, you have to be very, very careful," Paul Bosland told the Wall Street Journal. "We put on almost a hazmat suit—full body coveralls, a breathing apparatus and a hat."

Although it can be dangerous to some and requires protection to process, chili peppers will keep getting hotter and hotter. Now, 16 million Scovilles later, the competition still rages on as we wait for the next scorching pepper to make it into the spotlight.

Skyler Bouchard is a junior writer for the Daily Meal. Follow her on twitter at @skylerbouchard.

Chili Pepper Simple Syrup – Sweet and Spicy Addition to Your Cocktails

This quick, easy, and spicy simple syrup is a great addition to your cocktail! I like at least one dash of hot sauce in my food so what could be wrong with a little kick in my drink? Not what you were expecting when I said the sauce was it?

Since there are peppers in my drink technically the sauce is technically my veggies&hellip Here&rsquos where my train of thought started. When I was lucky enough to go to the Kentucky Derby in 2013, I was looking for a drink with a little kick.

Here we are in the Derby! Check out my hat![/caption]

If you&rsquod rather skip my (very helpful, I think) tips and tricks, essential cooking info, and similar recipe ideas &ndash and get straight to this delicious recipe &ndash simply scroll to the bottom of the page where you can find the printable recipe card.

How did the chili pepper simple syrup come about?

I am still drinking vodka cranberries but recently I found a habanero and lime syrup that I have been adding to my cranberry concoction. At the Kentucky Derby, I asked the bartender if he had any such syrup on hand.

He said no but mentioned that he had some Tabasco behind the bar. Why not give that a try, especially since he promised he would make me a new one if I didn&rsquot like it, as I had nothing to lose.

He threw a few dashes into my glass with a squeeze of lime and off I went. These few drops made the day (besides the fact that I was at the DERBY and a few feet from the horses) and it turned out to be my new favorite drink.

Aside from the Oaks Lily Cocktail, of which I tossed back a few while there. Ever since then I have been throwing a kick in all of my drinks. I find it opens up the flavors of each ingredient. That sounded a little snooty and food writery but it is true.

Also, I hear that spicy foods are great for your metabolism so if I&rsquom tossing back a few drinks I want my metabolism working overtime to get exterminate those calories, otherwise my New Year&rsquos Resolutions are going to be over before they had a chance to marinate.

This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Read my disclosure policyhere.

How do I make the chili pepper simple syrup?

The basic recipe for simple syrup is one part sugar and one part water. Boil the water and dissolve the sugar. Pretty simple right? It is which is why I hate to buy it but when I saw that Habanero one I did pay the money for that one. After going through a lot of that I had to learn to start making my own.

To infuse flavors, herbs, and citrus into simple syrup is easy too, it just takes a little extra time.

I was not about to bring in some Habanero peppers as I wear contacts and I have had many a hot pepper juice get on my fingers and ruin some contact lenses to say nothing of the pain in my eye.

I went with something a little tamer and used a mixture of serrano and jalapeno peppers to make my chili pepper simple syrup. Just chop and add to the simple syrup. Let them steep in the hot syrup for 10-15 minutes then remove them.

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Removing the peppers will leave a slight hint of the heat in the syrup but I prefer to have it a little stronger so I kept the peppers in the syrup and pureed the whole thing. After you strain the pepper seeds out you can store the syrup in a food safe container for a few weeks.

Pureeing the peppers gives the syrup a light green color whereas if you remove them you will just be left with some heat in a clear syrup. The pureed peppers lend a little pulp-like texture to your cocktail so if you like that, I recommend blending it all together. Go big or go home!

If you are looking to add another level to your libations, this chili pepper simple syrup will do just that.

Let’s Talk Food: It’s all about chili peppers

Photo courtesy of AUDREY WILSON A chili pepper tree loaded with red chilies.

Chili peppers are an integral part of many foods around world.


Portuguese and Spanish explorers and sailors are credited for bringing chili peppers with them on their travels and introducing them to the many countries to which they traveled. It was in 1492 that Christopher Columbus set out from Spain to look for a new route to Asia to seek out black pepper, which was so expensive it was used to pay rent and taxes. But instead he found the chili pepper that became the fiery flavors in Indian, Chinese and Thai cooking.

For the many poor people around the world, chilies were an affordable, easy way to grow spice that grew in many climates, and the small burst of flavor was welcome in the slums of Asia and West Africa. The other aspect of the chili pepper is that once eaten, according to Indian cook Madhur Jaffrey, it &ldquoprovides a high, there is no going back. It turns into a craving. The chili is not so much a seed of change, as a conqueror, or better still, a master seducer.&rdquo

Within 30 years of Columbus&rsquo first journey, at least three different types of chili plants were growing in the Portuguese settlement of Goa, India. These chilies probably came from Brazil via Lisbon, Portugal, and were used instead of black pepper.

