|Fruit and longitudinal section|
Capsicum is a genus of flowering plants in the nightshade family Solanaceae. Its species are native to the Americas, where they have been cultivated for thousands of years. In modern times, it is cultivated worldwide, and has become a key element in many regional cuisines. In addition to use as spices and food vegetables, Capsicum species have also found use in medicines.
The fruit of Capsicum plants have a variety of names depending on place and type. The piquant (spicy) varieties are commonly called chili peppers, or simply "chilies". The large, mild form is called red pepper, green pepper, or bell pepper in North America and typically just "capsicum" in New Zealand, Australia, and India. The fruit is called paprika in some other countries (although paprika can also refer to the powdered spice made from various capsicum fruit).
The generic name is derived from the Greek word κάπτω (kapto), meaning "to bite" or "to swallow". The name "pepper" came into use because of their similar flavour to the condiment black pepper, Piper nigrum, although there is no botanical relationship with this plant, or with Sichuan pepper. The original Mexican term, chilli (now chile in Mexico) came from the Nahuatl word chilli or xilli, referring to a larger Capsicum variety cultivated at least since 3000 BC, as evidenced by remains found in pottery from Puebla and Oaxaca.
Capsaicin in capsicum
The fruit of most species of Capsicum contains capsaicin (methyl vanillyl nonenamide), a lipophilic chemical that can produce a strong burning sensation (pungency or spiciness) in the mouth of the unaccustomed eater. Most mammals find this unpleasant, whereas birds are unaffected. The secretion of capsaicin protects the fruit from consumption by insects and mammals, while the bright colours attract birds that will disperse the seeds.
Capsaicin is present in large quantities in the placental tissue (which holds the seeds), the internal membranes, and to a lesser extent, the other fleshy parts of the fruits of plants in this genus. The seeds themselves do not produce any capsaicin, although the highest concentration of capsaicin can be found in the white pith around the seeds.
The amount of capsaicin in the fruit is highly variable and dependent on genetics and environment, giving almost all types of Capsicum varied amounts of perceived heat. The only Capsicum without capsaicin is the bell pepper, a cultivar of Capsicum annuum, which has a zero rating on the Scoville scale. The lack of capsaicin in bell peppers is due to a recessive gene that eliminates capsaicin and, consequently, the "hot" taste usually associated with the rest of the Capsicum family.
Chili peppers are of great importance in Native American medicine, and capsaicin is used in modern medicine—mainly in topical medications—as a circulatory stimulant and analgesic. In more recent times, an aerosol extract of capsaicin, usually known as capsicum or pepper spray, has become widely used by police forces as a nonlethal means of incapacitating a person, and in a more widely dispersed form for riot control, or by individuals for personal defense. Pepper in vegetable oils, or as an horticultural product can be used in gardening as a natural insecticide.
Although black pepper causes a similar burning sensation, it is caused by a different substance—piperine.
Capsicum fruits and peppers can be eaten raw or cooked. Those used in cooking are generally varieties of the C. annuum and C. frutescens species, though a few others are used, as well. They are suitable for stuffing with fillings such as cheese, meat, or rice.
They are also frequently used both chopped and raw in salads, or cooked in stir-fries or other mixed dishes. They can be sliced into strips and fried, roasted whole or in pieces, or chopped and incorporated into salsas or other sauces, of which they are often a main ingredient.
They can be preserved in the form of a jam, or by drying, pickling, or freezing. Dried peppers may be reconstituted whole, or processed into flakes or powders. Pickled or marinated peppers are frequently added to sandwiches or salads. Frozen peppers are used in stews, soups, and salsas. Extracts can be made and incorporated into hot sauces.
The Spanish conquistadores soon became aware of their culinary properties, and brought them back to Europe, together with cocoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tobacco, maize, beans, and turkeys. They also brought it to the Spanish Philippines colonies, whence it spread to Asia. The Portuguese brought them to their African and Asiatic possessions such as India.
All the varieties were appreciated, but the hot ones are particularly appreciated because they can enliven otherwise monotonous diets. This was of some importance during dietary restrictions for religious reasons, such as Lent in Christian countries.
Spanish cuisine soon benefited from the discovery of chiles in the New World, and it would be very difficult to untangle Spanish cooking from chiles, garlic, and olive oil. Ground chiles, or paprika, hot or otherwise, are a key ingredient in chorizo, which is then called picante (if hot chile is added) or dulce (if otherwise). Paprika is also an important ingredient in rice dishes, and plays a definitive role in squid Galician style (polbo á feira). Chopped chiles are used in fish or lamb dishes such as ajoarriero or chilindrón. Pisto is a vegetarian stew with chilies and zucchini as main ingredients. They can also be added, finely chopped, to gazpacho as a garnish. In some regions, bacon is salted and dusted in paprika for preservation. Cheese can also be rubbed with paprika to lend it flavour and colour. Dried round chiles called ñoras are used for arroz a banda.
