The chili (also spelled chile and chilli) originated in Latin America and the West Indies. We have Columbus to thank for discovering them in their native lands and bringing them to the Old World and also for coining the chili’s erroneous moniker by declaring it a pepper, since it gave off a similar heat to that of the black peppercorn. In actuality, the chili is a fruit of an entirely different species than the pepper plant, though it would take another couple of centuries to sort that out. In the meantime, though, the chili pepper, as it came to be known, was spread throughout Europe and Asia, as it followed Columbus and other spice traders on their travels. (The chili pepper has been an undeniable worldwide hit since!)
Depending on their variety (and there are over 3,000!), chilies ripen from green to an array of colors: red, yellow, orange, deep purple, brown, and almost black. They also vary in their capsaicin levels, the compound most concentrated along a chili’s ribs and seeds and is responsible for its heat: a bell pepper, though technically in the same genus and species as the spicy serrano, produces no capsaicin, and therefore, packs no heat. Commonly, though, the term “chili” is reserved for the spicy varieties.
Chilies are used fresh and dried, imbuing different flavors and qualities in their separate forms, much as a fresh tomato tastes and may be used entirely differently than a sundried tomato. Many households in India keep a large store of fresh green chilies on hand to use in their cooking; these can be used whole, sliced, roasted, or charred over intense heat and worked into stews and chutneys or eaten raw as a condiment. To produce dry chilies, fresh pods are traditionally set out in the sun to cure over several days. Once dry, they are officially considered a spice and can be used whole, ground, and reconstituted with liquid to form a paste.
The intensity of a chili’s heat in a dish can be affected by the other ingredients it is cooked with. Oils and fats, which coat the capsaicin molecules, can temper or delay a dish’s spicy bite. Sweetness, creamy dairy or coconut milk, and starch (like potatoes in a curry dish) can also reduce its spiciness.
- whole dried chilies
- dried chili flakes
- ground dried chilies (pure chili powder)
- whole fresh chilies
Chili has been used:
- as a good source of vitamin C and carotene, vitamins B, potassium, magnesium, and iron
- to fight inflammation, clear congestion, boost immunity, and aid in weight loss
- as an ingredient in pepper spray
- as a means of natural crop defense
In the absence of actual chilis, hot sauce can be used. Or, if heat in a dish is not desired or not to be too missed, simply omit the chili.