The Portuguese spent a short time in Thailand and failed to convert the Thai people to Christianity, but they did succeed in changing the Thai way of cooking forever. You might say that chilies spread like wildfire to Thailand, Indonesia, Tibet, China and the rest of Asia.

What I find interesting is when you think of Japanese cuisine, you really don&rsquot think of chili pepper, but instead about foods flavored with soy sauce or miso. However, the Japanese have a condiment, shichimi togarashi, a seven-colored chili pepper that is commonly on the condiment table when noodles are on the menu.

A study at Cornell University by biologist Paul Sherman and colleague Jennifer Billings found that the capsaicin in peppers inhibits the growth of bacteria that causes food poisoning such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria and the germ that causes staph infections. When they checked out the thousands of recipes around the world that used chili peppers, they found the chili peppers used more commonly in hot climates as foods are more likely to go bad than in cooler climates.

In another study by Sherman and Geoffrey Hash found in comparing meat recipes with vegetable recipes that &ldquomeat had the right pH and the right nutrients to encourage bacterial growth. Vegetables tend to be protected from spoiling by their cellulose cell walls and by some of the chemicals they contain. So if the hypothesis is right, spices would tend to be used more in meat recipes than vegetable recipes.&rdquo

Ulcers are not caused by hot foods that could irritate your stomach linings but instead by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. This bacteria triggers inflammation of the stomach lining, and in 1997 a study by the University of Toronto found that capsaicin actually inhibits the growth of H. pylori. Other studies show that hot peppers can protect the stomach by triggering the release of extra mucus that coats the stomach lining.

That since chili peppers are an antioxidant and rich in vitamins A and C, Peter Gannett of the University of West Virginia says experiments have shown that capsaicin can neutralize the cancer-causing substances commonly found in foods, such as nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic compounds.

Another study by researchers at the Hangyang University College in South Korea found a decreased risk of stomach cancer with increased consumption of Baiechu kimchi, which is made from cabbage. However there was an increased risk when the kimchi was made of salted radish, suggesting perhaps it is the salt, not the chili peppers, that might be the culprit.

In early July, jurors awarded Underwood Ranches, once the supplier of jalapeno peppers to Huy Fong Foods Inc., the makers of the famous sriracha hot sauce, $23.3 million in a heated dispute after a nearly 30 year partnership. Things fell apart in 2016 when Huy Fong demanded Underwood Ranches return more than $1 million that the manufacturer claimed was overpaid to the farm for growing costs. Underwood Ranches, in business since 1867 in Ventura County, had 1,700 acres dedicated to the growing of peppers for Huy Fong. When they stopped supplying Huy Fong with peppers, they had to lay off 45 workers and started to grow onions, cilantro, basil, and other crops where the Huy Fong peppers once grew.

Underwood Ranches now has a line of sauces, including a sriracha sauce.

In New Mexico there is a chili pepper called Hatch that is grown and harvested in the Hatch Valley region. They are actually a cultivar of the common New Mexican green chile developed at the Chile Institute at New Mexico University in the 1920s. There is even a Hatch Chile Festival during Labor Day weekend that draws 30,000 people to the little town of 2,000.

There are many varieties of Hatch Peppers: NuMex BigJim, NuMex Sandia, NuMex Joe E. Parker, New Mexico 6-4, NuMex Heritage 6-4, NuMex Heritage Big Jim Barker Extra Hot and NeMex R Naky. With all these varieties, the Scoville Heat Unit ranges from 1,000 to 8,000 SHU.

These peppers are earthy in flavor, with a bit more bite. Ripening them to red mellows the heat.

Benefits of Topical Capsaicin

A number of preliminary studies suggest that topical capsaicin may offer a variety of health benefits. Here's a look at findings from the available research.

Chronic Neuropathic Pain

In a 2017 review, researchers sized up eight previously published clinical trials.   These involved 2,488 participants) examining the effectiveness of a high-concentration capsaicin patch in people with chronic neuropathic pain (pain caused by damage to nerves, either from an injury or disease) from the following conditions:

The report revealed that a small number of participants who had the patch reported that they were "much" or "very much" improved after using the capsaicin patch.

A previous review concluded that the data on low-concentration capsaicin patches (containing less than 1% capsaicin) was insufficient to make any treatment recommendations and suggested that it was not effective.  

A high concentration (8%) capsaicin patch is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the management of postherpetic neuralgia pain. Due to the initial pain and burning sensation, the patch is applied under local anesthetic by a medical professional in a clinic or hospital setting.

Osteoarthritis Pain

In a report published in Osteoarthritis and Cartilage in 2014, medical experts evaluated evidence on the use of drug and non-drug treatments for osteoarthritis to provide guidelines for the management of knee osteoarthritis pain.  

In the report, capsaicin was deemed appropriate for people with osteoarthritis of the knee (rather than multi-joint osteoarthritis) who do not have other relevant health conditions.

Lower Back Pain

For a report published in Spine in 2016, researchers sized up previously published trials evaluating the effectiveness of herbal therapies (including capsaicin cream or a plaster) in people with low back pain, and found that capsaicin reduces pain more than a placebo.  

