Contrary to its name, Cayenne pepper does not hail from Chile and is not a true pepper. Its introduction to the Americas by Christopher Columbus, who sought peppercorns from India, led to a fascinating fusion of cultures. Dubbed “peppers” to appease European patrons, these hot spices were initially met with resistance by royal physicians and scientists. Nevertheless, their journey around the globe gained momentum, captivating the taste buds of billions and sparking the interest of chili enthusiasts everywhere. Cayenne pepper and it’s history is a fascinating story.
Unveiling Cayenne Pepper and It’s History
When Columbus set sail in 1492 in pursuit of peppercorns, most everyone watching him disappear over the horizon thought that he would fall off the edge of the earth. Instead of sailing over some cataclysmic waterfall or landing in India, Columbus landed in the Caribbean, some 11,000 miles short of his destination. Undaunted, he called the locals “Indians”, a name distortion that Native Americans have grappled with ever since; and he called the local “aji” food spices “peppers” to try to please his patrons back home.
Columbus was not looking for gold or real estate, but rather for spices to liven up the otherwise boring menu items consumed by royalty throughout Europe. Remember, in those days, without refrigeration, food began rotting as soon as it was slaughtered or picked, thus spices were more than a hedonistic pleasure, they were necessary to overcome the stench of food that was beginning to decay. Pepper, or Piper nigrum, from the Malabar coast of India was the spice of choice in those days; it was first brought overland to Europe by Chinese and Arab traders. Due to the extraordinary effort of moving pepper, ginger, cinnamon and other spices across 6,000 miles of treacherous land, the cost for these spices in Europe was quite high and only available to royalty.
Cayenne Peppers for Royalty?
Columbus found no black peppercorns in his “India”, but on his second voyage to the New World, his accompanying physician, Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, picked up some of the local spices, then called “aji”, which were regularly served by the native Arawak people. In an attempt to please his “venture capitalists” in England, Columbus called the aji “peppers”, but the food was initially deemed unfit for consumption by the royal physicians and scientists throughout Europe. Sadly, Columbus died as an unheralded pauper.
Potent Powers of Cayenne Pepper
From Europe, the chili plants and seeds were brought around the world by ocean explorers and thrived in many parts of South America, Africa and Asia. It took 50 years before the tomato from America and the potato from the Andes highlands of South America were accepted as a food in Europe. In that same time frame of 50 years, chilis circumnavigated the globe and were grown on every continent but Antarctica. Such was the appeal of this humble, yet potent, little fruit.
While we know that the “cradle” of chili cultivation was somewhere in Central or South America, the best guess for its exact location is Bolivia. The hottest pepper in the world is the habanero, grown only in the Yucatan area of Mexico. The Mayan natives there consider the regular consumption of the habanero to be a “rite of passage”, which few outsiders can pass.
Capsicum, Pepper, Jalapeno, Paprika, or Cayenne Pepper?
Later, this aji, or chili pepper was more accurately classified as a fruit belonging to the genus Capsicum annuum, which includes red pepper, anaheim, ancho, cayenne, cherry, chili, green bell pepper, hot pepper, jalapeno, paprika, pimento, piquin and red bell pepper. Tabasco pepper belongs to the Capsicum frutescens genus and the hottest pepper in the world, Habanero, belongs to Capsicum chinense. This Capsicum genus belongs to the family Solanaceae, which includes tomatoes and potatoes. So realize, that as we charge ahead with discussion of “cayenne”, that this is only one of many chili peppers, more accurately called Capsicum, that is found throughout the world.
The Rich History of Cayenne Peppers
It was the Greek spice merchants in the 16th century who decided to end the confusion between black peppers and these “quasi” peppers by calling the red, green and yellow chillis: chili pepper. Hungarians decided to call their prize chillis “paprika”. Italians called it “peperone”. The English called theirs “red pepper”, Germans “Indianifcher pfeffer, the French “poivre de l’Inde”, and “mircha” in India. “A rose by any other name is still a rose” and all of these delightful varieties of hot chillis have pleased and healed billions of people for the past 90 centuries.