Around the World with the Hot Pepper

From its discovery in Toltec kingdoms to its use in modern kitchens, follow the journey of the traditional chile pepper.

Ristra

This young girl holds a "ristra" - an arrangement of drying chile peppers.

Photo by Kelley Fowler/www.RareSeeds.com

Content Tools

Legend says that King Huemac, the last king of the Toltecs, married his daughter to a humble farmer who came to pay tribute in the form of his best chillis, as was the custom at the time. The princess saw how handsome the young farmer was and how faithfully he brought the best of his crop to the king, so she fell in love with him and convinced her father that she should marry the farmer instead of one of the many rich contenders. The loyal chile farmer was eventually promoted to head of the King’s Guard, causing the Toltec nobles — who resented the king’s decision — to form a coup. The uprising was successfully halted by the King’s Guard with the chile farmer as lead commander. During the celebrations that followed, the chile farmer revealed his true identity as the warrior god Tezcatlipoca.

Chileatole Recipe

From this legend, we learn that the chile pepper was a highly valued commodity that traveled from the fields to the city states of the Toltec, Aztec, and Maya and to the palaces of their kings as tribute. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they classified the local chile into eight groups, all belonging to the Capsicum annuum species. Most of these Spanish classifications can still be found today with some variations.

Spanish Chile Classifications

Quauchilli (chile de árbol): These peppers were used as condiments but are no longer found.

Chiltecpin (Chiltepin): The mother of all chile peppers, Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum is harvested in the wild under mesquite trees and has to pass through the guts of birds for its seeds to germinate. The tiny round pod is very flavorful and is used in condiments.

Tomalchilli (chile mirasol): This pepper is named for the upright position of the pods, which face up toward the sun. Mirasol means “looking at the sun” in Spanish.

Chilcoztli (saffron pepper): These mild, golden-yellow pods are long, thin, and possibly today’s costeño amarillo from the Oaxaca region.

Tzinquauhyo (chile del monte): These long, colored pods are harvested from tree-like plants that grow up to 4 feet high and are probably today’s chile de árbol.

Texochilli (chile ancho): These dark green pods have large shoulders, mild sweetness, and are used for stuffing.

Milchilli (jalapeño): These popular, medium-sized chile peppers have a mild pungency and are commonly picked and consumed while still green.

Pocchilli (chipotle): With a similar pod type to milchilli, this pepper is harvested when red and ripe and then smoked.

The Códice Florentino, written by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún in the 16th century, is a wealth of information about the daily life of Mexican natives. It explains the various uses of the chile pepper and provides evidence about the chile’s importance in cultural and culinary traditions. For example, the book explains that traveling merchants (pochteca) played an important role in bringing chile crops to market and exchanging favorite chile recipes between communities. During their travels, they would drink the fortifying chileatole, a beverage made of masa harina (a flour made from dried corn kernels cooked in limewater and then ground) and chile powder, while the nobles in their palaces would be offered chicacahuatl, which was made of the finest chocolate mixed with red chile powder. The most commonly shared recipes were infinite variations of the chilmolli, today’s salsa. The most peculiar version reported in El Códice Florentino was made with tiny pods of chiltecpin peppers and roasted pumpkin seeds that were added to a tomato broth with ants.

The Chile Pepper Travels to East Asia and Spain

In 1565 — more than 70 years after Christopher Columbus set foot in the New World — Spanish navigator Andrés de Urdaneta discovered a direct trade route eastward from the Port of Manila in the Philippines to Port Acapulco, Mexico, both of which were colonial territories of the Spanish empire. Some of the goods and spices from the Far East would stay in Acapulco, while others were carried east by mule to Veracruz, Mexico, where they were loaded onto large sailing ships (galleons) for shipment to Seville, Spain. This Manila galleon trade route created an immense amount of Spanish wealth for about 250 years, until the Mexican War of Independence separated Mexico from the Spanish crown in 1815.

Goods from the Far East, including such spices as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and black pepper, along with such highly valuable Chinese goods as silk cloth, porcelain, and lacquerware, were traded primarily for Mexican silver. However, peppers, potatoes, maize, manioc, peanuts, and tobacco were also picked up in Mexico and provided reliable sustenance for the sailors during their four-month trip home.

When the Santísima Trinidad was sailing home from Mexico in 1751, it lost the trade winds and got stuck in the middle of an ocean that resembled a placid lake. Some construction errors had made the ship almost impossible to maneuver in the absence of wind. The signs of scurvy, which results from a lack of vitamin C, started to show first in slaves and then in crew members. The ship doctor was well-versed in native medicine and had brought dried chiles on board — probably in the form of ristras (dried chile braids) — as an emergency source of vitamin C. Even though most of the men on board couldn’t stand the pungency of the red powder, it provided the much needed vitamin and saved their lives until the winds pushed them to their final destination.

