Explainers

GT’s guide to different types of chilli (and a quick history lesson)

Across continents and cuisines, there are few places untouched by chilli’s lovely heat. Find out the origins.
Different types of chillies and the history of chilli around the world.

Photo: Alana Landsberry

Alana Landsberry

Serrano. Guajillo. Manzano. For every palate, a chilli: from the mild crunch of a banana pepper to the peppery kick of the cayenne, from the sweetness of friggitelli to the prickling heat of the birdseye. Across almost every country and culture, chilli proliferates – by some estimates, there are more than 50,000 Capsicum cultivars grown worldwide. It inspires devotion, obsession and for some, a never-ending quest for an ever-hotter fix. But where did it all begin?

In what’s now known as Bolivia and Mexico, the Indigenous people first foraged chillies where they grew in the wild. As early as 4000 BC, they were cultivated for culinary use. Aztec plant growers developed dozens of annuum species; from there, they passed to other Mesoamerican and Native American cultures, then to those in the Caribbean. Of about 25 species of the genus Capsicum that existed, five became domesticated across different areas: annuum in Mexico, chinense in Amazonia, frutescens in southern Central America, baccatum in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile, and pubescens in the Andes. In gardens, on trade routes, in ritual practices and folklore, the chilli flourished.

The cultivation of chilli in the rest of the world has, by comparison, a fairly short history – barely more than 500 years. The plant was unknown outside of the Americas until Christopher Columbus brought them to Iberia in the early 1500s – when chillies (along with tomatoes, potatoes, cocoa and more) first reached foreign palates. Following Columbus, Portuguese traders carried chillies to settlements and colonies in West Africa, in India and across East Asia.

At the same time, the Spanish forged a path in the opposite direction, spreading the seeds through southern China and Manila by way of the Pacific. Once established there, local trade routes took chilli to Indonesia, Tibet and Bhutan, where it was adopted as a vegetable rather than a seasoning and used liberally in every meal (ema datshi, a stew made from chilli pods and soft yak cheese, is considered Bhutan’s national dish).

The Turks acquired chillies via conquests of Portuguese trade posts, and spread them to the Ottoman Empire, then Moravia and Hungary. There, the locals bred them to reduce their pungency – dried and powdered, the mild Hungarian wax peppers became paprika. In Thailand, tiny, bullet-shaped birdseye chillies set fire to local palates; in Syria and Turkey, the Aleppo pepper brought a new depth of warmth and spice; and in the Maghreb, the baklouti was pulverised into a paste to make harissa, forever changing the region’s cuisine.

Chilli probably made its way to Australia with the British, who had warmed up to the spice during the Empire’s colonial rule of India; or perhaps it came with Chinese migrants in the early 1800s. The 1864 publication The English and Australian Cookery Book – considered the first attempt to codify a specific Australian cuisine – calls for both cayenne and birdseye chillies in its recipes, while an earlier colonial cookbook, The Housewife’s Guide (1843), suggests cayenne to spice up such delicacies as beef à la mode, harrico of mutton and fricassée of rabbit.

Few other foods have been taken up by so many people in so many places with such enthusiasm – which is particularly extraordinary given the chilli’s unique ability to cause bodily pain. The heat in chillies comes from their capsaicinoids, a series of related compounds concentrated in its internal ribs and seeds. These capsaicinoids turn on the pain receptors in the mouth and tongue, delivering a burning sensation that ranges from pleasantly warming to an unholy assault. A particularly hot variety can induce streaming eyes, heart palpitations, hot flushes, furious sweats. One researcher, trying to pinpoint exactly why people actively seek out something that causes such suffering, coined the term “benign masochism”.

This theory rings true to chef Tony Tan, whose childhood in Malaysia meant early exposure to the experience. He recalls an early encounter with a chilli-stuffed rice ball: “It was so hot – like, the pain and the ecstasy, you know? You become a bit addicted to it because it releases endorphins.”

