Vol. 13, No. 11 June 15 - 28, 2000


Botanical Bazaar

What Makes Peppers Hot, Hot, Hot!


When I was a young boy, my Tia (aunt) Anita, a native of Techaluta, Jalisco, México, would make the hottest hot sauce anyone ever tasted. To be able to eat it was to be considered an adult. I also remember coming home from school and walking into my house and practically gagging on the smell of chile peppers roasting on an open flame. My mother, also a native of the same place, was preparing one of her special sauces made from hot peppers.

The chile pepper (Capsicum sp.) originated in the Americas; the earliest remains come from Peru. Because Christopher Columbus thought he was in India when he happened upon the Western Hemisphere, he thought this spicy fruit was related to the pepper from India (Piper nigrum). They are not related at all but the spicy flavor was widely accepted throughout Europe and, within a short time afterward, spread to China, Indonesia and within a hundred years, the chile pepper was known the world over. George Washington, our first president, grew chile peppers at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia.

Some peppers are hotter than others. The "hot" that one feels when eating one of the hot varieties is due to natural substances called capsaicinoids. If you've ever had a jalapeño pepper, you know about the burning sensation on the tongue, and the watery eyes, runny nose, and perspiration it can cause. The best known of the capsaicinoids is capsaicin which is so hot that a single drop of pure capsaicin diluted in 100,000 drops of water will produce a blister on your tongue. Now that's hot. A scale of "hot" was long ago established by my cousins, the Aztecs. The scale was coco/"hot,"cocpatic/"very hot," cocopetz-patic/"very, very hot," cocopetztic/"brilliant hot," cocpetzquauitl/"extremely hot," and cocpaalatic/"runaway hot." Several hundred years later a pharmacist named Wilbur I. Scoville developed a scale of hotness based on extraction of capsaicin from peppers.

Some varieties of peppers are named for the regions from which they originated. The "jalapeño" is originally from Jalapa, México. In fact, the jalapeño was the first pepper in space, traveling on board the space shuttle in 1982. The "Anaheim" is a variety originally bred in southern California in the early 20th century. Other varieties and their native regions, arranged in order of "hotness" (according to Scoville units), are Scotch Bonnet (Jamaica, Caribbean, and Belize), Jamaica Hot (Jamaica and other Caribbean islands), Thai (Southeast Asia and California), Cayenne (Louisiana, México, Asia, and Africa), Serrano (México and southwest US), Wax (México, California, and southwest US), Rocotillo (South America), Poblano (Puebla, México City region, and California), Bell Pepper (Holland, Mediterranean Basin, and California), and Sweet Italian (Mediterranean Basin, California). The last two peppers have no capsaicin, hence, their sweet taste.

If you're looking for a place to purchase a wide variety of peppers from México, then walk over to the Taqueria Mexicana, owned by Ernesto and Miguel Flores, at 23 Bedford Park Boulevard (at Jerome Avenue). There phone number there is (718) 562-4471. They have dried peppers popular in Mexican cuisine. These include guajillo, puya, arbol, costeño, pasilla, chipotle, mulato, and ancho. All these are used to make salsas and moles (remember I talked about this in the "origins of chocolate" article?). If you want tips on how to make these exquisite Mexican dishes, stop by the store and speak with Carla Pérez, who would be glad to answer your questions.

Alfredo Gomez-Beloz is completing his Ph.D. on the ethnobotany of the Winikina Warao Indians of Venezuela. He is a student at the CUNY Graduate Center and the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. He lives in Bedford Park. Botanical Bazaar is a monthly column in the Norwood News.

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