It is no accident that “hot” peppers are the backbone of Central- and South American indigenous cuisines. They “love” heat.
The capsicum genus, a branch of the solanaceas family, contains 31 known species, only five of which are domesticated.
Over centuries, these five species travelled from their ancestral places of origin to near and far, and everywhere they were manipulated by framers and shaped by “terroir” to produce a kaleidoscopic array of sub-varieties/
The major pepper originated from capsicum cumonnuum which itself evolved from devilishly hot anonymous peppers long forgotten.
Then there are capsicums chinense, capsicum baccatum, capsicum pubescens and others.
All capsicums are fruits with lustrous skins and ribbed and seed-filled interior.
In North America, more and more restaurants started using “hot peppers to entice diners. Increased numbers of Latino’s in the USA are an important factor for the increased use of capsicums.
When the first Spanish explorers landed in the Greater Antilles, they had never seen capsicum, and quickly dubbed them pimiento and over time, they started calling them chilli, adopted from Nahuatl “cihlli”.
Mexican, Guatemalan, Peruvian, and Bolivian chefs refer “hot” chilis, whereas Cuban, Porto Rican and Dominican chefs like to use “sweet” peppers aka aji dulce.
African, Brazilian and Caribbean chefs have a penchant for hot flavours.
Today, capsicums are spread far and wide along expanding trade routes (either in dried form, or fresh, or grown on location where possible).
It is in their natal Latin America though; chilli peppers find their most subtle and diverse expression.
Here is a list of different capsicums:
Aji amarillo (mi- hot), caballero (for picking, relatively mild), Caribbean red (very hot), cascabal (moderately hot), chile de arbol (hot) chiltepin (very hot), chocolate habanero (hot), coban (hot), aji lemon (citrus-hot), Santa Cruz (pungent, fruity), aribibi gusano (aromatic, hot), Belize sweet habanero (aromatic hot), catenne (very hot), cayenne gold (piquant), chapeau de frade (fruity hot), chile de agua (hot), Cubanelle (sweet pepper), earbob (hot), Ecuadorian aji (hot), Grenada seasoning (mild with tropical fruit notes), Inca red drop (fruity hot), jalapeno (moderately hot), lantern (very hot), malagueta (very hot), maroba (hot), mirasol (hot), numex big Jim (moderately hot), numex sandia (very hot), pasilla/chilaca (mildly hot), Peruvian habanero (intensely hot), poblano (moderately hot), pimienta de cherio (hot), pimiento de pardon (mild), poblano (moderately hot), quintisha (aromatic hot), red habanero (mildly hot), red recoto (intensely piquant), red Scotch bonnet (very hot), rocotillo (mild), Santa Fe grande (pungent), Serrano (pungent), starfish (fruity hot), Tabasco (hot), Trinidad perfume (complex hot).
Note: Some chillies are sold fresh, others dried, yet others smoked, and finally some are dried, smoked and ground).
Pepper hotness is measured on the Scoville Scale dubbed SHU Scoville Heat Units). It indicates the amount of capsaicin present in the food.
American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville invented the Scoville measuring system. A sweet pepper has a Scoville rating of zero whereas the hottest habaneros go up to well over two million.
The test relies on human subjectivity and is highly imprecise due to personal perception differences.