The Chili is a name given to several
members of the Capsicum family. Capsicum is a genus of plants
related to the tomato in the nightshade family, whose fruit is
used as a spice, vegetable, and medicine. Cultivated since
prehistoric times in Peru and Mexico, it was discovered in the
Caribbean by Columbus and named a "pepper" because of its
similarity with the Old World peppers of the Piper genus. Diego
Alvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus' second voyage to the
West Indies in 1493, brought the first capsicums to Spain, and
first wrote about their medicinal effects in 1494.
The fruit is boxlike, conical, or spherical and
filled with air. It has 2 to 4 vertical ribs on the inside, which may
carry seeds; but the bulk of the seeds are on a dome at the stem end.
Capsicums vary in horticulturally ripe colour and may be green, yellow,
orange, bright red, lavender, brownish purple, or other colors depending
on variety and on what stage of botanical ripeness is considered best
Only a handful of the many species of Capsicum are cultivated, but there
are many cultivars and methods of preparation that have different common
names. C. annuum includes bell peppers, pimentos, paprika, and poblano,
jalapeño, Anaheim, New Mexico, and Serrano chiles; C. frutescens
includes cayenne, tabasco, arbol, aji, pequin and cherry chiles; C.
chinense includes the hottest chiles such as habaneros and Scotch
bonnets; C. pubescens includes the South American rocoto; and C.
baccatum includes the chiltepin.
The substances that give chiles their heat are the lipophile alkaloid
capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide) and four related chemicals,
collectively called capsaicinoids. Each capsaicinoid has a different
effect on the mouth, and variation in the proportions of these chemical
is responsible for the differing sensations produced by different
varieties. Capsaicin causes pain and inflammation if consumed to excess,
and can even burn the skin on contact in high concentrations (habaneros,
for example, are routinely picked with gloves). It is also the primary
ingredient in pepper spray, which is used as a defensive weapon. The
"heat" of chiles is measured in Scoville units. Bell peppers rank at
zero Scoville units, jalapeños at 3,000-6,000 Scoville units, and
habaneros at 300,000 Scoville units. The record for the highest number
of Scoville units in a chile is assigned by the Guinness Book of Records
to the Red Savina Habanero, measuring 577,000 units!
The hot flavor of chiles is concentrated at the stem end of the fruit,
where the white placental tissue produces capsaicin, which then flows
downwards. Removing the seeds and inner membranes is thus effective at
reducing the heat of a chile.