The chili pepper, chilli pepper, or more simply just "chili", is the fruit of the plants from the genus Capsicum, which are members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Even though chilis may be thought of as a vegetable, their culinary usage is generally as a spice, the part of the plant that is usually harvested is the fruit, and botany considers the plant a berry shrub.
Chili peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BC and perhaps earlier. There is archaeological evidence at sites located in southwestern Ecuador that chili peppers were already well domesticated more than 6000 years ago, and is one of the first cultivated crops in the Americas.
Species and cultivars
- See also: List of capsicum cultivars
The most common species of chili peppers are:
- Capsicum annuum, which includes many common varieties such as bell peppers, paprika, cayenne, jalapeños, and the chiltepin
- Capsicum frutescens, which includes the tabasco peppers
- Capsicum chinense, which includes the hottest peppers such as the naga, habanero and Scotch bonnet
- Capsicum pubescens, which includes the South American rocoto peppers
- Capsicum baccatum, which includes the South American aji peppers
Peppers are commonly broken down into three groupings: bell peppers, sweet peppers, and hot peppers. Most popular pepper varieties are seen as falling into one of these categories or as a cross between them.
Chile peppers are completely unrelated to the Piperaceae genus, which Black pepper is from.
The substances that gives chili peppers their intensity when ingested or applied topically are capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide) and several related chemicals, collectively called capsaicinoids. Capsaicin is the primary ingredient in pepper spray.
When consumed, capsaicinoids bind with pain receptors in the mouth and throat that are normally responsible for sensing heat. Once activated by the capsaicinoids, these receptors send a message to the brain that the person has consumed something hot. The brain responds to the burning sensation by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and releasing the body's natural painkilling chemical, endorphin.
The chili has a long association with Mexican cuisine as later adapted into Tex-Mex cuisine. Although unknown in Asia until Europeans introduced it there, chili has also become a part of the Korean, Indian, Indonesian, Szechuan, Thai and other cooking traditions. Its popularity has seen it adopted into many cuisines of the World.
The fruit is eaten raw or cooked for its fiery hot flavour which is concentrated along the top of the pod. The stem end of the pod has glands which produce the capsaicin, which then flows down through the pod. The white pith, that surrounds the seeds, contains the highest concentrations of capsaicin. Removing the seeds and inner membranes is thus effective at reducing the heat of a pod.
Chili is often sold worldwide as a spice in dried and powdered form. In the United States, it is often made from the Mexican chile ancho variety, but with small amounts of cayenne added for heat. In the Southwest United States, dried ground chili peppers, cumin, garlic and oregano is often known as chili powder. Chipotles are dry, smoked red (ripe) jalapeños.
Chili peppers are also often used around the world to make a wide variety of sauces, known as hot sauce, chili sauce, or pepper sauce. There are countless recipes.
There are entire breeds of chili pepper which are not intended for consumption at all, but are grown only for their decorative qualities, generally referred to as "ornamental peppers". Some of them are too hot for most common cooking techniques, or simply don't taste good. Some are grown for both decoration and food. Either way, they tend to have peppers of unusual shapes or colors.
Chili peppers are popular in food. They are rich in vitamin C and are believed to have many beneficial effects on health.
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