Chillies belong to the potato, tomato, and aubergine family of plants, and have been cultivated for thousands of years. There are at least 150 different types of chillies, which are the world’s biggest spice crop. They are now grown in all tropical regions and eaten daily by about a quarter of the world’s population. Chillies are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, and provide that added benefit to the millions of people who eat them as a means of pepping up a bland and unvarying diet.
Native range Central America, South America, Caribbean Islands
Major producers India, Thailand, Mexico, USA, South Korea, Turkey, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania
Harvesting Most chillies are grown as annuals and harvesting occurs about 3 months after planting. Green chillies are immature fruits and red chillies have been allowed to ripen for a further 4 weeks. Most of the chilli crop is dried, either in the sun or artificially.
Taste and aroma Chillies range in taste from mild and tingling to explosively hot. Large, fleshy varieties tend to be milder than small, thin-skinned ones. The characteristic pungency of chillies comes from the presence of capsaicin, which stimulates the digestive and circulatory processes.
Culinary uses Chillies can be used whole (fresh or dried), or in crushed or powdered form. Chilli powders are prepared from a variety of mild to hot chillies, and are typically milder than cayenne pepper. Crushed chilli (or chilli flakes) contains both the flesh and seeds from red chillies and can be used instead of chilli powder.
Other uses Oleoresins (a mixture of resin and oil) extracted from chillies contain capsaicin and are used in processed food. Capsaicin has counter-irritant properties and is used in pain balms and liniment. It is also the essential ingredient in pepper sprays used by law enforcement agencies.
Historical uses Use of this hot spice in Mexico is recorded as early as 7000 BC. Christopher Columbus took chilli plants back to Spain and from there they spread to Africa, India, and the Far East, where they quickly became an integral part of each cuisine.
Storage Fresh chillies keep in the refrigerator for a week or more. Dried chillies and chilli powder will keep almost indefinitely in an airtight container.