The authors noted, however, that additional trials are needed to compare the therapies to standard treatment.

Other Conditions

Topical capsaicin is also being explored for:

  • Itching   (a condition that can result from prolonged cannabis use)  
  • Pelvic pain    
  • As a second-line treatment for vulvodynia  

Ground beef chili recipe

Chili and rice go hand in hand. I’ve taken that concept to a new level and cook everything together in one pot!

Yes, chili with rice just became a one pot recipe and so very easy to make when your day has been crazy busy.

In just under an hour you will have a ground beef chili that’s brimming with green bell pepper, onion, corn, tomatoes, beans and rice. And best part of all, the rice cooks together with all that deliciousness!

One pot and done! Now that’s the kind of dinner that I like!

Love the ease of one pot cooking? Then you definitely must check out all of our one pot recipes. Recipes include skillet recipes, sheet pan recipes, casseroles and more!

Many People With Ulcerative Colitis Are Gluten Intolerant

Gluten sensitivity or intolerance is a growing issue among people with ulcerative colitis. In recent years, more people are reporting gastrointestinal symptoms and sensitivity to gluten without evidence of celiac disease, which causes a reaction to eating gluten, or the proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, and some oats. Blood tests, a biopsy, and response to a gluten-free diet can determine if celiac disease is responsible for causing abdominal symptoms like cramping, diarrhea, or pain that can be mistaken for UC symptoms. Eliminating gluten will ease the additional symptoms if tests show that you do have celiac disease.

Histamine Intolerance: Not Your Typical Food Allergy!

Deficiency in the DAO enzyme system, found in the intestinal mucosa, has been suggested as the most probable cause of histamine intolerance. (2) There are likely genetic variations in individual enzyme function, but when activity of either of these enzymes is insufficient, the resulting excess of histamine may cause numerous symptoms resembling an allergic reaction. Common symptoms of histamine intolerance include: (3)

  • Pruritus (itching especially of the skin, eyes, ears, and nose)
  • Urticaria (hives) (sometimes diagnosed as “idiopathic urticaria”)
  • Tissue swelling (angioedema) especially of facial and oral tissues and sometimes the throat, the latter causing the feeling of “throat tightening”
  • Hypotension (drop in blood pressure)
  • Tachycardia (increased pulse rate, “heart racing”)
  • Symptoms resembling an anxiety or panic attack
  • Chest pain
  • Nasal congestion, runny nose, seasonal allergies
  • Conjunctivitis (irritated, watery, reddened eyes)
  • Some types of headaches that differ from those of migraine
  • Fatigue, confusion, irritability
  • Very occasionally loss of consciousness usually lasting for only one or two seconds
  • Digestive upset, especially heartburn, “indigestion”, and reflux

Histamine intolerance is unlike other food allergies or sensitivities in that the response is cumulative, not immediate. Imagine it like a cup of water. When the cup is very full (high amounts of histamine in the diet), even a drop of additional water will cause the cup to overflow (symptoms activated). But when the cup is less full, it would take more water (histamine) to cause a response. This makes histamine intolerance tricky to recognize.

In addition, histamine intolerance is closely related to SIBO and dysbiosis, which suggests that curing the latter may alleviate the former. Many integrative practitioners, including myself, believe that a primary cause of histamine intolerance is an overgrowth of certain types of bacteria that make histamine from undigested food, leading to a buildup of histamine in the gut and overwhelming the body’s ability to catabolize the excess histamine. This causes a heightened sensitivity to histamine-containing foods and an increase in symptoms that are commonly associated with allergies.

For more detailed information on histamine intolerance, including causes, symptoms, and treatment, check out this article by Dr. Janice Joneja, a Ph.D. in medical microbiology and immunology and former head of the Allergy Nutrition Program at the Vancouver Hospital and Health Sciences Centre.

3. There’s a whole world beyond Worcestershire.

A good Bloody also exhibits a depth of flavor. It can’t just taste like tomato. For devotees of author Ernest Hemingway’s famous recipe, that extra flavor comes from some pretty simple ingredients: Worcestershire, lime, salt, black pepper and cayenne. For modern Bloody makers, it can mean all sorts of things. Instead of Worcestershire, for instance, Seabury likes to use balsamic vinegar. “I think it adds a great tang to it,” she says. Seabury is also a big fan of fresh herbs, everything from cilantro and parsley to Thai basil.

For her own winning Bloody, Brooklyn victor Marisa Cadena sought inspiration from a specific childhood flavor memory: her grandmother’s enchiladas. Her recipe incorporated roasted tomatoes, toasted cumin, tamarind, lime and four different kinds of chili peppers, among other things. She actually used more tamarind than tomato. Cadena says people focus too much on the tomato and not enough on flavor complexity. “The fun part about a Bloody is that it can hit all parts of your palate — your sweet, your savory, your spicy, your tangy. It’s all in one drink,” she says. “It’s meant to be a meal unto itself.”

