For a long time the word ‘pepper’ only meant the first seasoning, peppercorn. This had been known in Europe since Roman times and was imported from India.
The old Indian word for it was ‘pipparī’, a word that came from the Greek ‘peperi’ and the Latin ‘piper’. The English turned that into ‘pepper’, the French into ‘poivre’, and the Dutch into ‘peper’.
But the Dutch only discovered me, chili pepper, in the 16th century. They called me ‘Spaanse peper’, Spanish pepper. They probably called me pepper because I made a dish spicier, just like Indian pepper.
And ‘Spanish’? You’d think it was because I came from Spain, but that’s not it. I come from Central and South America, but I arrived in Europe through Spanish traders, so I came to be known as ‘Spanish pepper’.
But just as Columbus did not arrive in India but in South America, instead of black pepper he found red pepper, or – as the indigenous population called it, – ‘axí’ or ‘chile’, from which we get the name chili pepper.
Columbus called the local pepper variety ‘pimiento’ (which is now the Spanish collective name for all types of pepper), and a few years later the first seeds were shipped to Europe.
As a pepper variety I am one of the ‘Capsicum annuum’ species in the nightshade family. The word ‘capsicum’ may well come from the Greek word ‘kapto’, meaning ‘to eat hungrily’, no doubt referring to the strong taste of many fruits in my family.
It’s also possible that the name is derived from the Latin word ‘capsa’, meaning box, referring to the shape of my ripe fruit.
Using this technique he invented the ‘Scoville scale’ which today goes from 0 (the ‘heat’ of a bell pepper) to 16,000,000 (pure capsaicin). Although the Scoville scale is still in use, no taste tests need to be carried out by humans:
today the concentration of capsaicin and related substances can be measured by laboratory machines.
I’m a temperamental chico. Eat me, and your blood pressure and heart rate go up. It’s not harmful, though – in fact, I can be very good for you. The capsaicin I contain – the same stuff that gives me a hot taste – can be a very healthy substance.
For instance, I am often given to people with pain caused by overstimulated nerves in the skin; a capsaicin plaster on the skin binds capsaicin to the overstimulated nerve cells and they become less sensitive to pain.
I’m sometimes used to help people with chronic nasal complaints, such as a blocked or dripping nose. And it’s said that I can be good for losing weight, because eating me makes the body better able to burn fats.
We can’t be sure that’s true. You’d have to eat about half a kilo of chili peppers a day before you could expect to see any effect on your body weight – and that’s a lot, even for a serious chili pepper lover.
You do have to watch out with a few members of my pepper family, though. After an American man had taken part in a hot pepper eating competition and had eaten a whole Carolina Reaper, the hottest pepper in the world, he had dry heaves and excruciating neck pain,
followed a few days later by ‘thunderclap headaches’, sudden and severe episodes of intense pain. He was rushed to hospital, where they found that arteries in his brain arteries had constricted.
Hi, my name is Chili pepper. Do you want to know where my name comes from?
CAPSICUM ANNUUM (SPAANSE PEPER)