Wild chilli peppers were eaten in Mexico as early as 7000BC and cultivated as early as 5000BC. Columbus first encountered them in the Caribbean and named them pepper because they had a ‘fire’ (hot, spicy taste) similar to the black and white peppers known in Europe (Piper genus).
Before long chillies had spread along the spice trade routes from Europe south to Africa and east to Asia where they quickly ‘fired up’ the local cuisine.
Botanically, chillies belong to the Capsicum genus and are part of the Solanaceae family, which includes nightshade and potato.
The most common chilli pepper species are:
• Capsicum annum: includes bell peppers, paprika and jalapenos
• C. frutescens: includes cayenne, tobacco and Thai chillies
• C. chinense: includes the hottest peppers, ie habaneros, Scotch bonnets
• C. pubescens: includes the South American rocoto peppers
• C. baccatum: includes the South American aji peppers