According to Richard Pankhurst, C. frutescens (known as barbaré) was so important to the national cuisine of Ethiopia, at least as early as the 19th century, "that it was cultivated extensively in the warmer areas wherever the soil was suitable." Although it was grown in every province, barbaré was especially extensive in Yejju, "which supplied much of Showa, as well as other neighbouring provinces." He mentions the upper Golima River valley as being almost entirely devoted to the cultivation of this plant, where it was harvested year round.
In Bulgaria, South Serbia, and Macedonia, peppers are very popular, too. They can be eaten in salads, like shopska salata; fried and then covered with a dip of tomato paste, onions, garlic, and parsley; or stuffed with a variety of products, such as minced meat and rice, beans, or cottage cheese and eggs. Peppers are also the main ingredient in the traditional tomato and pepper dip lyutenitsa and ajvar. They are in the base of different kinds of pickled vegetables dishes, turshiya.
Peppers are also used widely in Italian cuisine, and the hot species are used all around the southern part of Italy as a common spice (sometimes served with olive oil). Capsicum peppers are used in many dishes; they can be cooked by themselves in a variety of ways (roasted, fried, deep-fried) and are a fundamental ingredient for some delicatessen specialities, such as nduja.
Species and varieties
Capsicum consists of 20–27 species, five of which are domesticated: C. annuum, C. baccatum, C. chinense, C. frutescens, and C. pubescens. Phylogenetic relationships between species were investigated using biogeographical, morphological, chemosystematic, hybridization, and genetic data. Fruits of Capsicum can vary tremendously in color, shape, and size both between and within species, which has led to confusion over the relationships between taxa. Chemosystematic studies helped distinguish the difference between varieties and species. For example, C. baccatum var. baccatum had the same flavonoids as C. baccatum var. pendulum, which led researchers to believe the two groups belonged to the same species.
Many varieties of the same species can be used in many different ways; for example, C. annuum includes the "bell pepper" variety, which is sold in both its immature green state and its red, yellow, or orange ripe state. This same species has other varieties, as well, such as the Anaheim chiles often used for stuffing, the dried ancho chile used to make chili powder, the mild-to-hot jalapeño, and the smoked, ripe jalapeño, known as chipotle.
Most of the capsaicin in a pungent (hot) pepper is concentrated in blisters on the epidermis of the interior ribs (septa) that divide the chambers of the fruit to which the seeds are attached. A study on capsaicin production in fruits of C. chinense showed that capsaicinoids are produced only in the epidermal cells of the interlocular septa of pungent fruits, that blister formation only occurs as a result of capsaicinoid accumulation, and that pungency and blister formation are controlled by a single locus, Pun1, for which there exist at least two recessive alleles that result in non-pungency of C. chinense fruits.
The amount of capsaicin in hot peppers varies significantly between varieties, and is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU). The world's current hottest known pepper as rated in SHU is the 'Carolina Reaper' which had been measured at over 2,200,000 SHU.
- Capsicum annuum L.
- Capsicum baccatum L.
- Capsicum buforum Hunz.
- Capsicum campylopodium Sendtn.
- Capsicum cardenasii Heiser & P. G. Sm.
- Capsicum ceratocalyx M.Nee
- Capsicum chacoense Hunz.
- Capsicum chinense Jacq.
- Capsicum coccineum (Rusby) Hunz.
- Capsicum cornutum (Hiern) Hunz.
- Capsicum dimorphum (Miers) Kuntze
- Capsicum dusenii Bitter
- Capsicum eximium Hunz.
- Capsicum flexuosum Sendtn.
- Capsicum friburgense Bianch. & Barboza
- Capsicum frutescens L.
- Capsicum galapagoense Hunz.
- Capsicum geminifolium (Dammer) Hunz.
- Capsicum havanense Kunth
- Capsicum hookerianum (Miers) Kuntze
- Capsicum hunzikerianum Barboza & Bianch.
- Capsicum lanceolatum (Greenm.) C.V.Morton & Standl.
- Capsicum leptopodum (Dunal) Kuntze
- Capsicum lycianthoides Bitter
- Capsicum minutiflorum (Rusby) Hunz.
- Capsicum mirabile Mart. ex Sendtn.
- Capsicum mositicum Toledo
- Capsicum parvifolium Sendtn.
- Capsicum pereirae Barboza & Bianch.
- Capsicum pubescens Ruiz & Pav.
- Capsicum ramosissimum Witasek
- Capsicum recurvatum Witasek
- Capsicum rhomboideum (Dunal) Kuntze
- Capsicum schottianum Sendtn.
- Capsicum scolnikianum Hunz.
- Capsicum spina-alba (Dunal) Kuntze
- Capsicum stramoniifolium (Kunth) Standl.
- Capsicum tovarii Eshbaugh et al.
- Capsicum villosum Sendtn.
Formerly placed here
- Tubocapsicum anomalum (Franch. & Sav.) Makino (as C. anomalum Franch. & Sav.)