The Trail of Fire: The Story of the Chili Pepper

In the opening scene of Johanna Sinisalo’s surreal novel, The Core of the Sun, a desperate young lady named Vanna, meets an illicit substance dealer in the dark corner of a graveyard at night. As he administers a powerful narcotic into her nether regions, Vanna feels a sublime heat spread quickly across her body and her troubles seem to disappear in the ensuing rush of pleasure and pain. The substance in question is called capsaicin, the alkaloid compound found inside of chili peppers that gives them their characteristic heat. In this strange dystopian novel in which a near future Finnish government is keen on controlling the health and safety of every citizen, Vanna’s chili pepper addiction is an act of subversion that eventually leads her down a long rabbit hole into a bizarre underworld where she discovers an otherworldly specimen of chili called “the core of the sun”. This otherworldly pepper promises more than mere physical burn and delivers Vanna a transcendent spiritual experience in which the boundaries between herself and the outside world begin to fade.

Cover of the first edition of Johanna Sinisalo’s chili-themed novel, The Core of the Sun

There are, of course, plenty of plants that have addictive properties and others that have caused more than one person to believe they were Jesus Christ reincarnated, but few of us associate chili peppers with these sorts of experiences. Nonetheless, Sinisalo’s wonderfully bizarre work of fiction is an exaggeration of a truth that is undeniable to any chilihead out there there is something of a mind-altering process that is often delivered through heavily spiced food. It is an experience that can sharpen our focus and pull us to complete awareness of the present moment. It’s called pain. Yet, like Vanna many of us keep coming back for more. Perhaps we should not be so quick to dismiss the quasi-mystical properties of the chili pepper.

Those of us who are always keen to sample new hot sauces, ingest heavily pepper-laden dishes, and step willingly into the laboratory to test out the increasingly potent new strains of chilies are not simply looking to simulate the feeling of fire in our mouths. Though I freely admit to a persistent desire to test the limits of my endurance, there is more to the experience of eating spicy food than just testing my pain threshold. There is a spectrum of sensation that exists between the pleasant warmth delivered by a good curry or salsa that tingles around the mouth and throughout the head, and that of utter panic as every pore of our skin begins to scream for release from the burning within. The former is bolstered by the fact that our brains respond to the “burn” produced by capsaicin in chilies by releasing pleasure-inducing endorphins and dopamine that give the experience a joy that transcends the good flavor of a spicy dish. Conversely, there is a seemingly endless supply of Youtube videos demonstrating the other end of the spectrum. They feature people who venture to eat the hottest peppers on the market and usually end in tears and maybe a little bit of vomiting. Some chili exploits even result in serious injury, as is the case of the man who ripped open his esophagus as the result of ingesting an extremely spicy variety called a ghost pepper and another who was tested for brain damage several days after eating an even spicier Carolina Reaper. I think most of us agree there is a sweet spot between these two types of experiences. To the degree we chase that feeling, willing to bear discomfort in search of that perfect level of heat, many of us share something like Vanna’s addiction to chilies and the capsaicin that fuels their bite.

When we speak of the heat produced by chilies, we are in fact talking about something that is a bit of an illusion. Neither capsaicin nor any part of the pepper produces any actual heat and the tissues in our mouth are not actually being exposed to higher temperatures. The alkaloid compound does however interact with the pain receptors in our mouths and our GI tract, the same ones that would respond if we were to dump boiling waters down our throats. The capsaicin tricks our nervous system into believing that something inside us is on fire, a tactile hallucination that gives further credence to the otherworldly quality of the pepper.

The level of heat in an individual pepper is measured by something called Scoville units based on a scale developed in 1912 by a pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville. Though it is a subjective measure – trained testers report when they can no longer register heat after the capsacinoids of a particular pepper type are diluted in sugar water – it is the standard means of determining a chili’s heat level. Human beings, apparently undeterred by the pepper’s natural heat shield have actually worked to exponentially increase those defenses to the point of culinary masochism. It has become an arms race to practically weaponize the capsaicin levels of our favorite spicy food. As of right now Pepper X, registering at three million on the Scoville scale (by comparison, a jalapeño maxes out at about eight thousand) has unseated Dragon’s Breath (which only recently took the title from the former champ, Carolina Reaper). Perhaps one day soon we will be seeing pepper spray tacos or pure capsaicin Thai noodles, foods that would best be eaten with medical professionals on had to monitor.

Chart displaying Scoville units for various varieties of peppers. Note: Pepper X, a new strain developed by Ed Currie of Rock Hill, SC. in 2018 reportedly topped 3 million Scoville heat units.

