It was in fact the humble chilli which made Christopher Columbus, who discovered America, falsely believe that he had indeed found India. The legendary explorer and navigator had set out in his flagship Santa Maria in quest for the exotic spices in India. However, he mistook chilli for pepper because of its spiciness and heat. This must be the reason why Columbus called it the chilli pepper. Like the bell pepper and tomato, chilli too belongs to the Solanaceae family.
Christopher Columbus, who set out from Spain in search of India, in 1492, is the first European to have encountered the chilli. When he returned to Spain, Columbus didn't forget to carry some of the chilli plants as well. In the beginning, chilli was mainly grown in the botanical gardens of the Spanish monasteries. Later, it was used in various dishes as a substitute for pepper. During those days, pepper had incredible trade value and was even used as currencies in many countries. Chilli, however, soon became the cheap substitute for the exclusive and expensive pepper. From Spain, the chilli then travelled to Italy and was hugely cultivated in Calabria, a southern Italian province. It was the Portuguese traders who introduced chilli to south Asia.
In India, it was Goa which got 'hit' by the chilli for the first time from the Portuguese. Indian traders then took it China and south East Asia. Within just 50 years of its introduction to Europe, the chilli had taken over the regional cuisines around Asia, the coastal regions of southern Africa, North Africa and also the East Asia. The Arab traders who dominated the trade in Asia played a significant role in popularizing chilli around Europe. By the 18th century, the Dutch monopolized the chilli trade. Chilli was brought to Japan by the Dutch. In western European countries like Hungary and Bulgaria, paprika, a chilli powder made with the sweeter versions of the chilli was extensively used.
Secret behind the spice
Chilli is available in a variety of colours including red, green, yellow, orange, purple and even black. Most of the chillies are elongated with a sharp edge. From the tiny bird eye chilli to the 30 centimetre long cayenne pepper, chillies are available in different sizes. The intensity of the spiciness, pungency and flavour too would be different in these chillies. It is the level of capsaicin, found in the outer coating of the chilli seeds, which determine the spiciness of the chillies. This is the reason why the seeds are removed from the chillies before adding it as an ingredient in the dishes. The bhut jolokia or ghost pepper and the nag jolokia which are cultivated in the North Eastern states are the spiciest chilli peppers found in India.
It was from India that chilli reached England. But it didn't become as popular there. John Gerard, a noted botanist had declared, in the 16th century, that consuming chillies would be dangerous for the liver and that dogs would die if foods with chillies in it are fed to them. It is assumed that these may be reasons why chillies didn’t find many takers in England during that time.
Today, chilli is the most cultivated spice in the world. China is in fact the largest producer of chilli with over 50% of the total global production based here. Chilli is hugely cultivated in the Sichuan and Hunan provinces. Mexico bags the second position in chilli production. From the archaeological sites of Tehuacan, remains of chilli which dates back to 7000 BC has been found. It is assumed that chilli was even produced here around 2000 years after it.
Chillies are used in various forms including dried, pickled, powdered and in sauces. The chillies, which add bags of flavour to vegetable, meat and sea food dishes, have truly become an unavoidable ingredient in the Mexican, central American, South American, Asian, East Asian and North African cuisines.