Tan has some authority to speak on the subject. Such is his affinity with the plant that his nickname as a child was “Little Chilli” and he was once painted for the Archibald Prize holding a pod aloft. These days, at his home and cooking school in Trentham, Victoria, he grows at least four varieties in his greenhouse: Scotch bonnets, cayenne, Hungarian blacks and Thai birdseye chillies. He’s watching them closely to see if they’ll cross-pollinate and produce new strains. “Chilli plants can be a little bit amorous,” he explains.

This amorous tendency accounts for the creation of ever-hotter pods, which has seen growers ratchet up the Scoville Heat Units (SHU) – the scale that measures a chilli’s bite – to increasingly alarming levels. No sooner than the bhut jolokia (the first chilli to register at more than a million SHU) was crowned the winner, the Infinity (1.1 million SHU) came along, followed by the Naga Viper (1.3 million SHU), Trinidad Scorpion Butch T (1.4 million SHU), and the Carolina Reaper, which currently dominates the field at an apocalyptic 1.6 million SHU and is probably available in your local supermarket.

And if you’ve bitten off more than you can handle? “The best antidote to kill that hotness is to take a lump of sugar and put it in your mouth,” says Tan. “It immediately tones the heat down.” For those not yet at the Reaper stage of the chilli journey, he suggests starting small. “If you are nervous about eating fresh chillies, then look at buying pickled chillies, sweet chilli sauce or chilli oil. After that, you can become a bit more experimental.” Like many who have fallen for its unique charms, Tan considers the plant to be something of an obsession. “Eating chilli is something that becomes part of your DNA,” he muses. “For me, my life will be rather boring if I don’t have it.”

The ultimate chilli glossary:

Aleppo: A warm, smoky chilli pepper with a mild heat that builds slowly on the palate, commonly used across the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Ancho: Dried, ripe poblano peppers. Generally low in heat, with a distinctive sweet, fruity flavour.

Árbol: A long, curved chilli with a bright, fiery heat and slightly grassy flavour.

Baklouti: A large, pungent chilli with a mellow tinge of heat, found in Northwest Africa. Used as the primary ingredient in harissa.

Bhut jolokia: Popular in India, this chilli is notorious for its intense flavour and blistering heat. Also known as the ghost pepper.

Birdseye: Tiny, fiery chillies commonly used in Thai cuisine. Sometimes called bird peppers or chilli padi.

Capsaicinoids: A series of related compounds concentrated in the internal ribs and seeds of a chilli that registers in our mouths as both heat and pain.

Cayenne: Most commonly used in its dried, powdered form, cayenne has a hot, aromatic, peppery flavour.

Chipotle: Dried, smoked, ripe jalapeño peppers with a moderately spicy, smoky and complex flavour.

Gochugaru: Dried, smoky-sweet chilli powder used in Korean cuisine.

Habanero: One of the more commonly available varieties, with a fruity taste and lingering, white-hot burn.

Jalapeño: A long, tapering thick-fleshed green chilli with a pronounced flavour and middling heat.

Kashmiri: A bright red, mild chilli commonly found in Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine. Generally used dried and powdered.

Paprika: A vibrant red chilli powder made from dried red pods, ranging in flavour from mild to hot to smoked. Popular in Spanish and Hungarian cuisine.

Poblano: A small green chilli that ranges in heat from mild to kicking, commonly used in Spanish cuisine.

Scotch bonnet: Similar in heat to the habanero, but with a somewhat sweeter and smokier flavour.

Scoville scale: A system of measuring the pungency of chillies based on the concentration of capsaicinoids, typically with capsaicin content as the primary measure. Recorded in Scoville Heat Units (SHU).

Serrano: A small, hot variety popular throughout Mexico and Southeast Asia. Sharp, crisp and with considerable bite.

Shishito: A mild chilli commonly used in Japan, with a fresh, peppery flavour. Generally used when still green.

Tabasco: A small pungent chilli, with a fiery, smoky taste, most famous for its use in Tabasco sauce.

Urfa biber: A dark red-purple chilli from Turkey, with a smoky, fruity, slightly sour flavour and modest heat.

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