"In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue ..." What was he seeking? Pepper. What did he find? Chiles. Not to mention lots of other hitherto unknown produce. For the world's cuisines, from Portugal to Malaysia, that changed everything.
To understand the significance of Columbus' discovery of chiles, consider the importance of spice in the 1490s. Black pepper (piper nigrum) and long pepper (piper longum), along with cinnamon and ginger, originated in Indonesia and were prized by ancient Indians, Greeks, and Romans for medical and culinary purposes. Influenced by sophisticated Arab cookery and medicine, European spice consumption was booming. Europeans depended on expensive chains of spice trade from Indonesia to China to India to North Africa to Venice and Genoa to the rest of Europe. In the 15th century, the price of pepper exploded – creating an incentive to seek alternate routes to the source.
Thus, Columbus' voyage west to the Caribbean, where he found inhabitants' food "heavily seasoned with hot spices." He believed capsicum annuum was a form of pepper plant (it isn't), calling it "pepper of the Indies" – hence why chiles are called peppers. The cultivars he took to Europe inaugurated chiles' long trip across the globe.
Originating in South America, chiles had been cultivated in Mexico by 3500BC. Chile is an Aztec word; Spanish conquistadores encountered a panoply of capsicums in central Mexico that they carried home to Iberia – and beyond. In 1498, Portuguese ships circumnavigated Africa and established trade with India. Eventually, Portuguese traders introduced chiles to West Africa, India, China, and Southeast Asia. Traveling essentially the same route as black pepper – but in the opposite direction – chiles were welcomed in regions with a tradition of hot, spicy foods.
Northern Europe was slow to embrace chiles. But in a 16th century path back from India, Turkish traders introduced them to Germany, Holland, and England. When the Ottomans conquered Hungary, the chile paprika became the definitive spice in Hungarian cuisine. However, until the 19th century, Northern Europeans preferred black pepper. Finally, via the British Raj, English palates were piqued by flavorful curries rife with chiles.
What about chile's botanical cousin, the tomato? Lycopersicon esculentum also originated in South America and was domesticated in Mexico. Alongside chiles, Spaniards encountered tomatoes; in 1529, Bernardo de Sahagún wrote that Aztecs combined them with chiles for a condiment. Sound familiar? Alonso de Molina was the first European to use the term salsa, in 1571. Spaniards transported tomatoes to Europe, where they were adopted in Spain and Italy in the 16th century and France and North Africa by the early 1700s. Although the Portuguese had earlier introduced tomatoes to India, they weren't integrated into the cooking there until 19th century British rule.
Britain was one of the later European cultures to consume tomatoes, although they'd been cultivated since the 16th century. One theory is that tomatoes entered into British diets about 1750 via resident Iberian Jews with trading ties to the Americas. Oddly, tomato consumption in the U.S. was also rather late, except for the Mexican-influenced regions of the Southwest. It wasn't until the 19th century that the New World native tomato, already spread around the globe, was commonly consumed across the U.S.
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