In a follow-up to this post on history of salt, here’s a report from Smithsonian researchers and colleagues report on chili, which was first cultivated in 7500 BC, and traded as early as 6,000 years ago, making the chili trade older than pottery in some areas of hemisphere. What’s more, they were domesticated in five places at the same time: Peru, southern Mexico, northern Mexico, New Mexico, and Colorado.
But that’s the ‘anthropology’ — the history after that is even more interesting. When Christopher Columbus encountered chili, he called them “peppers” because of their similarity in taste (though not in appearance) with the Old World peppers from the East. Columbus was keen to prove that he had in fact opened a new route to the Far East that bypassed the Byzantine, Turkish, and Persian-controled territory between. Consequently, he called Chili “pepper,” perhaps in order to associate his discovery with the Asian spice. (Similarly, he called the natives “Indians.”)
Modern history saw chili spread like literal wildfire. Spain controlled Mexico, and exported chili peppers into the Spanish Philippines, and then to India, China, and beyond. The new spice was quickly incorporated into local cuisines. This may get me in trouble, but kimchi was originally salted greens — it wasn’t until the introduction of Chili peppers (now a standard ingredient in kimchi) in the early 17th century that it took on its present form. Spicy Chinese cuisine, Hungarian Paprika, Turkish doner kebabs, Nepal stews, and Thai spicy foods all owe their flavor to the chili “pepper.”