The heat in the chili pepper is the result of the plant’s engaging in one of life’s most basic biological functions, that of self-defense. Capsaicin likely evolved to protect against invasive fungi who would have found attempts to colonize the chili a most unpleasant experience. All mammals share the same capsaicin-sensitive receptors that humans possess and this offers another layer of protection from rodents who like to chew up seeds and thereby destroy their reproductive potential. Birds however are immune to capsaicin’s effects and, being toothless, don’t damage the seeds they eat. As a result, chilies benefit from being eaten by birds who then spread the seeds as they fly away and leave seed-filled droppings in distant locations. For reasons that sociologists, philosophers, biologists, and my wife are yet unable to answer, human beings have chosen to override that pain response and to actually continue to pursue ways to increase its potency. From an evolutionary perspective this has been good for the chili pepper. Birds may have begun the spread of the chili’s genes to far flung areas, but it is humanity’s inexplicable desire to experience what other mammals instinctively avoid, that has brought the pepper to every corner of the globe.

Capsaicin is primarily located in the white pulp of a chili, not, as is commonly believed, in its seeds.

It would be easy to view our species’ masochistic gastronomy as another example of modern world boredom, where human beings who are evolutionary wired to live in a dangerous world, yet who have been softened by the luxuries of modernity seek adventure in controlled and often banal forms a low-cost vision quest for slackers whose negative effects can be cured with a few bites of ice cream. Yet, the chili pepper has a very long history as an object of both human desire and a feature of our folklore. The premise of a modern-day science fiction novel about a transcendent chili pepper would perhaps not seem so far-fetched to the humans who discovered these marvelous foods millennia ago.

It is difficult to determine where exactly where the chili originated, but it may have first evolved in the rain forests of what is today, Bolivia where humans began eating them around eight thousand years ago. Over time they spread with the help of birds and probably nomadic humans who picked the wild plants and carried them on their journeys to new lands. The earliest evidence of cultivation comes from central Mexico more than six thousand years ago where a type of dried Capsicum annuum the genus that includes such popular types as jalapeño, cayenne, and poblano was found in a multiple caves where humans stored food.

Dried chili remains from Silvia’s Cave, Oaxaca Valley, Mexico. These peppers were harvested sometime between the 7th and 16th centuries. Photo from PNAS.

I wish it were possible to see a video of the first person to sample a chili pepper and the conversations that it prompted. The varying thoughts on what had just happened to their mouths. Were they frightened or enthralled? Or maybe some mix of the two? What were the first stories that came out of this experience?

They apparently made enough of a good impression to inspire taking a second bite. Chilies were a central part of the cuisines of peoples living in what is today Latin America and the Caribbean. Mesoamerican food varied by region, but as a whole the plants and protein sources available to the average person would have been the envy of the bulk of the Eurasian population. As with any other culture, food served as part of the daily ritual and also for important festivals and sacred days. Religious fasts often involved abstinence from eating chilies a fact that highlights their importance in the every day diet. Staples ranged from corn (maize) in the north, potatoes in the south, lots of varieties of squash, beans, and tomatoes, and proteins that ranged from turkeys and fish, to various insects and hairless dogs, all were usually flavored with chilies. Some ritual foods, particularly chocolate drinks in Aztec and Mayan dinners were frequently flavored by chilies as well, so much so that sixteenth century Spanish ethnographer called this ancient hot chocolate, “chili water”. In Aztec culture, ritual cannibalism, usually involved stewing the meat of captured prisoners who had been sacrificed and dismembered. Generally, these stews were unseasoned, but in times of famine, when these sacrifices greatly increased and human meat made more widely available, it might be spiced up with chilies.

Aztec men feasting, illustration from the Florentine Codex, 16th century

The historical traces of pre-Colombian American myth and folklore do suggest that these strange spicy peppers were seen as otherworldly by those who first encountered them. The Inca associated the heat of the chili with the power of lightning. Their creation story tells of the coming of the legendary first king of the empire, Manco Cápac and his three brothers who conquered the world and built an empire. One brother named, Ayar Uchu considered the chili to be a sacred plant (his name translates to “Brother Chili”). In a Mayan folktale, the sun fell in love with an Earth girl but her overprotective father tried to end the affair by shooting his daughter’s would-be-suitor star from the sky. The sun saw it coming and tried to defend itself by putting dried chili powder in the angry father’s blowgun. When he took a breath to shoot he inhaled the spicy pepper and died, but not before the dart was fired and hit its mark. The theretofore temperate star was “spiced up” by the chili-covered dart and that is how the sun got its heat. In a tale of the Zuni heroes, Ahaiyuta and Matsailema, the chili was born in the spot where the pair buried their grandmother. The plant grew fruits that, like a loving but cranky elder was wholesome, but could deliver a sharp bite.

Mayan shamans used the pepper in a concoction that included tobacco and other wild growing plants to help them on mystical journeys to higher states of consciousness. The spicy peppers were used in Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec cultures for medicinal purposes often as an anti-inflammatory and antibiotic used to treat ailments like respiratory infections and bowel discomfort. There was a potion in Aztec medicinal lore that mixed ground chilies with cacao and vanilla, not for use as a high end caffeinated beverage, but as an aphrodisiac. In other native cultures, men rubbed raw chilies on their genitals to cause a numbing affect that prolonged sexual pleasure.

