Pepper may be the king of spice and cardamom the queen, but chillies are the most talked about, sometimes famous, sometimes infamous! They are indigenous to Central and South America and the West Indies and have been cultivated there for thousands of years. Today they are cultivated in many regions of the world, mainly in warm climates. India is today the major producer and exporter of chillies.
There is some confusion over the spelling of their name. Chilli is the Oxford English Dictionary’s primary spelling though chile and chili are also used, particularly in the USA. The name chilli pepper is a misnomer. The blame rests with Christopher Columbus who in 1492 set sail in search of pepper and other exotic spices. As we know, he landed in the Americas where the nearest things he could find to pepper were fiery chillies and, not one to admit defeat, he named them (chilli) peppers! Chillies belong to the genus capsicum which is unrelated to pepper. There are reportedly hundreds of varieties of chillies though few are widely available outside their countries of origin.
Green chillies are unripe fruits. If their heat could be stripped away they would taste identical to green bell peppers (another genus of capsicum). Red chillies are those that have been allowed to ripen on the plant but they don’t have the same underlying flavour as red bell peppers. Chillies can be eaten fresh or dried and are available whole, flaked or powdered. Some dried chillies are also smoked. Fresh red chillies have a sweeter taste than green chillies. The process of drying chillies concentrates their sweetness and flavour in much the same way as with drying plums to prunes or grapes to raisins. As examples, chipotles are dried (and smoked) jalapenos, ancho chillies are dried poblano chillies.
The heat in chillies comes from capsaicin which is found in their skins, membranes and seeds. Their heat can be tempered by removing the seeds before cooking. Other capsicums such as bell peppers don’t contain capsaicin which is why they are not hot. Capsaicin is fat soluble rather than water soluble. This means that their heat can be diluted or dissipated by yogurt or milk or coconut milk but not by water. If your mouth is burning, drinking water will just move the heat around! By contrast, the fat molecules in a spoonful of yogurt will coat the capsaicin molecules, so protecting you from their heat. The heat of chillies ranges from mild to eye-wateringly hot, depending on the variety. Red chilli powder or cayenne powder are common ingredients in Indian cuisine as are various fresh and dried chillies. Similarly, fresh, dried, smoked and powdered chillies are used in Mexican cuisine.
Chillies are very high in vitamin C and red chillies are high in beta-carotene which the body converts to vitamin A. Capsaicin helps to reduce cholesterol, it boosts circulation and is an anti-coagulant. It aids weight loss by increasing metabolism. There is a theory that the reason many people enjoy eating hot chillies is that their bodies respond to the discomfort by releasing endorphins, which create a sensation of pleasure.