The Taming of the Wild Chile: Part 1, The Tolerated Weed

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by Dave DeWitt

and Nancy Gerlach 



      Corn and Potatoes with Two Chiles

      Papas con Tomates

      Squash Soup with Chile Sauce



“The fruit [of the Peruvian Uchu chile] is as indispensable to the natives as salt to the whites.” ‑‑Friedrich Alexander von Humboldt, 1814

For more than 10,000 years, mankind has been fascinated by a seemingly innocuous plant with bright‑colored fruits that bite back when bitten. Although the chile pepper has risen in our estimation from lowly weed to celebrity spice, the secrets of its domestication, its discovery by Europeans, and its subsequent spread around the world are still being uncovered. Often mistakenly thought to be of African or Indian origin, chile peppers are absolutely American; along with corn, squash, and beans, they are among the earliest plants domesticated by mankind in the New World.

Part 1, The Tolerated Weed

According to botanist Barbara Pickersgill, the genus Capsicum, to which all chiles belong, originated in the remote geologic past in an area bordered by the mountains of southern Brazil to the east, by Bolivia to the west, and by Paraguay and northern Argentina to the south. Not only does this location have the greatest concentration of wild species of chiles in the world, but here, and only here, grow representatives of all the major domesticated species within the genus. Another chile botanist, W. Hardy Eshbaugh, believes that the location for the origin of chile peppers was further east, in central Bolivia along the Rio Grande.

The Chiltepin, “Mother of all Chiles”

Scientists are not certain about the exact time frame or the method for the spread of both wild and domesticated species from the southern Brazil-Bolivia area, but they suspect that birds were primarily responsible. The wild chiles (like their undomesticated cousin of today, the chiltepin) had erect, red fruits that were quite pungent and were very attractive to various species of birds that ate the whole pods. The seeds of those pods passed through their digestive tracts intact and were deposited on the ground encased in a perfect fertilizer. In this manner, chiles spread all over South and Central America long before the first Asian tribes entered the New World and settled it.

When mankind arrived in the Americas more than 10,000 years ago, about 25 species of the genus Capsicum existed in South America. Five of these species were later domesticated; however, some of the other wild species were and still are occasionally utilized by man. Two of the five domesticated species of chiles, C. baccatum and pubescens, never migrated beyond South America. Baccatum, known as “Aji,” merely extended its range from southern Brazil west to the Pacific Ocean and became a domesticated chile of choice in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. Likewise, Capsicum pubescens left Brazil to be domesticated in the Andes, where it is known as “rocoto.” Its range today is primarily in the higher elevations of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, although it was introduced during historical times into mountainous areas of Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Three other Capsicum species that were later domesticated are annuum, chinense, and frutescens. These closely related species shared a mutual, ancestral gene pool and are known to botanists as the annuum-chinense-frutescens complex. They seem to have sprung up in the wilds of Colombia and later migrated individually to Central America and Amazonia. These three species were all in place when mankind arrived on the scene, and, apparently, each type was domesticated independently–annuum in Mexico, chinense in Amazonia (or possibly Peru), and frutescens in southern Central America. These three species have become the most commercially important chiles, and the story of their domestication and further spread is revealed in the archaeological record.

The earliest evidence of chile peppers in the human diet is from Mexico, where archaeologist R.S. MacNeish discovered chile seeds dating from about 7500 B.C. during his excavations at Tamaulipas and Tehuacan. This find and an intact pod from Peru’s Guitarrero Cave (dated 6500 B.C.) seem to indicate that chiles were under cultivation approximately 10,000 years ago. However, that date is extremely early for crop domestication and some experts suggest that these specimens are chiles that were harvested in the wild rather than cultivated by man. The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) was also found in the same excavation levels, and scientists cannot be certain if they were wild or domesticated varieties. Experts are certain, however, that chile peppers were domesticated by at least 3300 B.C.

Ethnobotanists, scientists who study the relationship of plants to man, have theorized that during the domestication process, chiles were first accepted as “tolerated weeds.” They were not cultivated but rather collected in the wild when the fruits were ripe. The wild forms had erect fruits which were deciduous, meaning that they separated easily from the calyx, and fell to the ground. During the domestication process, whether consciously or unconsciously, early Indian farmers selected seeds from plants with larger, non-deciduous, and pendant fruits.