When burned chilies give off a harsh, stinging smoke and this was seen to be a protective force from evil spirits during burial rites. It also kept vermin out of food stores, two acts that were probably seen as equally practical. The Mixe and Zoque peoples of Central America filled tombs of the departed with pots full of chilies, presumably to either protect or sustain the spirits of the dead, or maybe both. The Inca, however banned the presence of chilies at a funeral, likely due to the high value of the crop. In Central America, newborn babies had their feet rubbed by chilies, presumably as an antiseptic of sorts to ensure good health and protection from evil. In the Caribbean, long strands of chilies were tied to the back of boats to ward off sharks. After the Spanish conquests, chili peppers maintained their protective qualities even amidst the newfound devotion to Christianity. Late seventeenth century historian, Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán, one the first historians of the new world, recommended to all who listen to eat chilies as a form of protection against poison.

In Mexico, a home that had been the target of maleficio, or black magic could be exorcised by walking from room to room with a pot of smoking chilies mixed with other herbs and spices. The inside of an ancho chili could be used to rub the skin of a child who had fallen victim to the evil eye. The vampiric luban oko, or red demon of the Amazon could be held at bay either by burning chilies or by making sure all food is spiced heavily with them so the fiend will not eat, thereby ensuring that it dies of either asphyxiation or starvation. To this day entryways to homes, stores, and churches can be seen with hanging ristras, strings of dried chilies meant to keep the home healthy and to discourage witches and malevolent spirits from entering. Chilies could also be used for evil purposes. In Cuba it is a sure sign that you’ve been bewitched or cursed with “hot foot” if you wake to find chili pods outside of your door. In Mexican lore, there is a potion that can be used to kill that mixes various types of peppers with dried scorpions and other types of venomous bugs. One can be forgiven for wondering if the removal of the peppers would reduce the lethality of this concoction.

Ristras – strings of dried chili hanging outside of windows in New Mexico.

Among Pueblo peoples of what today is the southwestern United States, particularly the Hopi and Zuni there are supernatural beings called the kachina who are physical manifestations of spirits that represent important aspects of life and culture. They serve ceremonial and spiritual functions and also, by way of elaborate dances enacted in their name, are the actors in dramas both cosmic and local in scope. The Tsil Kachina, or chili pepper spirit is one of the more popular characters in this body of lore. He belongs to a class of kachinas, called runners who may show up to challenge children to a foot race. If the child wins, he or she can expect elaborate gifts, but if the kachina wins, he will stuff the child’s face with scalding chili peppers. Hopi artists have long depicted various kachinas in doll form and the tsil kachina appears holding a ristra or a bundle of peppers and wearing a crown of chilies on his head.

The pain-causing potential of capsaicin made it inevitable that human beings would figure out ways to turn chilies into weapons. Early Europeans learned this lesson rather quickly. After months of abuse at the hands of settlers who’d arrived with Columbus, the Taino people of Hispanola raided Fort La Isabela. They could not match the steel swords of the Spaniards, but by hurling gourds filled with ash and dried chilies over the walls that upon explosion, filled the air with clouds of eye and throat-stinging flakes they managed to kill a few of them. Later Spanish and Portuguese conquerors would contend with these and other forms of chili-based chemical warfare. Aztecs and Mayans filled gourds with chili peppers and water that caused the peppers to ferment and serve as an a rotted organic grenade full of crippling fumes and eye-scorching liquid. In Mexico, a group of rebels fighting against Aztec political domination, sealed quarters being used by emissaries of Montezuma and filled the room with burning chili smoke until the officials died of suffocation. Spanish viceroy Don Antonio de Mendoza commissioned a history of the Aztec people that became known as The Codex Mendoza. A section on daily life in an Aztec village shows a scene that depicts the use of chili in domestic discipline. One panel shows a boy held by his father over a pile of burning chilies, the noxious smoke filling his eyes and causing black tears to stream down his face. In another panel a mother holds her daughter near a similar smoky pile, apparently the threat was enough to deter her from misbehaving. I once inadvertently rubbed my eye after chopping jalapeños and I can vouch for the crippling power of capsaicin.

Top: Carved Tsil Kachina doll. Bottom: Section from the Codex Mendoza showing the disciplinary power of chili smoke.

With the arrival of Columbus on the island of Hispanola in October of 1492, life for American natives was about to change drastically. His coming ushered in centuries of misery for the natives as Europeans who followed showed an insatiable appetite for slaves and precious metals. But Columbus did not sail to the Americas primarily in search of these treasures. He was looking for a passage to the the East Indies, islands legendary as the place of origin for such exotic spices as ginger, clove, cinnamon, and most especially, pepper.

