Sweet, hot, spicy, mild, fruity, scorching, unforgiving and decorative. Not a string of adjectives you would use to describe many things… But you can about Chilies! Native to Meso-America and dating back at least to 7500 BC, the chili pepper has quite the history. Most of the world’s cuisines rely heavily on the chili pepper as a staple ingredient, and so many dishes have been built upon chili’s use as a base, but perhaps these uniquely identifiable and iconic dishes and recipes aren’t as old as you might think… and a lot had to happen in the last, oh… 566 years for Sriracha to be an American Pop Culture Icon! I don’t think that any of us have ever really stopped and taken the time to appreciate exactly what had to happen for the chili to dominate the East and be re-introduced to the West. Over the next three weeks we are going to spend some time talking about the expansion of the chili pepper around the world.
This week: We are going to start 566 years ago when the Ottoman Turks overtook the city of Constantinople in 1453, and end Oct 12, 1492 when Columbus landed in Hispaniola.
Ok. Week 1. Let’s go. So all the back to the 2nd Century, there was a network of routes that connected the East to the West and it was called the Silk Road. The Silk Road was important because it established trade and commerce between Southern Europe and China (and all of the civilizations and empires in between. For about 1200 years, trade and commerce and ideology traveled along the Silk Road fairly unabridged until the mid 1400’s when the Ottoman Turks came along and took down Constantinople (which was at the time a Capital City of the Roman empire) and essentially shut down the Silk Road because they didn’t want to trade with the West. Now, as the West had been relying heavily on many goods from the East, (like Black Pepper) the search was on to get it, going around the blockade of the Turks. This is what sparks the European Age of Discovery and the Spice Routes (the high seas equivalent of the Silk Road).
Going all the way back to the 1100’s Portugal was surrounded by Spanish hostiles to the East and Muslims to the South, so to seek out the refuge of other Christians, they had to travel. And to do that, they had to go by sea. This is what probably what made the Portuguese the skilled Maritimers that they were as they had an advanced knowledge of the Atlantic Ocean. Fast forward to the mid to late 1400’s and the race is on to find a new way to get to the Orient. Who are the two countries poised to lead up the expeditions to find new ways to the Far East? Spain and Portugal. We all know the story of the Italian explorer Columbus heads west from Spain to find a new route to Asia, then six years go by, and Portuguese explorer de Gama travels down around the southern tip of Africa, rounds the Cape of Good Hope, heads east and eventually winds up in Calcutta, India in 1498 – not only in search of new Spice Trade routes, but more specifically in search of Black Pepper. We’ll get back to Vasco de Gama next week, but for now let’s talk about what happened when Columbus set sail and what he found.
I mentioned above that Black Pepper was one of the highly sought after spices after the shutdown of the Silk Road by the Ottomans. It was so valuable that it was literally worth its weight in gold and was used to pay expenses like rent and salaries, thus making black pepper a most highly prized spice!!! That’s why the race was on to find another way to it. Well, what Columbus found when he to Hispaniola was not black pepper – because the pepper vine didn’t grow in the America’s, but Chili Peppers (Capsicums) did. Chili Peppers had been growing in America for thousands of years and had been widely cultivated by the Aztecs and used as a basis for many dishes and beverages in native Aztec and Indigenous peoples (Taino/Arawak) cooking/cuisines. Columbus thought that due to the versatility of this new ingredient, it’s popularity would far surpass the Black Pepper (spice) as it headed back to meet its new market, Europe.
And that’s where I leave you until next week folks! I’ll leave you in suspense, right on the edge of your seats.. so no Googling to see what happens!
Next Week we are going to start with Columbus returning to Portugal in 1493 with pepper seeds, why chilis were initially rejected in Europe, How and Why they gained popularity in West and East Africa; and India and China by the way of Micronesia and the Spice Islands.
And finally we will finish week three by talking about how the Turks “re-introduced” chilis (Paprika) to present day Hungary and the Balkans, making the sweet and mellow powder a staple in their cuisines. Where chilis eventually starting popping up in Europe, and all the way to Chili Powder in America (which is actually a spice blend invented for chili con carne – another Southwestern American Staple)
Anyway, that gives us a lot to talk about in the upcoming weeks. In addition to some story about this traveling fruit – yes… fruit, I will as always “pepper in” (sorry, couldn’t resist) some fun recipes. I promise not to totally and completely bore you, so I am going stay on track best way I know possible – by totally getting off track as much as I can
And Now For The Exciting Conclusion of, "As The Pepper Burns..."