The reasons for these selection criteria are a greater yield from each plant and protection of the pods from the chile-hungry birds. The larger the pod, the greater will be its tendency to become pendant rather than to remain erect. Thus the pods became hidden amidst the leaves and did not protrude above them as beacons for birds. The selection of varieties with the tendency to be non-deciduous ensured that the pods remained on the plant until fully ripe and thus were resistant to dropping off as a result of wind or physical contact. The domesticated chiles gradually lost their natural means of seed dispersal by birds and became dependent upon human intervention for their continued existence. Because chiles cross-pollinate, hundreds of varieties of the five domesticated chiles developed over thousands of years. The color, size, and shape of the pods of these domesticated forms varied enormously. Ripe fruits could be red, orange, brown, yellow, or white. Their shapes could be round, conic, elongate, oblate, or bell-like, and their size could vary from the tiny fruits of chiltepins or tabascos to the large pods of the anchos and New Mexican varieties. However, no matter what the size or shape of the pods, they were readily adopted into the customs and cuisines of all the major civilizations of the New World.


Corn and Potatoes with Two Chiles

Potatoes played a very important role in the diet throughout the Andes. In the lower elevations, they were combined with corn and served as a vegetarian entree. Fresh corn cut off the cob, along with the “corn milk” and chiles, provide the basis of the sauce for this pre-Columbian casserole.

5 serrano chiles, seeds and stems removed, chopped

2 dried Mirasol chiles, stems removed, crushed (or other small, dried red chiles)

1 cup “corn milk”*

4 cups fresh corn, cut from the cob

1 teaspoon ground allspice

2 medium potatoes, cooked, peeled, sliced

2 hard-cooked eggs, sliced

Combine the corn, “corn milk”, chiles and allspice in a pan and simmer for 5 minutes until the mixture is hot and has thickened.

Place alternate layers of potatoes and eggs in a casserole, top with the sauce and heat in a 350 degree F. oven for 5 minutes until thoroughly heated.

*”Corn milk” is the liquid or juice that results from cutting the kernels of corn off the cob. Mix with milk to make 1 cup of liquid.

Heat Scale: Medium

Yield: 4 servings

Papas con Tomates

The Incas cultivated potato varieties for thousands of years and they even invented a freeze-dried potato called “chuñu.” They would spread the potatoes on the ground and let them freeze overnight, which was easy in the high Andes. After thawing them out, they would then squeeze out any remaining moisture by walking on them. This recipe includes two different potatoes grown by the Incas, as well as tomatoes and hot chiles; all are New World crops. Roast pork and green beans go well with these colorful potatoes.

6 dried Mirasol chiles, stems and seeds removed, crushed

2 medium tomatoes, peeled, and diced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin*

1 large potato, cooked, peeled, and diced

1 medium sweet potato, cooked, peeled and diced

Chopped culantro or cilantro for garnish*

Simmer the chiles, tomatoes, and cumin for 15 minutes to form a thick sauce.

Pour the sauce over the potatoes, toss to coat, garnish with the cilantro and serve.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

*Culantro is a variety of cilantro that is indigenous to the Americas. Substitute cilantro if it is not available. Cumin is a post-Columbian ingredient.

Squash Soup with Chile Sauce

Stews and hearty soups were commonly served by the Incas. A native herb called palillo was used to impart a yellow color to dishes, but we have substituted turmeric, as palillo is difficult to find. Since the Incans ate a wide variety of squash, cooks should select their favorite for this recipe

6 fresh serrano chiles, seeds and stems removed, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh culantro* or cilantro

1 2-pound chicken, cut in pieces

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped*

1/2 pound squash (butternut, Hubbard, or turban), peeled, cut into 2-inch cubes

1 small potato, peeled, cut into 2-inch cubes

1 small yam, peeled, cut into 2-inch cubes

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric*

Fresh culantro* or cilantro for garnish*

Combine the chiles and chopped cilantro with water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Puree the ingredients to form a sauce, adding more water if necessary.

Cover the chicken and onions with water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, skimming off any foam that forms, until the chicken is tender and starts to fall from the bone. Remove the chicken, reserving the broth, and, using two forks, shred the meat.

Place the squash, potato, yam, and turmeric in the chicken broth. Add additional water to bring the liquid to about a quart. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 20 minutes or until the squash is tender. Add the chicken and heat.

To serve: Place the soup in bowls, put a tablespoon of the hot sauce to each bowl, top with the chopped cilantro, and serve. The sauce can also be served on the side

*Culantro is a variety of cilantro that is indigenous to the Americas. Subsititute cilantro if it is not available. Onions and turmeric are post-Columbian ingredients.

Heat Scale: Medium

Yield: 6 servings

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