<<Updated: 18 Feb. 2022 with satellite images at the end of the post.>>  This is about an explorer’s blunder that led … to an accidental discovery … to a lot of shouting, screaming, panting, crying, and dancing about …  to how most of us today enjoy our meals. People just can’t let well enough alone. And we should be thankful for that!

In 1492 Christopher Columbus, “Chris” we call him, set out to discover a route to India. You see, Indian pepper was such a prized commodity in those days, all the European sea-farers wanted to find a way to get to India by sea and take ship-loads of the stuff back home. There was a LOT of money to be made by this.

The problem was no one had figured out how to get to India by sea.

The race was on. Chris set out to find this route. Poor fellow, he never made it. Everywhere he went, he kept calling the people Indians (‘Indios’) … which is why you have so many ‘Indians’ all over the world!

Anyhow, he and his friends ended up ‘discovering’ what they called the ‘new world.’ This was, of course, rubbish. Civilizations had existed centuries before our friends showed up there.

There, these chaps found many curious things. Among them, was a small plant with green (and red when ripe) fruit that the native people used in their food and in some medicines, too. When these European fellows bit into this fruit they thought a huge global war had started in their mouths and that the roofs of their heads were about to blow open. They gasped! Their eyes watered, their noses ran, their ears rang, and they generally felt like flapping about and crying for Mommy! After the effects wore off, they calmed down and decided that this tasted just like that ‘pepper’ from India that someone had given them back home in Europe. So, they called it pepper!

Except, the natives called it something else: chile (pronounced CHEE-lay). We now call it “chilli.”

Our seafaring friends brought it back to Spain and started growing it. After that, what happened is not very clear. Some people believe that from México (pronounced MAY-hi-co), this plant found its way to the Philippines which was a Spanish colony at the time. It spread from Spain to neighbouring Portugal. The Portuguese then brought it to Goa, which was their colony.

From India, chillis are said to have traveled through Central Asia and Turkey, to Hungary, where it became the national spice in the form of paprika.

Some others say that the Portuguese brought chillis to Goa from Brazil which they had colonized.

Chillis had been consumed by humans since at least 7,500 BCE (Before the Common Era) when they collected it in the wild in what we now call South America and Central America. Archaeological evidence suggests that people started deliberately and systematically growing it (i.e., they domesticated the plant) in Ecuador as long as 6,000 yrs ago (about 4,000 BCE). How the natives must have laughed when Chris and his buddies danced around with fire in their mouths when they bit into the chillis!

India not only gave the world pepper and so many other spices, and precious gems, it also received many things in return. The chilli is among them.

In the India of those times, it spread far and wide. Today, India is the largest exporter of chillis in the world (look at this figure — click on the pic to enlarge it in a different window/tab).

Top 10 chilli exporting countries.

In India, the state of Andhra Pradesh grows the most amount of chilli (look at the map here). Ever eaten a proper Andhra meal? You should! You will explode, but you will be fine soon enough and live to tell the tale! The same in the dry regions of northern Karnataka.

Major chilli producing states in India

All this is fine. People everywhere argue about which chillis are the hottest! Which is the most wicked, the most devilishly hot chilli that humans dare to eat? Well, for a long time people went with their own tastes. The problem with this is that it is not standard; different people have different levels of heat they can take.

States producing chilli

Now there is a scientific measure for the spiciness of the chilli: Scoville Heat Units (SHU). This is derived using liquid chromatography techniques to measure the amount of capsaicin in the chilli. This capsaicin is what makes the chilli hot. The big fat capsicum that we often cook with is a harmless delicate darling; it has 0 SHU. New Mexico (USA) green chillis have 1,500 SHU, jalapeños (“hala-PEY-nyos”; you might have eaten these on a pizza; these chillis are from Jalapas, México; hence the name) has 2,500–5,000 SHU, and habañeros (aba-NYEY-ros) have 300,000 SHU.

