A long, long time ago in Mesoamerica (commonly classified as the region extending from Central Mexico to Central America and northern Costa Rica) the then-humble chilli had a cosy place in the Aztec and Mayan cultures where it spent its time spicing up food and helping to cure illness – and even now it’s well believed that a chilli a day can keep the doctor away (post about the health benefits of eating chillies coming soon, get excited!). The tracing back of the chilli plant’s origin has been a much disputed topic but academic research supported by archaeological, ecological and even linguistic evidence has reached a consensus that chillies date back to more than 6,500 years ago!
In researching the history of the chilli pepper, I came across so many articles each with similar yet varying facts. I’ll spare you the challenge of unravelling the mystery and share only the most popular and pertinent facts, with the first being that this cunning chilli somehow found its way across the globe to not only fuse with all types of cuisines but also to radically alter some forever! How did this little plant uproot to spread across oceans and harsh conditions to lands far and wide without losing its punch?
Most articles agree that our old friend Christopher Columbus did us all the favour of spreading this fiery joy by taking the chilli back to Spain and his many amigos there. From Spain, it was spread to Portugal and all along the existing trade routes of the Portuguese: down to the Cape point, the southern-most tip of Africa and further on to East Africa. Vasco de Gama helped spread the chilli from South America to West Africa and further on to India as early as 1498 – and with India exporting more than 51,000 tons of chilli per year, many were tricked to believe that the chilli had its origin there or in the surrounding region of Asia where it quickly came to rival the long-existing native black pepper spice. The chilli even found a spot on the beach right throughout the Caribbean!
The chilli’s spread is not only due to our human intervention but should also be credited to its own great characteristics of being durable and lightweight, easy to transport over long distances without losing its kick – and adaptable enough to grow in almost any climate! Birds have also played a noteworthy role in spreading the seeds of the chilli which are able to grow even when digested and dried out. According to an article in the Telegraph (and the Telegraph is always right!) chilli peppers actually use their heat to deter predators that aren’t prone to spread seeds. Birds are able to scatter seeds across large distances and, fun fact – they are immune to the heat of these burning chilli bites! Birds are the only animal able to endure the burning sensation set off by capsaicin, the secret ají chill i chemical ingredient that gives the chilli its renowned heat. It is believed that the flight of the chillies on Bird Air accounts for most of the chilli pepper genus found in the wild today – birds and chilli, a match made in heaven!
Chillies have only recently arrived in Australia where the influence of Asian cuisines and the suitable climate make Down Under the perfect place to grow those little heated treats.
Today, there are reported to be at least 139 wild and 49 cultivated types of chilli pepper worldwide. And this all from the spread of the chilli across the globe as it set out on a quest to reign supreme as one of the world’s most favoured spices. All hail the chilli pepper!