Ok, where were we.?.?. Oh yeah, that's right. The year is 1493, and it's reported that Columbus has returned to Spain with something even more magical and colorful and pungent that what he originally set out for (well, 2 things.. but allspice is a story for another day) capsicum - the chili pepper. But as it happens from time to time, new ideas and or products are met with resistance.... something something people and change... the humble chili pepper's introduction to the Europeans was also chilly (as in cold)! People didn't enjoy the heat - the damn thing was too hot! In 1554, the Flemish doctor, Rembert Dodoens, warned that the fruit (yes, fruit) would "killeth dogs, if it be given them to eat." It took about 100 years and a trip around the world that looked like it was drawn on an etch-a-sketch for the Europeans to come around... kinda.
Now, we already talked about the Portuguese a bit... they were incredibly skilled sailors that had conquered the spice route around Africa up to the Arabian Peninsula and over to India. In doing this they had established trading ports on the east and west sides of Africa and then by the 1530's had even established colonies all the way over in Brazil!!! Why is this important and how does it relate to the chili pepper?
Yep, I heard you.. the lady in the back that yelled, "Climate!"
Funny thing about super hot weather... weather that you'd find in say, the desert, or around Africa or the Middle East, or India... If you can eat something hotter than the temperature, you kinda forget about it. (This may have something to do with the pepper's dead start in Europe). So what started happening is chili peppers starting coming over from Brazil to western Africa via Portuguese ships and starting mixing into the cuisines of west Africa to India where heavily spiced foods were already being eaten, and even started to be used as a replacement to the indigenous spices that were "bringing the heat" - like grains of paradise - all the way to Southwestern China where the numbing effects of the Szechaun "peppercorn" were livened up by the fiery kick of the capsicum. By the 1540's many varieties of peppers could be found growing all over India, and the love story of spiced and spicy begins.
Now, it's been about 50 years since the chili pepper hit the shelves in Europe. Let's check back in a see if there's been any changes. Nope, not really... They are just starting to be introduced into herbals, but they're more ornamentally decorative - wait, what?1?!? Renaissance Europeans used Chili Ristras as decorations? No Way! (Am I the only one that can visualize some kind of 16th Century Medieval Tchotchke / Souvenir shop right about now selling Ristras, Ashtrays, and Pomanders?)
Back to the climate thing... As the chili pepper left its home in the America's and traveled to new and distant lands, it endured new soils and growing conditions, thus altering the make-up of the pepper. With this and a little help in hybridizing from the man, the pungency and shape of the pepper began to alter. What was once crippling hot and round became tolerable, elongated, and took on more sweet characteristics.
And now finally back to where we started... the Ottoman Turks. As the Turks controlled the region that nestled up to Asia - there was a significant influence on their cuisine from the East - one of the most notable being capsicum. The Turks loved the pepper - and introduced a less spicy version of it into their empire where it spread like "wildfire" - sorry, I had to. The dried and ground pepper acclimated quickly into daily cooking and soon rose up to be a super ingredient in Hungarian cuisine! The elongated, mild pepper was also popular around the Mediterranean where you could find it stuffed with many varieties of meat and rice. This is where the story gets boring again. As Sir Walter Raleigh and his crew come over from England in 1585 they brought over with them a really, and I mean really boring palate. Paprika used in dishes for a couple hundred years in America wasn't for taste, but for color. It wasn't until Southwestern US Chili (Chili con Carne) was invented in the late 1800's that Americanized Chili Powder (Dried and ground capsicum, mixed with paprika, cumin, and garlic) started gaining popularity and that was the beginning of the chili craze in America. But you know what really brought it on... ready for it... Immigrants! Immigrants from other countries/continents such as Africa, India, and Asia that had the pepper introduced to them hundreds of years ago from South America, brought and re-popularized the chili pepper into North America and Modern American Cuisine (well - that and soldiers returning home from war!) What A Long Strange Trip It's Been... Am I Right?!?!? Now You Know.