History of Chili “Pepper”

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.”

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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9 Responses to History of Chili “Pepper”

  1. Curzon,

    I think you posted on the movie before but have you seen the “300″ trailers ?

    http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/1809262865/trailer

  2. Drunk Nanpa says:

    You just turned my world upside down.

  3. Jing says:

    Great movie I plan on seeing. I’ve read the comic too. Unfortunately, I’m a sticker for historical accuracy and the whole Western freedom vs Oriental despotism schtick is so 19th century.

    No mention that the “freedom” of the Greeks was built upon the backs of the myriad of slaves. No mention at all of the Spartan helots who augmented the hoplite force. The Spartans are depicted as all bulging muscles when in fact they should have been wearing heavy bronze cuirasses (old fashioned by then as many other Greek polises had switched to lighter linen armor).

  4. Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    In recent years the mechanism of capsicum’s fiery effect has been worked out ““ capsaicin activates one of our specific heat-receptors, the one that senses the relatively moderate temperature of 43C (body heat is 37C). There is a related sensor that triggers at the much more dangerous temperature of 52C, but so far we know of no spices that specifically activate that one. Presumably they would really make you sweat!
    One corollary of this is that birds’ version of the 43C receptor is insensitive to capsaicin, so they eat the fruits and disperse the seeds”¦

  5. zenpundit says:

    “No mention that the “freedom”Â? of the Greeks was built upon the backs of the myriad of slaves”

    True, slavery was ubiquitous in the ancient world but there remains differences of kind between the patrimonial absolutism of Persia and even the Western form of absolutism circa the 1500-1700′s, much less Greek polis conceptions of oligarchy or democracy.

  6. Sperwer says:

    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.

    The only thing likely to get you in trouble with the Korean nutizens is your failure to mention that the Japanese are alleged to have introduced chilis into Korea in the belief that they would have a debilitating effect and render the Koreans less resistant to foreign control. This one is right up there with the legend of 5000 invasions in the Korean mythosphere. Otherwise, you’re in the money.

  7. Mitch H. says:

    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.

    I presume you meant “Venetian”, as the last Byzantine political entity of any economic importance was exterminated by the Ottoman capture of Trebezond in 1461, some thirty years before the first Columbus expedition.

  8. Curzon says:

    Ouch. Touche to Mitch H.!

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