Christopher Columbus might be credited with the spread of the chilli around the world, but this spicy little firecracker of a plant has roots so much longer than you could ever have known! These spicy, capsaicin-filled wonders come from Ancient Mesoamerica (the region which spans from Central America as far as Northern Costa Rica).
Long before Columbus made his voyage to the “new” world, the humble chilli pepper played a huge role in the culture and daily cuisine of people in ancient Mexico (particularly in the Mayan and Aztec cultures). They were used in food, in medicines, and for the fumigation of homes, and were prized for their spicy kick as well as their vibrancy. Archaeologists have found evidence that suggests that Mexicans had domesticated the chilli pepper as far back as 5000 BC in the Tehuacán Valley. Even the name we use today, Chilli, comes from the Aztec language Nahuatl.
Hot n Spicy n Sweet
Mixing chilli with sweets and hot beverages, too, can be attributed back to ancient Mesoamerica; research and excavation near Chiapa de Corzo, in Southern Mexico (amongst the Mixe-Zonquean people), have uncovered some interesting results. The pottery vessels which were found are assumed to have held beverages and salsas, and when the sides were scraped for samples irritants like dihydrocapsaicin were found. These pointed to the capsicum species which includes the spicy chilli pepper. This suggests that chillis were used in drinks as far back as 400 BC in this area of Central North America!
So, when you enjoy a spicy hot chocolate or taste some chilli in your chocolate dessert you are probably enjoying the descendants of the chilli-cacao drink which was enjoyed by the ancient Maya and Azteca peoples!
Uses of Chillies
Over the centuries, however, the uses for chilli have become many; they are eaten fresh, dried, powdered, pickled, charred, and even stuffed and battered in a famous dish known as Chiles Rellenos. Their popularity comes, no doubt, from the complexity and boldness that they bring to our food, and if you cook often you’ll know that they are a staple of Mexican Cuisine! Better yet, there are over 150 varieties of chilli which vary in heat and flavour so you should never be stuck for choice. If you’re big on authenticity you can track down the specific type of chilli required, but there’s no reason to avoid substitution when you feel like it!
So, when you sit down to enjoy something that includes the humble chilli remember to think of the peoples of ancient Mesoamerica; without them we would be unable to enjoy these hot ‘n’ spicy little wonders!