The chilli pepper, part of the vast Solanaceae family, is one of the most ancient spices, shown in archaeological evidence which document its use as early as 5500BC in both Mayan and Aztec communities. Its arrival in Europe came only in 1493, thanks to Columbus. The Spaniards thought they had found the “red gold” and could sell it at a high price across the old continent, as was already happening for cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla. But this was not the case. The “King of spices” actually took root very well in the local climates, preventing the exporters classifying it as a rare, and therefore expensive, spice. The crops soon became indigenous and the chilli pepper easily became a part of many dishes for the masses.
Now completely integrated in many countries, it gives an unmistakable aromatic touch and has adapted to the most diverse socio-culinary customs and habits. Of late across Europe it has become the king of spices, capable of making any product on the market special, from chocolate to ice cream, through to different aperitifs.
Exotic, imported, transplanted, eclectic and popular, it has divided the palates of the culinary world between those who love it and those who disdain it, but it cannot be denied that is has imposed itself with a tenacity in adapting to different climates and places, without losing its identity and retaining the strength of the ancient lands from whence it came.
The most cultivated genus is the Capsicum, with botanical varieties that are very different from each other, such as the Capsicum annuum which includes Cayenna (15-50,000 SHU) from India, Cherry bomb from Italy, Chipotle and Jalapeno from Mexico not forgetting Tabasco (15-50,000 SHU), and the Capsicum baccatum which includes the Habanero. The SHU stands for Scoville Heat Units and is a scale that indicates how many droplets of sweetened water would be needed to dilute the burning caused by the chilli’s spiciness.
There are five common varieties, including Naga Morich (Capsicum Chinense) and Habanero. A cross between these two has been obtained which is called “Carolina Reaper hp22b” which in 2016 achieved the Guinness record as the hottest chilli in the world, surpassing the Trinidad and Moruga Scorpion. However to date the new record would be with Pepper X which, whilst as yet uncertified by Guinness, packs around 3.2 million SHU.
The spiciness is determined by a mixture of various alkaloids, namely capsaicin and its derivatives: dihydrocapsaicin, nordihydrocapsaicin and homocapsaicin. This group of compounds are called capsaicinoids and are odourless, tasteless and soluble in fats. They stimulate the pain receptors of the tongue and mucous membranes, causing a vasodilation of the capillaries, as do aphrodisiac spices, but the spiciness is actually concentrated in the middle of the mouth, throat and the back of the tongue.
Chilli pepper along with turmeric, ginger and pepper, is one of the spices found across both food and nutraceutical sectors. A wide distinguished use across industry has characterised its market value. Among the main exporters are India and China, with two products that are different, but not complementary, when it comes to aromatic characteristics. The origin, in part, also affects the price. But the use of sanitised and steam-treated (biosteamed) spices should not be underestimated to provide a guarantee of a better quality product profile. As such, the advice is to evaluate the price point but not without considering the quality of the raw material. And let’s not forget that a quality spice allows the use of lower dosages in the recipe giving an optimal result from all points of view!