From the spiciest habanero to the sweetest bell, peppers (Capsicum spp.) are native to Andean and Amazonian Bolivia as well as much of Mexico. Domesticated varieties of chilies have been cultivated by Zapotecs, Mixtecs, and other Native peoples for nearly 6,000 years, and remain a critical part of local diets. In 1493 the first chili peppers made their way on a trade ship from Pernambuco, Brazil to Goa, India, where they quickly replaced peppercorn in many of the curries and stir fries of South Asian cuisine. The compelling flavors of peppers have since dramatically reshaped cuisines, from Sichuan and Korean to Hungarian and Ethiopian.
Peppers Are Wild!
The tiny, fiery chiltepin pepper (Capsicum annuum) is one of the wild relatives of domesticated peppers. Chiltepins grow wild in the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico, where they continue to be culturally important to Native peoples, including the Rarámuri. The U.S. Forest Service’s Wild Chile Reserve in Arizona preserves much of the chiltepin’s natural habitat, protecting this species for future generations.
The Science of Spicy
Peppers’ spicy taste comes from the chemical compound capsaicin, which deters small mammals from eating and destroying the pepper plant’s seeds. However, the red color of mature peppers attracts birds—which cannot taste capsaicin—to snack on the pepper fruit. Avian digestive tracts are perfectly suited to soften pepper seeds’ tough outer coat, so that when a bird drops the seeds across the landscape, they are ready to germinate.
Next time you’re sick, consider picking up a pepper instead of a glass of orange juice—peppers have more vitamin C than orange juice and typically contain less sugar. Peppers are also rich in antioxidants, and are thought by some to be an anticarcinogen.
Explore a few ways to set your senses on fire (with care!), and share your dishes with us using #AroundTheTable!
Learn some fun facts about peppers!
- Hanging bunches of peppers on porches, shop windows, or patios are thought to bring good luck and good health.
- Many people think the seeds are what give peppers their spiciness, but it’s actually capsaicin, a colorless, odorless oil-like compound, found in the interior veins of the fruit.