|Red Capsicum and longitudinal section|
Capsicum is a genus of plants from the nightshade family (Solanaceae), native to the New World where they were cultivated for thousands of years by the people of tropical America, and now cultivated worldwide. Some of the members of Capsicum are used as spices, vegetables, and medicines. The fruit of Capsicum plants have a variety of names depending on place and type. They are commonly called chili pepper, red or green pepper, or just pepper in Britain and the US; the large mild form is called bell pepper in the US, capsicum in Australian English and Indian English, and paprika in some other countries (although paprika can also refer to the powdered spice made from various capsicum fruit).
The original Mexican term, chilli (now chile in Spanish) came from Nahuatl word chilli or xilli, referring to a huge Capsicum variety cultivated at least since 3000 BC, according to remains found in pottery from Puebla and Oaxaca.
The fruit of most species of Capsicum contains capsaicin (methyl vanillyl nonenamide), a lipophilic chemical that can produce a strong burning sensation in the mouth (and, if not properly digested, anus) of the unaccustomed eater. Most mammals find this unpleasant; however, birds are unaffected. Apparently, the secretion of capsaicin is an adaptation to protect the fruit from consumption by mammals while the bright colors attract birds that will spread the seeds. The amount of capsaicin in peppers is highly variable and dependent on genetics, giving almost all types of peppers varied amounts of perceived heat. The only pepper without capsaicin is the bell pepper. Chili peppers are of great importance in Native American medicine, and capsaicin is used in modern Western medicine—mainly in topical preparations—as a circulatory stimulant and pain reliever.
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.
They can be preserved by drying or pickling. Dried peppers may be reconstituted whole, or processed into flakes or powders. Pickled or marinated peppers are frequently added to sandwiches or salads. Extracts can be made and incorporated into hot sauces.
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 neighboring provinces." He singles out the upper Golima river valley as being almost entirely devoted to the cultivation of this plant, where thousands of acres were devoted to the plant and it was harvested year round.
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 a Chipotle.
Most of the capsaicin in a pepper is found in the interior ribs that divide the chambers of the fruit, and to which the seeds are attached. At the stem end of the pod, glands secrete the capsaicin, which then spreads throughout, but is concentrated on the ribs and seeds. The amount varies very significantly by variety, and is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU).
Synonyms and common names
The name given to the fruits varies between English-speaking countries.
In Australia, New Zealand and India, heatless species are called "capsicums" while hot ones are called "chilli/chillies" (double L). The term "bell peppers" is rarely used, usually in reference to C. annuum and other varieties which look like a "capsicum" or bell but are fairly hot.
In the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Canada, the heatless varieties are called "peppers", "sweet peppers" or "capsicums" (or "green peppers," "red peppers," etc) while the hot ones are "chilli/chillies" (double L) or "chilli peppers".
In the United States, the common heatless species is referred to as "bell peppers," "sweet peppers," "red/green/etc peppers," or simply "peppers", while the hot species 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 many midwestern regions of the United States the Sweet Bell Pepper is commonly called a mango. With the modern advent of fresh tropical fruit importers exposing a wider latitude of individuals to the tropical fruit variety of the mango, this usage is becoming archaic. However many menus still call a stuffed bell pepper a mango.
The name "pepper" came into use because the plants were hot in the same sense as the condiment black pepper, Piper nigrum. But there is no botanical relationship with this plant, nor with Sichuan Pepper.
In Spanish-speaking countries there are many different names for each variety and preparation. In Mexico the term chile is used for "hot peppers" while the heatless varieties are called pimiento (masculine form of the word for pepper which is pimienta). Several other countries, such as Chile, whose name is unrelated, Perú, and Argentina, use ají. In Spain, heatless varieties are called pimiento and hot varieties guindilla.
In Indian English, the word "capsicum" is used exclusively for bell pepper. All other varieties of chili peppers are called chilli. In northern India and Pakistan, bell pepper is also commonly called "Shimla Mirch" in the native languages. Shimla incidentally is a popular hill-station in India (and "Mirch" means chilli in native languages).
- Gil-Jurado, A. T., Il senso del chile e del piccante: dalla traduzione culturale alla rappresentazione visiva in (G. Manetti, ed.), Semiofood: Communication and Culture of Meal, Centro Scientifico Editore, Torino, Italy, 2006:34-58
- Mason, J. R., Bean, N. J., Shah, P. S. & Clark, L. Journal of Chemical Ecology 17,2539–2551 (1991)
- Norman, D. M., Mason, J. R. & Clark, L. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 104, 549–551 (1992).
- Richard Pankhurst, Economic History of Ethiopia (Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie I University, 1968), p. 193.
- Pankhurst, Economic History, p. 194.
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- Capsicum pepper factsheet as of 2002-06-10