|B. Rosie Lerner|
Chilly days call for warming up with a steaming bowl of hot chili. And we can thank the peppers known botanically as Capsicum for that warm sensation.
Although they are native to Central and South America, Capsicums traveled around the world before they were introduced to North American culture. Explorers brought Capsicums to Europe in the 1500s. The Spanish named it "pimiento" after the black pepper called "pimienta," which is the unrelated Piper nigrum. As the Capsicum pepper traveled to other European countries, it acquired other names such as the Hungarian "paprika" and the British "Ginnie pepper." Capsicums quickly became popular in the Orient and Africa and were introduced to North America by colonists. Today, many types of hot peppers are cultivated throughout the world, including jalapeno, cayenne, Tabasco and chili.
The hotness of peppers is actually chemically different from their flavor. The source of their fiery sensation is a group of naturally occurring chemicals called "capsaicins." The effects of the capsaicins have been described as delivering rapid bites to the back of the palate or a slow burn on the tongue and mid palate. Different combinations of the individual capsaicins produce varying degrees of hotness, resulting in the various pepper strains.
Capsaicin content is dependent on many factors, including plant genetics, climate, geographic location and stage of ripeness. Warm weather regions generally produce hotter peppers than cooler areas. Warm nights, in particular, seem to be responsible for the higher capsaicin content. Capsaicin production in peppers begins at about one month and then increases with maturity. Peppers generally begin to produce capsaicin at about a month and then increase with maturity.
Flavor in peppers is thought to be associated with the pigments that give the fruit its color. Generally, the deeper the color, the stronger the flavor. Most peppers begin their development in some shade of green and then change color to red, orange, yellow or purple as they ripen.
Hot peppers are quite versatile in that they can be used fresh, dried or frozen. The fruits are a good source of vitamins and generally are even more nutritious than bell peppers. In fact, green hot peppers have more Vitamin C per weight than citrus fruit, and red hot peppers have more Vitamin A than carrots. Hot peppers are low in calories, too; that is, if we could just leave out all that other stuff like cheese, nacho chips and sour cream!