Home in the Philippines, the story of the chile cure made its way to Chinese merchants, who purchased the seeds of this magical medicine and had them cultivated. It didn’t take long for people across Asia to fall in love with the chile powder, and it was quickly adopted as a favorite spice. Today, it’s hard to imagine Asian cuisine without the spiciness of the red chile pepper.

The vast majority of chile peppers that are currently cultivated in Asia, India, Thailand, Korea, China, and elsewhere belong to the C. annuum species, and this is probably the same species that was first brought to the Philippines by the Manila route.

The Hot Pepper Travels to the Balkans

Paprika is so embedded in the food culture of the Balkans that no one there would likely admit that it was originally imported and was foreign to their culinary traditions prior to the 16th century. Most historians believe the chile pepper was introduced to Hungary in the 1500's by the Ottoman Turks. The Balkan Peninsula was the inland route followed by the Turks to impose their rule over Eastern Europe, and the local farmers were quick to adopt the new crops brought by the invaders. Among them, the most successful new crops were corn, which became known as “Turkish wheat,” and the chile pepper, which became known as “Turkish red pepper” and later paprika in Hungarian or piperka in Bulgarian.

But how did the Turks acquire seeds of corn and chile peppers in the first place? The New World seeds had very quickly made their way from modern day Mexico to the port of Seville, Spain, via the aforementioned Manila galleon trade route. From Spain, the peppers made their way to the Republic of Venice, which was a major trading power in the Balkans.

If you visit rural Hungary during one of the numerous traditional feasts, you may run into the famous folkloric character Paprika Jancsi, a personification of generosity and common sense combined with a “pungent” sense of humor. The character features a long, pointed red bonnet and a similarly long, pointed red nose.

Growing Heirloom Chile Peppers

Heirloom chile pepper cultivars from around the world can be found at various seed suppliers. The C. pubescens, C. chinense, and C. frutescens species are better grown indoors in containers where they can be kept as perennials.

If starting seeds indoors, consider using a heat mat to increase germination rates. Transplant chile pepper seedlings to a well-drained, sunny location when temperatures are consistently between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, as chile peppers appreciate warm weather and sunny days. Pick chile peppers approximately 45 to 55 days after bloom, when they’re the appropriate color and the skin doesn’t feel too thin.

‘Ajvarski’ (C. annuum): Heirloom paprika from Macedonia; the red, very sweet, flavorful pods are delicious roasted and then peeled and spread on a slice of bread.

‘Chile Caballo’ or ‘Chile Manzano’ (C. pubescens): From the highlands of Central and South America; black-seeded with thick walls; the first bites at the bottom are the sweetest and get hotter toward the seed cavity; the large pods can be red or orange and are grown as fence crops around kitchen gardens.

‘Estaceño’ (C. annuum): A northern New Mexico heirloom; won the prize for best green chile at the Santa Fe farmers market; also great for ristras and to make red chile powder; medium-high pungency.

‘Etiuda’ (C. annuum): Sugary sweet when ripe; mandarin orange bell pepper from Poland; well-adapted to greenhouse production.

Habanero (C. chinense): Very hot and aromatic; usually orange but can also be red or yellow; there’s now a sweet version named ‘Habanada’ that’s tangerine orange and has a great flavor with no heat.

‘Lemon Drop’ (C. baccatum): Very tall and hardy plant that bears baskets of fruits with fabulous citrus tones; pods are wrinkled with a lemony-yellow color.

C. frutescens: Usually compact plants; very suitable for container gardening; can produce up to four years before starting to decline; the most famous cultivar in this species is the ‘Tabasco’ pepper.


Chile Pepper Species

There are five modern domesticated chile pepper species, all originating from various locations in the Americas. The classification of the different species is based on both the color of the flowers and of the seeds.

Capsicum pubescens: This species originated in the Andes above 5,000 feet elevation; has black seeds and purple flowers.
Capsicum baccatum:
Originated in the tropical zone of Peru and Bolivia; has tan seeds and spotted petals.
Capsicum annuum:
Originated in Mesoamerica; has tan seeds with white petals and solitary flowers.
Capsicum chinense:
Originated in the Amazon River basin and the Caribbean; has tan seeds and white petals with two or more flowers per node.
Capsicum frutescens:
Sometimes considered a part of the species Capsicum annuum; originated in the Amazon River basin; has tan seeds with white petals and solitary flowers.


Richard Bernard handles the remote seed trials for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Born in France, his life with seeds has taken him to many places around the world. Richard lives with his wife, Celine, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.