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CHILLIE PEPPER IN PROFILE

© Kat Morgenstern, March 2002

CHILLIE PEPPER

(Capsicum ssp.)

Solanaceae

SYNONYMS:

Red Pepper, Chilli, Chile Pepper, Cayenne, Bird pepper, Pimiento, Aji

DESCRIPTION:

The genus Capsicum belongs to the Nightshade family, which comprises many other edible plants, such as potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants. There are about 25 known wild varieties, though most cultivated Chillie peppers are variations of the annuum species, other cultivated varieties are C. baccatum, C. chinense, C. frutescens, and C. pubescens. The many hundreds of hybridized varieties, which come in all shapes, colours, sizes and degrees of pungency make classification and nomenclature a difficult and confusing task, especially for the amateur gardener or botanist. Most varieties are derived from the annuum species, though C. frutescens is also popular. The hottest chilies are C. chinensis varieties, popularly known as Habaneros.

Chillie peppers originate in tropical South America, where according to some archeoethnobotanists they have been cultivated for over 7000 years. In tropical regions they develop into perennial bushes, which grow up to 2 meters high and can live to about 10 years. In colder climes frost kills them off so they only grow as annuals. C. pubescens, a somewhat hairy highland species originates in the Andes, and does not tolerate tropical temperatures. Chillie fruits can be yellow, purple, orange, red or green, tiny round berries or elongated pods, some look like miniature squashes others like miniature bell-peppers. Their degree of pungency is equally varied and depends not only on genetic make up, but also on weather and soil conditions. Apparently environmental stress factors increase pungency levels. (Interesting in this context is a piece of planting lore from Africa, which claims that the best, most pungent peppers are grown when the person who plants the seeds is very angry.) Pungency is generally expressed in 'Scoville units' a somewhat subjective measurement based on the so-called 'Scoville Organoleptic Test'. To determine the 'heat level' volunteers are given samples of Chillies, which are subsequently diluted with water until pungency can no longer be detected. The scale ranges from 0 to about 300000. Unfortunately such tests are not very reliable as a degree of tolerance is quickly developed. More recently a scientific method has been devised, known as the 'high-performance liquid chromatography test (HPLC)', which measures the type and quantity of capsaicinoids present in the sample.

ECOLOGY:

Chillie peppers are tropical plants and thus are ideally suited to hot and humid conditions. However, they are very adaptable and will do well even in semi-arid regions. They love nitrogen, a hot and sunny position and a well draining soil. The seeds are mostly dispersed by birds, who love the fruits and don't seem to be affected by the bite.

HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY AND FOLKLORE

chillies (37K)Chillies originate in tropical regions of South America, but spread to Central American regions in pre-Columbian times. Columbus, who went to the New World in search of black pepper and other exotic spices found a far more potent spice than he had bargained for: Chillie peppers. He took some seeds back to Europe, though they did not immediately become popular there as a culinary treat. Instead, they were planted as ornamentals in monastery gardens. Spanish and Portuguese traders introduced them to Africa and Asia where they became an instant hit. Chillies found their way into Central Europe with the Turks during the period when the Ottoman Empire extended as far north as Hungary. The Turks appear to have first encountered them in 1513 at Hormuz, a Portuguese colony in the Persian Gulf, which they besieged at the time.

A folktale tells of the beginnings of Capsicum cultivation in Hungary: One day, while out walking in the fields a beautiful girl, who lived near a Turkish encampment, was abducted by the Turks and imprisoned in the local harem. Apparently the Turks knew of the Chillie's reputation as an aphrodisiac, for they spiced their food and that of the harem girls with Capsicum peppers, probably of the paprika variety. The girl, however, was in love and engaged with a local boy who she pined for. One day she discovered a secret passage to the outside world and escaped to meet her lover. Before she returned to the harem she slipped him some Capsicum seeds. Soon after pepper plants grew all over the countryside. Apparently the new spicy food fortified the resistance fighters, the Turks were fought back and defeated soon after. What remained of their memory were the Capsicum plants.

Of all European cultures Hungary is the most devoted to spicy cuisine and even now is the most significant producer of Capsicums on that continent, mostly paprikas of varying degree of spiciness.

Magical herbalism appropriately assigns Chillie peppers to Mars, the god of war. In Central and South America they were traditionally used in counter magic and protection rituals. Sprinkled around the house they were expected to ward of evil daemons and vampires, while burning them along with garlic and other pungent spices was intended to fumigate and purify the house. Incidentally this procedure is also reputed to dispel vermin and insects. In Latin American countries it is also a popular counter-magical device to ward off or cure the affects of the 'Evil Eye'. Strings of Chillie peppers were used for decoration (Chillie ristas) or worn as a protective necklace. Many villages in Central America are named after the type of Chillie they cultivate and still celebrate special fiestas in honour of the Chillie Saint or God.

