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How chili peppers conquered the world (or at least most of it)

Jul 13, 2018

Photo: Chili peppers growing on a farm in rural Thailand.

When considering the many cuisines and food cultures of the world, have you ever wondered why so many of them feature chili peppers? Chilies are not native to Asia, Africa, Europe, or Australia, so it’s not as if cooks in Thailand or India have always been able to go out to the garden or field and grab some. How does a fruit that basically hurts you to eat it not go extinct? For answers to these questions, Francis Lam turned to Heather Arndt Anderson, a botanist, historian and food writer who wrote a book called Chillies, A Global History  for The Edible Series.

Francis Lam: You are a botanist. I would love to start with a little bit of a plant nerd question. As I understand it, the reason why fruits are sweet and aromatic is because that entices animals to eat them, and then the animals walk away and poop out their seeds somewhere else. So, they propagate the species, right?

Heather Arndt Anderson: That's right.

Heather Arndt Anderson Photo provided by author

FL: With chilies what could possibly be the evolutionary advantage to hurt the animals that eat you?

HAA: Most fruits do look enticing to animals who spread the seeds, but not all animals are created equal. Mammals taste things differently than birds, and both have a hand in spreading seeds. The thing with birds is that they don't have capsaicin receptors in their mouths, so they can't actually taste the spiciness. That's why birds have played such an important role in spreading chilies, whereas mammals have tended to avoid them – non-human animals I should say.

FL: That's genius. The idea that I could choose for an orangutan to eat me and move me like 16 feet, or I can get this bird to eat me and spread my seeds 15 miles from here. I can be all over the place if I can just be styled in a way where only the bird will want to eat me.

HAA: That's right. Chilies have had a real evolutionary advantage in selecting for birds as the propagators of their seed versus mammals.

FL: Let me ask you about the more human side of the movement. Famously, peppers are native to the New World: Mexico or Central or South America, somewhere in that area is where they originated. Can you tell us a story of how they then got to the rest of the world?

HAA: Columbus made a couple of visits to the New World. He had an interest in finding routes to South America or the New World because he couldn't travel through the Indian Ocean. He had to find new ways. The first time he came it was just to plant his flag. The second time, when he came in 1493, that's when he realized that there was some cool stuff in the New World that he could bring back to Europe. He brought chilies among other things to Spain. And Europeans spread them from Spain to Italy and northward from there. But it was when the Portuguese explorers came to Brazil a few years later and brought the chilies to Goa, in India, that chilies were able to spread to Asia and Africa, to the people who could really do something interesting with them.

Traditional chili bunches: chili peppers hanging at a market in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo: Tashka | iStock | Getty Images Plus

FL: Those are cuisines that are known to be chile forward. We would say spicy, but I guess chilies are technically not spice, right? You think of South Indian cuisine, you think of Thai cuisine, those cuisines in Southeast Asia and South Asia you talk about. Why is it then that there seemed to be some cultures that really took to the chilies and some didn't as much? They showed up in Europe before the Portuguese brought them to Africa and Asia. Why is German food not as hot as Thai food?

HAA: Germany is an interesting situation because right when chilies were blowing up in Europe, the Protestant Reformation was also happening, so Germans didn't really want a lot to do with Catholic countries like Spain and Italy. They weren't very involved in the goings-on of Catholic countries. Versus Hungary who had a lot more contact with the Ottomans and with Muslim travelers, and so they were exposed to it more.

In Asia though, spices were an exotic trade commodity that were definitely commodified, and chili fit in well with all of the pepper and prickly ash – or what we’d think of as Sichuan peppercorn – that was being used already. Spices like ginger just were so complementary to chilies. And chilies could be grown very easily in the similar climate in South Asia as we have in South America. A little hotter and drier but still easy to grow these peppers. And the people who had contact with Portuguese explorers had a real interest in taking these vegetables, which were very nutritious, or their fruits, and having them in their own gardens to spice up their food.

In East Asia, they got chilies a little bit later. They had to come from India through Southeast Asia and then up from there. So, Korea and China got the chilies just a little bit later. But they had such an exchange in their food ways that it was like the news traveled fast.

A rainbow of red, orange, and yellow habanero peppers. Photo: mauriziobiso | iStock | Getty Images Plus

FL: But Japan, which actually had direct contact with the Portuguese, right?

HAA: Yeah.

FL: Chilies didn't really make much of a splash in Japan. Even though Korea and China are right next door.

HAA: Japan got sugar and tempura from the Portuguese as well. But I haven't been able to figure out why Japan hasn't embraced the chili as much as their neighbors. I'm sure there were some social and cultural dynamics at play. There is you know the shichimi togarashi that uses a little bit of chili, but it also has citrus peel and other spices in it. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's due to their climate.

FL: It's interesting. There's a geographic sort of relationship, and you can see how things move with trade. Sometimes certain cultures are like, “Yeah, that's not for us.” And it's fine.

HAA: Portugal never really adopted the chili into their cuisine either. I mean, they have vindaloo and piri piri sauce. But it's not as prevalent as you would think considering how much contact they had with chilies and the hand they had in spreading them to Asia in Africa.

Chillies: A Global History
by Heather Arndt Anderson

FL: Let me ask you another question that's a combination of cultural question and plant nerd question. Chilies always had capsaicin, they've always had the hot stuff in them. How did sweet peppers come to be?

HAA: Hungarians, who were among the first Europeans to truly love chilies, began breeding in the 1800s and were able to slowly develop a chili that was less spicy. I think, as it is with anything, there's always going to be a little freak occurrence of one individual organism that has a trait that humans like. Whether it be corn with a larger ear or tomato with a redder skin. Through breeding and experimentation, they were able to find a milder variety, and then they focused their breeding efforts on finding a way to consistently produce this milder chili for their paprika.

FL: And that's how we eventually got something like a sweet bell pepper.

HAA: Yeah. It's incredible to me how all of the different types of chilies and peppers that we eat today came from a couple of species, and now we have hundreds and hundreds of varieties. Just because humans found one quality that they liked in one little organism and were able to manipulate that into something that would be so different over the course of a few hundred years.

FL: I guess the question remains: Did we manipulate chilies or did they manipulate us?

HAA: I know! Dun-dun-dun!