Christopher Columbus set out to India in 1492 to acquire, among other things, a reliable supply of black pepper for his Spanish paymasters. Along with mistaking America for India, Christopher Columbus mistook chilli peppers for black peppers, which are not related, and carried them back to Spain. Biting into one of them may have made the difference a little clearer.
THE SCIENCE OF CHILLIES
What makes the chillies hot is capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide). Capsaicin is actually an irritant, and can cause a burning sensation on any tissue it comes into contact with. This triggers a response in the brain that is the same that happens when a cell is exposed to heat. As such it probably evolved in plants as a deterrent against herbivores.
The main heat in the chilli doesn’t actually come from the seeds themselves, as the seeds don’t contain any capsaicin. Instead it’s the flesh of the chilli and the bit that holds the seeds, the placental tissue, that has the heat.
COOLING THE HEAT
After tasting the chilli, Columbus may have reached for a cooling glass of water. This would have been a mistake, however, as the chilli molecules are hydrophobic, meaning they don’t mix with water. Instead the water would have just spread the capsaicin across his mouth, and made the heat feel worse.
The capsaicin molecule is fat-soluble, so if you’re trying to quell that burning mouth, don’t reach for a glass of water, try some milk or yoghurt. Old Chris Columbus, being an Italian, may have had a supply of olive oil on board the Santa Maria, which would have been ideal to sooth the burn.
WHERE ARE CHILLIES FROM?
Ask an Indian chilli lover and they’d probably say that the hot spice was native to their country, but it was the Portuguese who are believed to have introduced it to India, after Columbus discovered the spicy fruit.
There are five main species of chilli and hundreds of varieties, and they originate in Central and South America where it was farmed by Meso-Americans as long ago as 5000BCE. They have since been spread all around the world.
These days capsaicin is being put to more uses than just firing up our tastebuds. It is being used in topical ointments to relieve the pain of peripheral neuropathy, and for topical relief of pain in muscles and joints caused by arthritis.
As far as eating it goes, there are studies showing that the spice can have other health benefits too. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Medical Science studied data collected across China, leading to the conclusion that eating more spicy food could possibly make you live a bit longer.
BURN MORE FAT
Cayenne is also is a good source of manganese and vitamins A, B6, C and K. Not to mention that it tastes good too.
So there many good reasons to add chili to your food. There are many different varieties, all with different levels of heat. As you eat more chilli you’ll build up a tolerance, so if you’re new to it you should start small and work your way up. There’s a myth that chilli will burn off your taste buds, but it won’t, so you can eat as much as you like.