Chile Peppers

It is ironic that Christopher Columbus accidentally encountered chile peppers on his first expedition to the New World, a trip in which he searched in vain for the East Indies and the black pepper and other aromatics the islands promised. The irony comes from the fact that the five domesticated Capsicum species soon eclipsed black pepper as the most widely cultivated piquant spices in the world, and perhaps the most widely traded as well.

Archaeologists confirm that Columbus could have encountered one or perhaps two species of Capsicum on Hispaniola that had been domesticated on the American mainland. Chiles had reached what is now El Salvador at least nine hundred years and Hispaniola at least a century before the arrival of Columbus, probably through trade with farmers on the Yucatán Peninsula or with seafarers from the northern coast of South America. When I worked with geneticists, archaeologists, linguists, and geographers to pinpoint the origin of chiles, we estimated that Capsicum annuum was first domesticated in or near the Sierra Madre Oriental range in central Mexico between 5,800 and 6,500 years ago. According to linguistic analyses accomplished by my friend and colleague Cecil Brown, prehistoric gardeneers and farmers in the Oto-Manguean language family, then spoken in the indigenous communities in the sierras of Puebla and adjacent Mexican states, likely domesticated it.

The first cultivated chile was not used as a vegetable, but rather as a spice to complement staples as much as maize, which had been domesticated for at least a millennium before the chile. But the harvesting, protection, and management of wild chiles as a dried spice, condiment, vermifuge, and medicine may have gradually begun several hundred years before that. As soon as chiles were domesticated in Mexico, they became associated with the molcajete, the three-legged stone mortar used to mash fresh or dried chiles, salt, epazote, wild oregano, tomatillos, and onions together to create the precursor of salsa. When rubbed onto meats as a marinade, this pungent mixture, rich in antioxidants, helped keep the meats from spoiling.

Diego Álvarez Chanca, a physician who accompanied Columbus on his second expedition to the New World, may have been the first European to take chiles back to the Old World to grow and study them for their medicinal properties. Soon after that, official reports of their transport as a spice to Europe became scarce, perhaps because they were far too pungent for Western Europeans to use with food. As Flemish physician and botanist Charles L’Écluse would write in 1594, the ferocity of chile peppers amazed Europeans, who feared that their “sharpness would burn the jaws for several days.”

Chiles appear to have been rapidly adopted by the Berbers and Arabs of Ceuta, however, perhaps because they were already accustomed to the pungent melegueta pepper that had been part of their trade with West Africa for centuries. How chile pepper seeds arrived in Morocco in 1514—so soon after Columbus’s expeditions to the West Indies—is anyone’s guess, but mine is that crypto-Muslims and crypto-Jews like Rodrigo de Triana took seeds or pods with them when they fled the tyranny of Ferdinand, Isabella, and Columbus. From the ports of Lisbon and Cádiz, larger quantities of chiles and their seeds could have been smuggled in the ballast of ships headed to Ceuta on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Once in North Africa, chiles would have little problem being diffused along Arab and Sephardic Jewish trade routes to countries where pungent spices were already welcolmed, including Algeria and Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, Yemen and Turkey, Persia and India.

Amazingly, chile peppers made it to the Malabar Coast of India as early as 1542. As a possible explanation of this, my late, great friend Jean Andrews offered the following hypothesis in The Pepper Trail: “It could have been that these first Columbian [i.e., American] foodstuffs, including capsicums, came to Turkey from Spain via the Ottoman contacts with exiled Spanish Moors or expulsed Spanish Jews, who conceivably distributed that throughout North Africa all the way to Egypt” (21). From there they traveled Arabian caravan routes to India.

Although she ultimately preferred another hypothesis—that chiles reached most of Europe through Turkey, after entering Old World trade routes from the ports of India!—Andrews did claim that one element was common to both hypotheses: “By whichever route, Aleppo [Syria] was a key point. In 1600, Venice operated sixteen trading posts and a consular office in Aleppo…[and] European traders rarely went beyond the cities at the edge of the desert…. The realm of caravans was dominated by Moslem traders” (22).

Halaby fulful, one of the first distinctive chile varieties developed in the Old World, originated in and near Aleppo. Perhaps nurtured by the Sephardic Jewish spice merchants in Aleppo (Halab) and the Arab farmers near the Mediterranean coast, the coarsely ground, sun-dried Aleppo pepper received high marks today from chefs on both sides of the Atlantic. Its flavor has been described as having a “deliciously deep, cumin-like earthiness and sweetness” and a “complex, slow, gentle heat” that is followed by a “pleasant warmth” or “a lingering ting of sweet and sour.”

Virtually all terms for chile in Asian, African, and European languages are derived from the previously existing terms for black pepper or for various peppers or pepperlike fruits in general (melegueta, long, Sichuan, and so on). Most, though certainly not all, are cognate with one another: pilpili (Swahili), felfel (Farsi), felfel (Maltese), feferon (Croatian), biber (Western Turkic), berbere (Amharic), and bghbegh (Armenian). There is a break in the use of these cognates when you arrive at the Indian subcontinent, suggesting to me that the chiles did not diffuse into Turkey and eastern Europe from the Malabar Coast: mirch (Hindi), marichiphala (Sanskrit), marchum (Gujarati), and murgh (Pashto_. Most European languages use variants of the words pimento and paprika for the sweeter vegetable peppers that developed later and for mild chile powder.

Andrews, Jean. “Around the World with the Chile Pepper: The Post-Columbian Distribution of Domesticated Capsicums.” Journal of Gastronomy 4 (1988): 21-35.
----. “Towards Solving the ‘Anatolian’ Mystery: Diffusion of the Mesoamerican Food Complex to Southeastern Europe.” Geographical Review 83 (1993): 194-204.
----. The Pepper Trail: History and Recipes from Around the World. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1999.
Kraft, Kraig H., Cecil H. Brown, Gary Paul Nabhan, Eike Luedeling, José Luna Ruiz, Robert J. Hijmans, and Paul Gepts. “Multiple Lines of Evidence for the Origin of Domesticated Chili Pepper, Capsicum annuum, in Mexico.” Proceedings of the National Acade
Perry, Linda, et al. “Starch Fossils and the Domestication and Dispersal of Chili Peppers (Capsicum spp. L.) in the Americas.” Science 315 (2007): 986-88.
Wright, Clifford A. “The Medieval Spice Trade and the Diffusion of the Chile.” Gastronomica 7 (2007): 35-43.
Image Credit:
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press