- Vassobia fasciculata (Miers) Hunz. (as C. grandiflorum Kuntze)
- Witheringia stramoniifolia Kunth (as C. stramoniifolium (Kunth) Kuntze)
Most Capsicum species are 2n=24. A few of the nondomesticated species are 2n=32.
Several breeding programs are being conducted by corporations and universities. New Mexico State University has released several varieties in the last few years. Cornell has worked to develop regionally adapted varieties. Many types of peppers have been bred for heat, size, and yield.
Synonyms and common names
The name given to the Capsicum fruits varies between English-speaking countries.
In Australia, New Zealand, and India, heatless varieties are called "capsicums", while hot ones are called "chilli"/"chillies" (double L). Pepperoncini are also known as "sweet capsicum". The term "bell peppers" is almost never used, although C. annuum and other varieties which have a bell shape and are fairly hot, are often called "bell chillies".
In Ireland and the United Kingdom, the heatless varieties are commonly known simply as "peppers" (or more specifically "green peppers", "red peppers", etc.), while the hot ones are "chilli"/"chillies" (double L) or "chilli peppers".
In the United States and Canada, the common heatless varieties are referred to as "bell peppers", "sweet peppers", "red/green/etc. peppers", or simply "peppers", while the hot varieties are collectively called "chile"/"chiles", "chili"/"chilies", or "chili"/"chile peppers" (one L only), "hot peppers", or named as a specific variety (e.g., banana pepper).
In Polish and in Hungarian, the term papryka and paprika (respectively) is used for all kinds of capsicums (the sweet vegetable, and the hot spicy), as well as for dried and ground spice made from them (named paprika in both U.S. English and Commonwealth English). Also, fruit and spice can be attributed as papryka ostra (hot pepper) or papryka słodka (sweet pepper). The term pieprz (pepper) instead means only grains or ground black pepper (incl. the green, white, and red forms), but not capsicum. Sometimes, the hot capsicum spice is also called chilli.
In Italy and the Italian- and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, the sweet varieties are called peperone and the hot varieties peperoncino (literally "small pepper"). In Germany, the heatless varieties as well as the spice are called Paprika while the hot types are primarily called Peperoni or Chili while in Austria, Pfefferoni is more common for these; in Dutch, this word is also used exclusively for bell peppers, whereas chilli is reserved for powders, and hot pepper variants are referred to as Spaanse pepers (Spanish peppers). In Switzerland, though, the condiment powder made from capsicum is called Paprika (German language regions) and paprica (French and Italian language region). In French, capsicum is called poivron.
In Spanish-speaking countries, many different names are used for the varieties and preparations. In Mexico, the term chile is used for "hot peppers", while the heatless varieties are called pimiento (the masculine form of the word for pepper, which is pimienta). Several other countries, such as Chile, whose name is unrelated, Perú, Puerto Rico, and Argentina, use ají. In Spain, heatless varieties are called pimiento and hot varieties guindilla. Also, in Argentina and Spain, the variety C. chacoense is commonly known as "putaparió", a slang expression equivalent to "damn it", probably due to its extra-hot flavour. In Indian English, the word "capsicum" is used exclusively for Capsicum annuum. All other varieties of hot capsicum are called chilli. In northern India and Pakistan, C. annuum is also commonly called shimla mirch in the local language and as "Kodai Mozhagai" in Tamil which roughly translates to "umbrella chilli" due to its appearance. Shimla, incidentally, is a popular hill-station in India (and mirch means chilli in local languages).
In Japanese, tōgarashi (唐辛子, トウガラシ "Chinese mustard") refers to hot chili peppers, and particularly a spicy powder made from them which is used as a condiment, while bell peppers are called pīman (ピーマン, from the French piment or the Spanish pimiento).
Pictures of Capsicum cultivars
Peperoncini (C. annuum)
Peperoncini in kebab restaurant
Cayenne pepper (C. annuum)
Habanero chili (C. chinense Jacquin)- plant with flower and fruit
Scotch bonnet (C. chinense) in a Caribbean market
Thai peppers (C. annuum)
Piri piri (C. frutescens 'African Devil')
Naga jolokia pepper (bhut jolokia) (C. chinense x C. frutescens)
A small but very hot Capsicum in Malaysia
Dried and crunchy Capsicum from Basilicata
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- Capsicum pepper factsheet from Purdue Guide to Medicinal and Aromatic Plants
- Capsicums: Innovative Uses of an Ancient Crop History, Botany, Breeding, and Pungency. Purdue University, Indiana, U.S.A.
- IBPGR (1985). Solanacaea. International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, Rome, Italy.
- Descriptors for Capsicum (Capsicum spp.) from Bioversity International (PDF, 770 kb)
- Capsicum and Chillies: Commercial Cultivation DPI&F Queensland, Australia.
- Chilli: La especia del Nuevo Mundo (Article from Germán Octavio López Riquelme about biology, nutrition, culture and medical topics. In Spanish)