Pure capsaicin is colorless, odorless, and crystalline-to-waxy solid at room temperature, and measures 16,000,000 SHU!

India being the biggest exporter of chilli is only a part of the story. We have another claim to chilli flame! We also have the hottest chilli in the world. A search for the hottest chillis in the world shows:

  1. Dorset Naga chilli: 1.6 million SHU (approximately)
  2. Naga Viper chilli: 1.4 million SHU (approximately)
  3. Bhut jolokia: 1.1 million SHU (approximately)

“Bhot jolokia” … looks so innocent, eh?

There is disagreement among people on the hottest pepper – some say you didn’t test it under the right conditions, the right age, the right location, and so on. It is a HUGE deal for people. The Guinness Book of World Records is a big obsession for people and that makes things very hotly contested indeed!

All from northeastern India! The “naga” varieties are obviously associated with Nagaland specifically and the ‘bhut jolokia’ is grown particularly in Manipur.  “Jolokia” means chilli in Assamese. Some people claim that the “bhut”(or “bhoot”) is nothing to do with any ghosts. They say “bhoot” is actually a corruption of “bhot” or “bhotiya”, a tribe in the Himalayan region (see map) and they are the ones who cultivated it. The Bhotiya tribal population also exists in India — particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Sikkim, and Tripura.

Areas of “Bhotiya” tribe

Geography: 25,000,000,000 SHU! And deeelllicious!

From the Eye in the Sky

Here are satellite images of chillis being dried in the sun:

And one video close to land

Things you can do:

  • Get some copies of blank outline maps of the world (easily available from your local stationery shop). Prepare separate maps showing:
    • Chilli producing countries of the world.
    • The top ten chilli producing countries. Write in the percentage of the world’s chillis they produce.
    • Using arrows, trace the alternative routes of the chilli’s travel from South America/ Central America to India.
  • Ask someone who cooks your food to tell you about chillis: how to use them, how to handle them, the varieties they can recognize, the names of these varieties, where they are grown most, which ones are more spicy and which ones are less spicy.
  • Find out about the many uses of chillis and list them. (Some of the references given in this post can help you.)
  • Eat some chillis! (Click on the image below to open a larger version in a new window/tab)

    Eat some chillis!

A note on names and spellings: In India we use two spellings “chili” and “chilli.” We do not use “pepper” in connection with chilli in Indian English, but we do so in the southern Indian languages (try to name the languages).



8 Responses

  1. I find this article very entertaining. Most of my friends keep telling me that they find Indian food spicy and they usually associate “spicy” with “hot”. It is indeed very interesting to note that chillies are not native to India.
    Is the same true of even potatoes and tapioca? My teacher once said that potatoes were introduced in India by the Portuguese and hence the Marathi word for it is ‘batata’, which is very similar to the term for potatoes in Spanish and Portuguese.
    A very interesting and well written article!

  2. It’s very interesting that chillies are not originally from India, as I had thought but from “New India” ! Christopher Columbus is a very unique character in history. People credit him with discovering the world is round, but most people were already under that consensus during his time. He is celebrated with his own holiday, but equally hated for wiping out a lot of the indigenous natives whom he encountered. He gave Europe and India chillies, but never managed to find the cumin and pepper he was looking for.

  3. Very interesting and entertaining. Purandaradasaru has sang about menacinakayi hilariously. search for the poem you will enjoy it.
    A lot of vegitables were introduced from different countries. Advantages of being colonised.

  4. Great information. I will use this in class when we teach the Columbian Exchange. Many thanks.

  5. Great, Eric! If you need any other resources for this, don’t hesitate to let me know.

  6. In India wide variety of chillies are available with different pungency and colour.30 Years back we started Oleoresin Industry and frctionating division,Mild, medium, high pungent and Pure Capsaicine are prepared and colour of 1,300,000 is also produced and exported.ISO and GMP.

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