Chili Peppers are actually a fruit from the capsicum genus, and are related to the nightshade family. Chili peppers originated in north, central and South America, and were introduced to Europe by Diego Álvarez Chanca the physician from Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the new world. Originally they were grown for decoration in gardens and greenhouses in Spain. After some experimentation, local monks discovered the flavor properties chili peppers and the plants were used as an alternative to peppercorns which were very expensive at the time. Chili peppers were brought from Spain to Portugal, then to Hungary, Turkey, India, China, Japan, and the Philippines. In Hungary chili peppers became the main ingredient of Paprika.
Chili peppers come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, ranging from red cayenne to orange habanero and green jalapenos, to the dark green nearly purple poblano. Size and color have nothing to do with heat or spiciness of a chili pepper. Chili peppers are rated Scoville units on the Scoville scale. Bell peppers rate 0 on the scale, jalapeno peppers rate between 2,500 and 8,000, and habanero chili peppers rate 100,000-350,000. The current record holder for hottest chili pepper is Naga Viper Pepper with a rating of 1,359,000 Scoville units beating out the previous record holder Naga Jolokia by 300,000 Scoville units.
Capsaicin is the ingredient that gives chili peppers their heat. In small doses, pure capsaicin is used to relieve pain and headaches. In concentrated form, it is used in pepper spray as a non-lethal irritant. Farmers have recently discovered chili peppers can be used a natural defense against crops. In the Americas, it used to keep away small rodents and mammals. In Africa and Asia, it used to keep Elephants from trampling crops. Elephants are especially sensitive because of their noses. Some conservationists are experimenting with using chili peppers to prevent human and elephant confrontations.
Chili peppers can be used fresh or dried in cooking. They are popular in many different cuisines including Mexican, Tex-Mex, Caribbean, Spanish, Indian, Thai, Chinese and Japanese. It is used in soups, sauces, side dishes, and main courses. You can even find chili pepper dessert recipes like ice cream, brownies, and spicy chocolate truffles.
When shopping for chili peppers look for peppers with bright colors and no black spots. The skin should be firm and taught, wrinkled, wilted or soft peppers should be avoided. If you are shopping for dried chili peppers the skin will be wrinkled but the color should still be vivid.