Fair warning readers, your fearless author felt compelled to eat more than a few hot peppers in preparation for this article. Chili, chile, or chilli peppers, spelling dependent on region, have become a staple in kitchens worldwide. All are of the genus Capsicum and members of the nightshade family. In this article we will take a very brief trip through the history and physiological effects of this native of the Americas that has since conquered the international palette.
Chili peppers are not new to human cuisine. There is archeological evidence of prehistoric domestication of chili peppers as a crop across South America, from southern Peru to the Bahamas. Starch microfossils found at seven sites dating from 6000 years ago and up through European contact, seem to suggest that, along with maize, the chili pepper was part of an ancient plant food complex that predates the development of pottery in some regions. The chili was introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus who, in typical shootsfirst-with-mouth fashion, dubbed them “peppers” due to their heat being like peppercorns, giving birth to another confusing misnomer. Although European cooks did not immediately adopt them as an ingredient, their value in trade was soon apparent, with chili peppers becoming part of Hungarian, Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisine.
The active substance that gives chili peppers their unique spice is called capsaicin. The chemical process that occurs between consumption and sensation is surprisingly complex when it comes to capsaicin. As strange as it may seem, spicy is not a taste; strictly speaking. The sensation of spiciness is not perceived through the tongue, as the taste buds can only receive five flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami (savory), and all combinations thereof. Instead, capsaicin target specific pain receptors in mammals. Simply put, these receptors give the brain two signals: one of intense pain or heat, and another of gradual warmth. These sensations then stimulate chemoresponsive nerve fibers throughout the body, irritating the less protected nerves in the mucous membranes, i.e. the tearful, sinus clearing, part. Not all chili pepper varieties have a fire inside. Bell peppers are a cultivar group of the species Capsicum annum, and they do not produce capsaicin due to a recessive gene that almost entirely omits its production.
Interestingly, avian species do not share this sensitivity to capsaicin. Spiciness in peppers evolved as something of a mammal-deterrent system, promoting a higher seed dispersal rate by birds, and preventing less efficient mammals from consuming the plant. As our well established attraction to spicy foods show, humans have taken this source of pain that was intended as a deterrent and embraced it as a form of pleasure.
- 1/2 cup pitted Nicoise or Kalamata olives
- 2 Tbs. lime juice
- 2 medium jalepeños, quartered, seeds removed
- (sub with favorite pepper as desired)
- 1 medium shallot, quartered and peeled
- 1 large clove garlic, quartered and peeled
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 Tbs. finely chopped fresh parsley
- salt to taste
- Put the olives, lime juice, jalepeño, shallot and garlic in food processor, pulse until smooth, approx. 20 seconds.
- Slowly add olive oil through feed tube with machine running and continue to process until it resembles a smooth paste
- Stir in parsley and salt to taste.