For millennia, wealthy Europeans had developed a taste for the spices of Asia, faraway lands that they often viewed in the same way children imagine the exotic worlds of their fairy tales. Eastern spices journeyed through complex trade networks that involved sea-faring Chinese ships, Indian entrepôts and overland Arab caravans, and wealthy Europeans spent great resources to obtain pepper from the Malabar Coast of India, Cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves from the Moluccas of the South Pacific, Ginger from China, Persian saffron and many other valuable spices from the places not well documented on their maps. These exotic flavors arrived in European ports dried, or preserved in oil and little, if any information could be easily discerned about their origins. As always seems to be the case, gaps in knowledge were filled in with the most wild imagery. Herotodus the great Greek father of history opined that cinnamon grew on tall mountains far to the East and it was retrieved by gigantic birds and ancient Minoan ruins depict carvings of saffron being cultivated by trained monkeys. Spices were imagined to have been born in Edenic paradises where strange creatures lurked. The mythic land of Cockaygne, popular in medieval European poetry and ballads imagined a Utopia where luxuries and pleasures were the norm and “…ginger and…nutmeg, Are what they use to pave the street”. Even in recent centuries, spices were thought to have amazing powers for healing and the manipulation of elemental forces. A peppercorn-like seed from Africa, known as melegueta pepper (Aframomum melegueta) is sometimes called grains of paradise, a magical name that reflected the belief that the spice could help sorcerers divine the future. Columbus was not just searching for an economic score, but also items of miraculous power.

Top: 17th century map of spice islands from Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth Australia. Bottom: 12th century depiction of pepper trees being guarded by magical serpents. Oxford University collection.

Columbus returned from his first trans-Atlantic journey a bit short of any of these mythic spices, though brought a few pieces of bark that he hoped might be cinnamon. In this sense, Columbus’ journey was a failure and it would take Portuguese explorers beginning with Vasco de Gama to open up the spice markets of Asia to direct trade with Europe. Columbus, did return to Spain with a handful of chilies, or as the natives called them, aji, that he found growing all over the island of Hispanola. He’d never seen anything like the chili, but decided because of its piquancy (and perhaps with a bit of wishful thinking) that it must be some kind of peppercorn, so he decided to call it pimienta, the Spanish word for “pepper”. We continue to live with this confusing name to this day, even though there is no botanical relationship between the chili and the peppercorn. Though the introduction of the chili to the Spanish court won Columbus little favor, the new plant quickly caught on and traveled across the globe.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes, English holidays without mashed potatoes, and French desserts without chocolate and vanilla. But no one in these lands had even a hint that such foods existed before Columbus set foot in the Western hemisphere. Nor were there Indian vindaloos, fiery Thai curries (which also lacked peanuts and pineapples), and the infamously spicy Sizchuan and Hunan cuisine of China was made so by a relatively mild local spice that has also been confused for peppercorns. There was no Hungarian paprika and Korean kimchi was made without gochugaru, the bright red chili powder that gives it the bright red color we all know. All of these foods are what they are because of the chili that became part of these cuisines after the fifteenth century. The so-called Columbian Exchange that brought the human beings from the Eastern and Western hemispheres together for the first time since the Bering Strait land bridge disappeared more than thirteen thousand years earlier resulted in a massive exchange in resources and culture The West was introduced to coffee and the East, tobacco. Americans got smallpox, Africans and Eurasians got syphilis, African slaves were carried across the globe in perhaps the most brutal economic exchange in human history, and wealth traveled generally in the direction of western Europe. A great deal of human misery occurred but so did the seeds of cultural evolution and through it all, the chili went along for the ride.

Top: Indian vindaloo. Bottom: Korean cabbage kimchi

As the chili journeyed across the globe it slid smoothly into different world cuisines, complimenting or sometimes replacing native roots and herbs as the major source of piquancy. The Portuguese arrived in Africa in the early 1500s to buy slaves, paid for in part with chili peppers. The new peppers took almost immediately to West African cuisines, often as a stand in for the native spice, melegueta pepper (a plant related to ginger that, like chilies, is yet another spice inaccurately called “pepper”). These new peppers so immediately ingrained in local food preparation, that when slaves brought recipes for chili pastes to the new world they often believed they had introduced the spicy peppers to the new world.

In India and Southeast Asia dishes spiced with peppercorns, mustard seeds and ginger found new levels of heat with the introduction of chilies. Again, the Portuguese are responsible for spreading the pepper across, the Indian subcontinent, today the world’s largest grower and consumer of these spicy peppers. Vasco de Gama had chilies with him when he arrived on the famed spice kingdom of the Malabar Coast in 1498 and Portuguese traders cultivated them when they established the outpost of Goa in 1510. A year later, a Portuguese diplomatic delegation introduced chilies to the kingdom of Ayutthaya (in what is today, Thailand). They arrived on the coast of China, establishing a trading post in 1513 at Macao. From these spots, the chili spread like (pardon the pun) fire and caused many local cuisines to evolve into a hotter direction.

