Edible Plants from the Americas

The spice of life – chili and pepper

PEPPER (Capsicum ssp)

Eaten with moderation helps the digestion, but in large quantities has a very ruinous effect, as it is very hot and penetrating. That is why its use by young men is harmful to health, mostly to the soul, because it provokes sensuality.

José Acosta (1590) - ‘Historia natural y moral de las Indias’

Capsicum (pepper) is a neotropical genus belonging to the Solanaceae family which includes around 32 species of shrubs and subshrubs. Growing between the southern United States of America and Argentina, South America is the centre of diversity, with the largest number of species found in Brazil and Bolivia. Archaeological evidence shows that wild chilis were already being eaten in 8500 BCE and the first signs of domestication in Mexico date from 5000-6000 BCE. Specialists believe that Capsicum domestication started independently in three separate areas: Mesoamerica, the Andean region and the tropical lowlands of South America.

Pepper and chilis were accepted and integrated into the European diet long before the tomatoes or potatoes – local cultivation began in the Iberian Peninsula in the mid-16th century, less than 50 years after their ‘discovery’ by Europeans. The Portuguese and Spanish widened the use and cultivation of chilis by introducing them to Africa and Asia. Nowadays several species are grown in both temperate and tropical regions and they have become an essential ingredient of many cuisines.

Chili fruits show a great diversity in size, shape, colour, aroma, texture and flavour. They can be consumed raw, cooked or dried in powders or extracts. Several species of the genus also have medicinal, pharmaceutical, ornamental and industrial uses in colourants and insect repellent.