The Poor Chile Pepper, or: How Chilli Did Not Make it into Fine Cooking

Diego Velázquez, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

The chile peppers are not considered a particularly classy spice (or considered in their diversity). The reason seems to be the interaction of its botanical characteristics with human psychology and attitudes:

Chilli was so effective, it not only dethroned pepper (supposedly), but made spicy cooking a sign of low peasant status.

Chilli In, Pepper Out

Chile peppers, the way their story keeps being told, just dethroned black pepper.

Columbus, on the search for the riches of the East that had so long been traded expensively with Europe, chanced upon the Americas. Perhaps his most impactful finding, where changes in kitchens are concerned, was the chile pepper.

Codex Mendoza 60r, Chilli zur Bestrafung

After all, one of the expensive spices his expedition should have found was pepper.

So, when they found some hot-tasting “peppercorns” in the food of the natives they encountered, they were quite ready to interpret them as some kind of pepper. They gave them a name pointing out their relation to that, and made sure to bring back some seeds.

Here is where the biology gets interesting, though.

Enter Botanical Characteristics

The Caribbean would have been tropical enough for the actual black pepper plant. However, had they taken back seeds of that (in fact, what red or black peppercorns are), they probably would not have germinated, let alone grown.

Real pepper needs temperatures that are constantly above 16C, very high humidity, and several years of growth… Let’s just say, there’s a good reason it was mainly just grown in parts of Southern India, traded from there, and expensive.

Piper nigrum (aus Koehlers Medizinalpflanzen)

The chile pepper, in contrast?

It still needs warm temperatures to grow and produce, but it is fast enough in all that, it can be grown as an annual plant.

Enough chile pepper ended up being grown like that, it misled Carl von Linné into thinking that Capsicum was an annual plant. Hence, he named the species Capsicum annuum – and people still get confused about that.

Chile peppers cannot only be grown in many more climates than real pepper. They are also highly, well, effective. All it takes to make some simple bowl of rice or gruel much more interesting in taste is a pinch of chilli…

Low-Class Pepper

Peasants who had some notion of hot, strong spices being the domain of the rich (“pepper bags”…) were all over chilli, in many parts of the world.

Kitchens around the world which already had some use of hot flavors quickly adopted the chile pepper as well.

There may have been something of the way food trends usually spread in all that: They become popular with the upper crust, then spread downwards (and lead the rich and noble to move on to something new).

Chile peppers, however, seem to have arrived just as spiciness was already on the way out as a sign of riches.

When the hot taste of chiles became popular with the peasants, whether as a reaction or just in parallel, it lost its chances of becoming an element of high cuisine. Hence, one can find it in depictions of peasant cooking and botanical variety, but not in any of the still lives of foods of the high society, nor in quality recipes.

Diego Velázquez, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Diego Velázquez, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (National Gallery of London; CC-BY-NC-ND)… In front of the fish, there is one of the few chile peppers you’ll ever see in classical art…

Chile peppers became exotic or poor food.

The Future…

Only now, with the interest in more adventurous and “ethnic” eating, do we see the chile peppers losing some of their association with the peasant and the poor “other” that needs civilizing, not emulation.
High-end restaurants still tend to avoid hot tastes; more than a superficial appreciation of the diversity of aromas and pungencies there would be is usually still lacking.

Changes are afoot, though.

2 responses

  1. Thanks! This was a really interesting piece. I love fine dining but I also love chili. I have, however, visited some restaurants that I would consider on the “fine dining” spectrum (not really high-end) that served food containing chili (e.g., a ethiopian fine dining restaurant). It would be interesting to eat at a high-end fine dining restaurant that uses chili. Maybe someone should pick this up and make it their own niche.

  2. Thank you, and sorry I’m answering so late. It’s been a bit busy…

    Yeah, definitely, it’s a missing piece. In fact, I wrote about it on just such a note before, too: ;)

    “Exotic” fine dining sure includes it, but the high-end and modern and, shall I just say Western? Not so much, still. I’m trying to find ways to do what I want, also (more) commercially – and it’s a big challenge, such a niche.

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