Wherever it went, the chili brought not only its heat, but also its mystique. In India chilies began to replace other spices in both medicinal uses and for spiritual protection. Indian Ayurvedic medicine incorporated the new food into its system of well-being. Indians continue to hang wreaths of chilies that are reminiscent of Mexican ristras around their doors and windows for protection against supernatural threats. Similarly, there is a ritual in parts of India in which new born babies are blessed with a mix of lemon, ash, and chili peppers, burnt to ward off evil spirits. In Bhutanese homes where more than two pounds of chilies are consumed on average every week, peppers are still burned to ward off invisible demons, especially if someone in the home is sick. A chili pepper can also be dropped into a bottle of liquor to help keep the demon of drunkenness at bay. Chilies are burnt at Basque weddings as well, though not to ward off evil spirits as much as to invite those associated with fertility. The cornicello, or Italian horn is a talisman meant to protect against witches, vampires, and other nasty spirits is shaped like a chili pepper, perhaps as an attempt to call forth the pepper’s mystical properties.

Italian cornicello pendants

Chilies left the Americas and spread around the world quickly, but the Europeans whose colonial activities spread them adopted the peppers less uniformly. Spanish and Portuguese cuisine readily pulled them into their cuisines to spice native foods like chorizos and paellas. Every July where I live in southeastern Massachusetts there is a short window of time in which shepherd peppers are in season and the large local Portuguese population grabs them up to make pimenta moida, a crushed red pepper mash that gives Portuguese food much of its flair. To a lesser extent Italy also adopted the chili. Though it plays much less of a dominant role than it does in many other food traditions, I can’t imagine my pasta dishes without a sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes or salads without the addition of a bit of giardiniera, a spicy relish of pickled vegetables and chili peppers. In Eastern Europe paprika, a dried and crushed chili powder is an ingredient of central importance, but chilies took the scenic route in arriving there. In the bordering lands of central Europe traditional cuisine is historically bland and, in fact, has more readily embraced the the bell pepper, the only strand of pepper that doesn’t contain capsaicin. This is in large part because the early days of the chili’s global journey coincided with the Protestant Reformation and central European converts to the new faith were uninterested in dealing with Catholic enemies, cutting off Iberian and Italian peppers from the more moderate appetites of Northern Europe. Instead, the chili made its way into the Balkans and the goulashes of Hungary by migrating across Asia and into Eastern Europe by way of the Ottoman Empire.

Here in the United States we are a few days away from Cinco de Mayo, a holiday that commemorates the Mexican victory over France at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The day actually holds more importance for Americans eager to eat delicious Mexican food than it does for most Mexicans. Chilies were certainly present in English-speaking North America relatively early, however one does not think of old Yankee cuisine as having a great deal of spice. The peppers hardly became a feature of life for most Anglo-Americans until the nineteenth century when pioneers heading west came into closer contact with Mexicans and Native Americans who controlled much of the frontier. Cowboy cuisine sprang up around camps and settler towns, especially in places like Texas where English, Spanish, and Native American influences melded into a sort of creole culture and the foods of each began to intermingle. Though meat stewed in chilies was an ancient American tradition, the modern version known as chili con carne (or just “chili”) descends from dishes made in the sixteenth century when Spanish settlers introduced Eurasian spices to the mix, including cumin a North African seasoning that has since become synonymous with Mexican-American flavors. Chili con carne was popularized in nineteenth century Texas, when a group of laundry ladies turned their wash tubs into cooking pots and began stewing goat meat or beef with ground ancho chilies, becoming known in San Antonio as “Chili Queens“. Tex-Mex cuisine introduced the world to nachos and enchiladas and saw traditional Mexican flavors lumped with lots of melted cheese.

“Chili Queens” selling bowls of chili con carne from outdoor food stands for hungry laborers in San Antonio, Texas circa 1880s

Chilies are one of the earliest symbols of globalization, riding on a fifteenth century expansion of the ancient silk road spice trade that has left few places on Earth free of its touch. Wherever it took root, it brought with it distinctive properties of flavor, look, and of course, of its characteristic tendency to bite back those anyone who ate them. This last attribute struck those who tried them as otherworldly and often magical. Even today, peppers are often named for poisonous animals (Naga Viper, Trinidad Scorpion) or given associations with death (Ghost Pepper, Carolina Reaper). Given its history as a charm to ward off evil, its ironic how hot sauces often dare eaters to sample them with demonic names like Satan’s Blood, Hellfire, and even that purveyor of cardboard Mexican food, Taco Bell calls their hottest offering, El Diablo. In a world where our food is increasingly watered down and processed, the chili and its human allies seem prepared to walk in a different direction. These ominously named foods invite us to step into an experience not just of flavor and pain and pleasure, but also a glimpse into the long story of this little but potent fruit.

Next month I’ll journey into the shadows in a quest to unlock the history and legend of the elusive ninja.

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Watch the video: KeySi - Chili Pepper Lyrics Video Eurovision 2020 Belarus (August 2022).