Chillies have long enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac spice, their fiery nature was thought to ignite the flame of passion. The Aztecs were known to use Chillies for this purpose, often mixing them with other aphrodisiac plants such as cocoa and vanilla. Even today kitchen jokes with sexual innuendos revolving around Chillies keep the cooks amused in Mexican kitchens and macho contests testing Chillie endurance levels are frequently part of the social dining experience. The women folk tend to quietly watch these contests and draw their own conclusions.

In the Amazon, Chillie is sometimes used as an additive to Yage mixtures, a hallucinogenic medicine that shamans and 'ayahuasceros' use for healing rituals and vision quests throughout Amazonia. There are also reports of certain Chillie types being used in ritual snuff mixtures in conjunction with various other hallucinogenic plants. One can vividly imagine what kind of punch such mixtures would deliver...

On the more aggressive side, Chillies have also been used as a means of punishment for unruly children, who were exposed to their fumes. In Asia they were even used as a means of torture, being rubbed into wounds and sensitive mucous membranes and even squirted into the eyes of the victims. This latter use, in a modified form, is still popular with riot police, which uses tear gas containing capsaicin to control discontented citizens. In the same vein, capsaicin is the major ingredient of pepper sprays used to ward of potential rapists, burglars, muggers or bears.

While western cultures were at first reluctant to integrate this fiery plant into their respective cuisines, in recent years this trend has been almost completely reversed. Chillie is by now probably the most popular spice worldwide. Due to the requirements of the large Latin American communities, not to mention Asian and African populations, the Chillie has conquered its space on North-American supermarket shelves much earlier than in Europe, though slowly the trend is beginning to catch on. Over the past decade or so Chillie fans have grown into a kind of food movement, and Chillie faddism is by now one of the most popular food crazes - thankfully quite a healthy one at that.

In the US one can find specialized stores throughout the country, devoted exclusively to Chillie related products, anything from large selections of fresh and dried Chillies, to whole aisles full of salsas, hot sauces, spice mixtures, pastes, chutneys, vinegars and oils all containing Chillie, to books on Chillie cuisine of all ethnicities, and even jams and candies with Chillie ingredients. Of course - every fad generates related 'merchandise', so often these shops also offer Chillie related non-food items, anything from baseball caps, to aprons, and even underwear with Chillie designs, not to mention cups and plates and a whole range of perfectly useless, but cute little Chillie knick-knacks. Chillie festivals and 'cook-offs' are also regionally popular.

Europe has been a little slower in exploiting this potential food fad market. In many places one can count oneself lucky to find hot Chillies at the supermarkets, though milder varieties are quite commonly available. However, the trend there too is gradually changing, especially in the UK and in Germany, where Asian cuisine is becoming increasingly popular, while the French are probably among the most conservative when it comes to spicy foods.

Magickal Uses:

As a talisman or amulet; aphrodisiac, protection, counter-magic, warding off evil spirits or spells

MEDICINAL USES

PARTS USED:

Fruits, Leaves

HARVEST:

Fruits can be harvested either unripe or ripe. There is no specific information available on when best to harvest the leaves, though in general leaves are best before or during flowering.

CONSTITUENTS:

Vitamin C and A, capsaicin, capsaicinoids, pigment, the capsaicin is concentrated in the placenta of the fruit

ACTIONS:

circulatory stimulant, diaphoretic, decongestant, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, immune system stimulant, anti-inflammatory, fibronolytic, pain relieving, anti-oxidant

INDICATIONS:

migraine and cluster headaches, fevers, colds, nasal catarrh, high blood pressure, stomach and digestive problems, laryngitis, sore throat, rheumatic and neuralgic pain, skin problems, shingles


APPLICATIONS

Fresh Chillie peppers are very rich in vitamin C: 94 mg. per 74 grams in comparison to only 37 mg. in oranges, which makes them very effective as immune system stimulants and healing agents especially for cellular damage. Many folk remedies recommend Chillie pepper in wound cleaning preparations for gangrene and open sores and even as a styptic, though more modern sources generally advise against using Chillie on broken skin. While drying Chillies diminishes most of their vitamin C, it increases the vitamin A content by 100 times. Vitamin A is a powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. Internally, Chillie preparations have been used as a gargle to treat sore throat and laryngitis. Surprisingly, it has been shown that Chillies do not aggravate or cause stomach ulcers. In fact, they seem to have a preventative effect, as stomach ulcers are mostly caused by bacteria. Chillie's antibacterial action kills such bacteria. In folk-medicine they have also long been used to treat worms.

