The pepper (Capsicum) is a tender, warm-season vegetable generally divided into two categories: hot (such as cayenne and jalapeno) and sweet (such as bell and pimiento). Banana and cherry peppers are available in both hot and sweet forms. In the English language, "chile," "chili" and "pepper" are all vernacular terms used to describe plants in the Capsicum genus.
Americans tend to think that "chili" refers only to hot peppers. But actually, "chile" is simply the Spanish word for pepper, and in Mexico, it is modified by the particular type, so that "chile jalapeno" means hot pepper, and "chile dulce" means sweet pepper. The word "chile" is derived from Nahuatl, an Aztec dialect.
Columbus and Peppers
Confusion about peppers dates to the time of explorer Christopher Columbus. Believing that he had found a sea passage to India on his first Atlantic voyage, he named the small pungent fruits he encountered "red peppers," thinking they were an exotic variety of Piper nigrum, or black pepper. Instead, they were from a completely unrelated plant that was later classified as Capsicum. The Spanish explorers subsequently introduced the chile to Europe, where it rapidly spread to Asia and Africa.
An Ancient Food
According to Paul Bosland, a horticulture expert whose specialty is Capsicums, research shows that chiles are among the oldest cultivated foods in the Americas and have been in the human diet since about 7,500 B.C. The ancient ancestors of the native peoples used the wild chile piquin to cultivate the varieties we are familiar with today.
Chiles are now a part of almost every world cuisine, and also used as a coloring agent and a pharmaceutical ingredient. It is ironic that even though peppers are native to Central and South America, they reached North America as a "new" food through introduction by the European colonists, having crossed the globe twice.
Chiles have been a commercial product since at least 1600. Spanish colonists in northern New Mexico planted seeds and grew chiles using water from the Rio Chama to irrigate their crops. Thousands of acres of chile plants had been planted in Europe by the mid-1500s. In 1888, a New Mexican horticulturist began experimenting with chile crossbreeding, which led to new artificially created hybrids. Today there are more than 65 different varieties.
Chiles as Medicine
Chiles contain a chemical called capsaicin, which not only gives them their hotness, but also has medicinal qualities. The Mayans used cayenne to fight infections, and the Aztecs used it to treat toothache and scabies. Modern research has found it to be an effective painkiller and a potent source of carotenoids, flavenoids, vitamins and antioxidants.