Which would you prefer: a pound of pepper or a pound of gold? You would probably say gold these days, but you might have said "pepper" hundreds of years ago. During the Middle Ages (from about AD 400 to the 1500s), black pepper and the peppercorns it comes from were worth as much as gold. People could pay their debts and their rent with them. Today pepper is still the most widely used spice in the world. It is used in one way or another in most cultures. It can be used to prepare just about every kind of dish, including desserts.
Pepper first came from the rain forests of Kerala, a region on the southwest coast of India. The evergreen vines produce white flowers and small green berries that turn yellowish-red as they ripen. Picking and sun-drying the pepper berries just before they are fully ripe produces the finest peppercorns. These are crushed to produce our familiar black pepper. White pepper is obtained by removing the outer coating of the ripened berries before crushing. Green pepper is produced from the unripe green berries.
The use of pepper began to spread about 4,000 years ago as Arabs and ancient Phoenicians traded with India. Pepper became known as "the master spice" or "the king of spices" because of its popularity. It was well-known in Greece by 400 BC, and thought to be an antidote for hemlock poison. During the Roman Empire, foreign trade focused on five "essential luxuries": Indian pepper, African ivory, Chinese silk, German amber, and Arabian incense.
Recipes for pepper sauces appeared in Roman novels about the first century AD. In AD 400, when outlying tribes invaded Rome and demanded tribute, their demands included not only land and military titles, but also 3,000 pounds of pepper.
Explorers traveled far and wide looking for new sources of pepper. Pepper was one of the reasons Christopher Columbus sailed west in search of a new route to the Indies. When he arrived in the Americas instead, he was introduced to a new fruit, called ají by the locals. It was very spicy, so he called it a pepper. What he had found was the chile, also called the chile pepper, thanks to Columbus.
Columbus brought chile peppers back to Europe with him. Portuguese and Spanish traders took them to their countries' colonies in Africa and Asia, including China. Chiles caught on so fast in the Orient that today people think they must have originated there.
The first chiles are believed to have come from Bolivia. They spread throughout South America and later North America as native American tribes traded with one another.
As chiles grew in popularity, people developed more varieties. The plants cross-pollinate easily, so today there are thousands of varieties. More are being developed all the time. Some seek hotter varieties, while others seek milder or more exotic flavors.
Black pepper and chiles both add a spicy taste, but for different reasons. Black pepper's pungency comes from an alkaloid called piperine (PIP-ur-een). In chiles, capsaicin (cap-SAY-uh-sin) is what causes the burning sensation in your mouth. Chiles probably evolved this ingredient to keep them from being eaten by mammals. Birds can't taste this heat, so they ate peppers anyway and helped disperse the seeds until humans started spreading chile seeds around.
Many people think the seeds are the hottest part of the chile, but that's not true. Capsaicin is mostly found in the membranes or ribs and in the tissue surrounding the seeds, but not in the seeds themselves.
Many chile peppers are picked and used while still green. As they ripen and turn red, they grow hotter to the taste. And in general, the smaller the chile, the hotter it will be.
Like black pepper, chile peppers can be dried and ground into powder. Chili powder, including varieties like cayenne, began appearing in recipes in England and the United States in the 1700s. The first bottled cayenne sauces appeared in Massachusetts in 1807. In 1859, Col. Maunsel White of Louisiana bottled a sauce made from Tabasco chiles. The chiles were mashed, strained, and mixed with vinegar and salt. He shared his chiles and recipe with Edmund McIlhenny, who planted his own Tabascoes and began making sauce.
In 1868, Mr. McIlhenny put his sauce in 350 used cologne bottles and sent them to wholesalers as samples. Thousands of orders poured in for Tabasco sauce, now a household name.
Salsa has been traced back to the ancient Mayans, but bottling hot sauce for sale is fairly new. David Pace began bottling his picante sauce in 1947. The first bottles exploded all over grocery shelves until he perfected the formula. (The ingredients were fermenting, creating gases that built up in the jars until they burst.)
Today, chili sauce, taco sauce, enchilada sauce, and other hot sauces are very popular. In 1992, salsa replaced ketchup as America's No. 1 condiment. Today, hundreds of bottled sauces use chiles. Many more recipes call for black pepper. Both help to spice up our meals and give us something in common with other lovers of spicy foods around the world.
You may have noticed that green bell peppers don't taste as 'hot' as the jalapeños or other small peppers you may find on a plate of nachos. Chiles vary widely in how pungent or 'hot' they taste. A chile's 'heat' is measured in two ways.
The Scoville test was developed by American chemist Wilbur Scoville in the 1920s. Testers taste a chile and record the heat level. Then the samples are diluted until the taster can no longer detect any heat. Problems: Tasters can only handle a limited number of samples, and the heat level they detect is based on personal taste.
A more accurate method is High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). In this method, chiles are dried and ground up. The chemicals that make the chile pungent are extracted and placed in a device for analysis. The results can be converted to Scoville heat units.
Individual batches of chiles vary in pungency, so measurements vary, too. Jalapeños range anywhere from 4,000 to 50,000 Scovilles. Habaneros are usually the most pungent, but some other chiles can occasionally rate higher.
Students at New Mexico State University are studying the factors that affect a chile's pungency, says Denise Coon, assistant director of the Chile Institute there. Among their findings: Chiles growing low on the plant are more pungent than the ones growing higher up.
Here are some of the heat levels of popular chiles from one study, measured in Scoville units.
Bell Pepper 0
Thai Hot 60,000
Red Habanero 150,000
Orange Habanero 210,000
Note: Pure capsaicin, the chemical that provides the 'heat' in chiles, measures 15 million Scovilles.
And a tip: If you eat a chile that's too hot, put out the fire with milk or some other dairy product containing fat. Because capsaicin is not very soluble in water, drinking water will tend to just spread the heat around your mouth. Capsaicin is very soluble in fat, though, so that will help neutralize it.
Salsa is defined as a mixture of tomatoes, peppers, and onions. But you can find salsa recipes with many other ingredients and flavors. If you'd like to make a salsa of your own, here's a good recipe to give you a start. It comes from Kansas State University's Kids a' Cookin' website and is used with permission.
Note: The peppers in this recipe come from a picante sauce of your choice. If you (or your grown-up helper) cut up peppers yourself, be sure to wear gloves. Some hot peppers can give your hands a burning sensation.
You'll need a mixing bowl, spoon, measuring cups, cutting board, and a sharp knife. You also need a grown-up to do the chopping!
1/2 cup corn (fresh cooked or frozen)
1 can (15 ounces) black beans, drained and rinsed. (Note: You don't have to use ALL the beans.)
1 cup fresh tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup onion, diced
1/2 cup green pepper, diced
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup picante sauce (your choice)
1. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Chill until serving time. (Meanwhile, clean up!)
2. Drain before serving.
3. Serve with tortilla chips or fresh vegetables.
You can visit Kansas State University's Kids a' Cookin' website at: www.kidsacookin.org