Taken internally the 'heat component' of Chillie peppers has a two-fold effect: It produces a powerful burning sensation, which causes profuse salivation and perspiration. By reflex the stomach secretions are also stimulated, aiding digestion. The immediate effect on the circulatory system is an instant rush, a warming feeling throughout the body, which soon after actually results in an overall cooling effect as perspiration takes body heat to the surface where it evaporates and thus cools the body down. This is one reason why hot foods are popular in hot countries. Simultaneously, the mucous membranes are stimulated, which greatly aids decongestion especially when feeling under the weather or suffering the symptoms of a cold. Overall this eliminative action leaves one feeling internally cleansed, perked up, glowing, relaxed, yet hyper alert, a feeling that has often been likened to a natural high. This blissful state is in fact the result of an endorphin rush, which occurs in response to the onslaught on the nerve receptors. Athletes experience the same kind of endorphin rush after intense physical exertion.

Chillie has a very beneficial effect on the circulatory system. Studies have shown it to counteract cholesterol build up and to reduce platelet aggregation, thus reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. They also lower high blood pressure and increase peripheral circulation. The same studies have found that incidence of heart disease is much lower in populations who regularly consume Chillie in their diet.

Modern herbalists don't tend to utilize Chillie peppers much for internal use, except to give a little extra punch to other herbal remedies. However, stimulating the circulation has an important effect on healing: it improves nutrient distribution to wherever they may be needed. Increased blood flow also means that wastes can be eliminated more effectively. That, coupled with the rich vitamin C and A content makes Chillie an excellent herb for combating internal infections and inflammations.

Externally, Chillies have mostly been used as a rubefacient or 'counter-irritant' application. Most commonly applied as a plaster, poultice or ointment it is employed as a topical treatment for rheumatic and neuralgic pain. Earlier theories presumed that the pain relieving effect was due to the fact that the pain induced by the Chillie application distracted the body from the original source of pain. What actually happens is that capsaicin first stimulates and then blocks the pain receptors, depleting them of the neurotransmitter responsible for pain impulse transmission (substance P). Furthermore, drawing blood into an inflamed area actually helps to decongest it and spreads a sense of soothing warmth. Such external applications may be effective for a wide range of conditions:

To treat a painful condition of the main facial nerve known as 'trigeminal neuralgia', shingles, a painful nerve disorder resulting from long term diabetes known as 'diabetic neuropathy', osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as postamputation pain. It is also used to treat pain resulting from mastectomy as well as mouth sores associated with chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Psoriasis, which has been linked to increased levels of substance P has been shown to improve with Capsaicin treatment. For migraine and cluster headaches the capsaicin preparation is usually administered via a special nasal application, which is best done with the help of a physician.

Caution: Chillie peppers can be very pungent and irritating. External use can result in allergic reactions or blistering. Care must be taken to avoid contact with the sensitive mucous membranes unless specifically used as a treatment (see above). Consult with your physician. Prolonged and excessive internal use of Chillie can irritate the kidneys and digestive tract.

RECIPES:

Chillie peppers have been used for culinary purposes for thousands of years and there are gazillions of recipes, ranging in heat scale from mild to liquid fire, available in numerous books and recipe sites (see below for resources). Mexico has by far the most refined Chillie cuisine, utilizing dozens of very specific Chillie combinations for different dishes to achieve just the perfect flavour. Dried Chillies are usually soaked before use to soften them. Fresh Chillies, especially the larger ones are often roasted or blistered to remove the sometimes rather tough skin. The degree of pungency can be adjusted by removing the seeds and white skin (placenta) which is where most of the capsaicin is concentrated.

Few other foods receive a comparable culinary enthusiasm by some and yet are so feared by others. Some people insist that Chillies 'kill' the flavour of other foods. This may be true at the first encounter, but as tolerance develops one finds that Chillies actually intensify the flavours of other foods, as they intensify sensory perception and awareness in general. The best 'cool-aid' to counteract excessive Chillie heat are milk products (e.g. sour cream), sugar and bread. Water or beer will do nothing to extinguish the fire.

Here is a great Chillie resource with recipes and growing advice and much much more:

Fiery Foods.com



For questions or comments email: kmorgenstern@sacredearth.com

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Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.