Let’s Talk Food: It’s all about chili peppers

  • Photo courtesy of AUDREY WILSON A chili pepper tree loaded with red chilies.

Chili peppers are an integral part of many foods around world.

But did you know:


Portuguese and Spanish explorers and sailors are credited for bringing chili peppers with them on their travels and introducing them to the many countries to which they traveled. It was in 1492 that Christopher Columbus set out from Spain to look for a new route to Asia to seek out black pepper, which was so expensive it was used to pay rent and taxes. But instead he found the chili pepper that became the fiery flavors in Indian, Chinese and Thai cooking.

For the many poor people around the world, chilies were an affordable, easy way to grow spice that grew in many climates, and the small burst of flavor was welcome in the slums of Asia and West Africa. The other aspect of the chili pepper is that once eaten, according to Indian cook Madhur Jaffrey, it “provides a high, there is no going back. It turns into a craving. The chili is not so much a seed of change, as a conqueror, or better still, a master seducer.”

Within 30 years of Columbus’ first journey, at least three different types of chili plants were growing in the Portuguese settlement of Goa, India. These chilies probably came from Brazil via Lisbon, Portugal, and were used instead of black pepper.

The Portuguese spent a short time in Thailand and failed to convert the Thai people to Christianity, but they did succeed in changing the Thai way of cooking forever. You might say that chilies spread like wildfire to Thailand, Indonesia, Tibet, China and the rest of Asia.

What I find interesting is when you think of Japanese cuisine, you really don’t think of chili pepper, but instead about foods flavored with soy sauce or miso. However, the Japanese have a condiment, shichimi togarashi, a seven-colored chili pepper that is commonly on the condiment table when noodles are on the menu.

Did you know:

A study at Cornell University by biologist Paul Sherman and colleague Jennifer Billings found that the capsaicin in peppers inhibits the growth of bacteria that causes food poisoning such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria and the germ that causes staph infections. When they checked out the thousands of recipes around the world that used chili peppers, they found the chili peppers used more commonly in hot climates as foods are more likely to go bad than in cooler climates.

In another study by Sherman and Geoffrey Hash found in comparing meat recipes with vegetable recipes that “meat had the right pH and the right nutrients to encourage bacterial growth. Vegetables tend to be protected from spoiling by their cellulose cell walls and by some of the chemicals they contain. So if the hypothesis is right, spices would tend to be used more in meat recipes than vegetable recipes.”

Did you know:

Ulcers are not caused by hot foods that could irritate your stomach linings but instead by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. This bacteria triggers inflammation of the stomach lining, and in 1997 a study by the University of Toronto found that capsaicin actually inhibits the growth of H. pylori. Other studies show that hot peppers can protect the stomach by triggering the release of extra mucus that coats the stomach lining.

Did you know:

That since chili peppers are an antioxidant and rich in vitamins A and C, Peter Gannett of the University of West Virginia says experiments have shown that capsaicin can neutralize the cancer-causing substances commonly found in foods, such as nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic compounds.

Another study by researchers at the Hangyang University College in South Korea found a decreased risk of stomach cancer with increased consumption of Baiechu kimchi, which is made from cabbage. However there was an increased risk when the kimchi was made of salted radish, suggesting perhaps it is the salt, not the chili peppers, that might be the culprit.

Did you know:

In early July, jurors awarded Underwood Ranches, once the supplier of jalapeno peppers to Huy Fong Foods Inc., the makers of the famous sriracha hot sauce, $23.3 million in a heated dispute after a nearly 30 year partnership. Things fell apart in 2016 when Huy Fong demanded Underwood Ranches return more than $1 million that the manufacturer claimed was overpaid to the farm for growing costs. Underwood Ranches, in business since 1867 in Ventura County, had 1,700 acres dedicated to the growing of peppers for Huy Fong. When they stopped supplying Huy Fong with peppers, they had to lay off 45 workers and started to grow onions, cilantro, basil, and other crops where the Huy Fong peppers once grew.

Underwood Ranches now has a line of sauces, including a sriracha sauce.

Did you know:

In New Mexico there is a chili pepper called Hatch that is grown and harvested in the Hatch Valley region. They are actually a cultivar of the common New Mexican green chile developed at the Chile Institute at New Mexico University in the 1920s. There is even a Hatch Chile Festival during Labor Day weekend that draws 30,000 people to the little town of 2,000.

There are many varieties of Hatch Peppers: NuMex BigJim, NuMex Sandia, NuMex Joe E. Parker, New Mexico 6-4, NuMex Heritage 6-4, NuMex Heritage Big Jim Barker Extra Hot and NeMex R Naky. With all these varieties, the Scoville Heat Unit ranges from 1,000 to 8,000 SHU.

These peppers are earthy in flavor, with a bit more bite. Ripening them to red mellows the heat.


My friend, Amy Gallegos, swears by them as making the best enchiladas.

Email Audrey Wilson at

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