One is from South America, the other, from India. One is usually black, the other, red, yellow, purple, and, most commonly, green. One is the most traded spice in the world, the other, the most consumed spice in the world. Despite these differences, their history is intertwined in amazing ways.

Chilies and Pepper. Both bring flavor to food, and they also have this in common. Together, they changed human history.

 Dried_Peppercorns (cco) low-res Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

Look at them. It is hard to imagine that they were once often mistaken. The peppercorn, in its most commonly consumed black, dried form, is tiny, less than half the size of a corn kernel. Bite it, and it might chip your teeth. The chili, on the other hand, is a fruit with a glossy skin, bright, and comes in a variety of sizes. Bite into it, and it won’t chip your teeth, but it might kill your tongue.

Which is hotter? There’s no question, chilies pack a bunch, but pepper is surprisingly strong and complex. Both make cuisine unquestionably more delicious, and what’s more human than that?

In fact, it was this quest for spices, this drive for flavor, that drove the early era of human exploration. At the time, Europeans could not quench their insatiable hunger for the spices of India, most notably, pepper, the most powerful spice in the old world. Pepper only grows in tropical regions, therefore they had to be imported into Europe from far away, making them a scarce – and thus, valuable – resource.

With profits in mind, Europeans set sail to find alternate routes to India. They found another world, with a spice so powerful it overwhelmed them. Within decades, chilies had spread around the world, quickly overtaking pepper as the spice of choice. Unlike peppers, chilies grow in a variety of climate all around the world.

Chilies spread across the world, even making it to the heart of the pepper, the Malabar coast in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. It is the world’s premier spice growing region, its main port city, Kochin, famous for centuries and a source of many of the riches of the spice trade. It it likely that the chili arrived to India via Kerala. Imagine the effect that this new, powerful fruit had on the region that was providing the old world with its best quality pepper.

dry red chilis (cco)

One goal of this project is to research pepper use in places like India and China the relation to chilies use today. It will be a cultural study, looking at the factors that made chili acceptance so quick in some places. It also aims to solve some perplexing mysteries. Remember Europe and its love for pepper? Somehow, the chili skipped them completely, going straight through Europe to Asia. In fact, within a century, Europe would forget that chilies came from the new world, instead ascribing their origins to the fiery cuisines of India and the far east.

What about Pepper? Pepper is, in some ways, the chilies stepfather, the parent from the other side of the world, who for centuries prepared Eurasians palates for something so spicy, it was then unbelievable. Pepper was the parent who paved the way for its spread throughout Asia. It is only fair, then, that the Chili took its parents name, right?

Hence, Chili Pepper. It all makes sense now. Pepper whet the palate, and chilies sealed the deal. Without pepper, their never could have been a chili in Asia.

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