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Chilli (Capsicum annuum L and Capsicum frutescens L) is a hot tasting tropical berry belonging to the family Solanaceae. They were first discovered by Christopher Columbus in tropical America. Their use spread rapidly throughout the world because of its pungent flavour. Variously classified as herb, fruit or vegetable, it is now an inseparable part of Asian cuisine. Chilli gets its name from the Mexican word, chili.
Origins and Distribution
Chilli was introduced into Europe in 1493 by Christopher Columbus who discovered it in tropical America. Believed to be a native of Mexico and Peru, it was widely used by the people of Central and South America prior to Columbus' discovery. It spread so quickly that by 1542, three races of chilli were already introduced into India. As most European languages referred to chilli as a kind of pepper, attempts were made to differentiate it from pepper by coining new words for chilli. Jacob de Bondt, a Batavian physician, used the word Piper chilensis in 1630. Pepper traders in Java too wished to give a name for it distinct from pepper but in vain. Some varieties of chillies are still known as peppers.
The numerous races of chillies are broadly divided into the two species types: Capsicum annuum L and Capsicum frutescens L. Berries of Capsicum frutescens, also called hot peppers, are more pungent than those of Capsicum annuum, called sweet peppers. Chillies are commercially grown in virtually every tropical region. It is an easily cultivable crop. In Singapore, the most commonly used chillies are the small and thin Chilli Padis and the long and thick "green chillies".
Chilli shrubs are perennial and short-lived. They can grow up to 1.5 m in height. Their stems are woody at the base, fleshy and either erect or semi-prostrate. The shrub consists of a main tap root with many lateral roots. The leaves can grow up to 12 cm long and 7.5 cm wide and are unequal in shape with a pointed tip. Chilli flowers occur singly or in small groups of two to three flowers. They are small and bisexual with have five to six petals each. Flowers of Capsicum annuum are white-green while those of Capsicum frutescens are yellow or white-green. The chilli fruit is hollow with many seeds. They are found in different colours like green, orange, white, yellow and red. Pungency varies in different varieties. The red coloured chillies get their colour from a chemical called capsanthin. It is capsanthin which is responsible for the pungent taste which is why red chillies are hotter than the chillies of other colours. The numerous small chilli seeds also contain capsaicin.
Usage and Potential
Food: Chillies are used fresh or dried, whole or powdered in cooking to give food its characteristic hot, spicy and pungent taste. Chillies are pickled in salt, eaten raw in salads, made into sauces or stored in brine. A liquid chilli extract is used in colouring food as well as animal feed. Chillies are a good source of Vitamin C. They also contain vitamins B1 and B2, beta carotene, protein, calcium and phosphorous.
Medicine: A chemical called chilli oleoresin-1 is extracted from the dried chillies of Capsicum annuum and is used in pain balms, plasters and prickly heat powders. The Chinese use the leaves of the chilly plant to relieve toothaches. Chillies stimulate gastric juices and are therefore used for their carmative and stimulant properties in European medicine for dispelling flatulence and increasing appetite. Indians believe chillies aid in the circulation of blood. Oil extracted from chillies are used as drying oils. Malays use it to treat vomiting, dyspepsia, diarrhoea and cholera. Javanese use the juice of chilli leaves called daun saberang as a counter irritant on the skin after childbirth. They also use it as a stimulant, and sometimes give it to infants to treat diarrhoea.
Other uses: Chillies are used by the Indians in exorcism to dispel the evil eye.
Common Names: Chilli or Chili.
Scientific Names: Capsicum annum L, Capsicum frutescens L.
Malay Names: Capsicum annum: Chabai, Cabai, Chabai achong, Lada merah, Lada chanchang, Lada, Cili hijau, Cili merah (Malaysia), Lombok, Chabe, Chabe sabrang (Indonesia).
Capsieum frutescens: Chabai, Cabai, Chabai burong, Chabai rawit, Lada api, Lada merah, Lada kerawit (Malaysia), Lombok belis, Lombok jemprit, Chabe chengek (Indonesia). Bird chillies are called chili padi.
Chinese names: Hesiung yali chiao, La chiao (Mandarin), Hsiam chiao (Hokkien), La tsiu (Cantonese).
Other common names: Capsicum, Red Pepper, Cayenne Pepper, Long Peppers, Sweet Peppers, Bell Peppers, Paprika Peppers, Chiuli Peppers, Wrinkled Peppers, Cherry Peppers, Tabasco Peppers, Cluster Peppers and Bird Peppers.
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
Burkill, I. H. (1993). A dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Peninsula (pp. 449-453). Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives.
(Call no.: RSING 634.909595 BUR)
Polunin, I. (1987). Plants and flowers of Singapore (p. 152). Singapore: Times editions.
(Call no.: RSING 581.95957 POL)
Tindall, H. D. (1983). Vegetables in the tropics (pp. 347-354). London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press.
(Call no.: R 635.0913 TIN)
Wee, Y. C. (1992). A guide to medicinal plants (p. 30). Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.
(Call no.: RSING 581.634095957 WEE)
French, J. (1994). Book of chilli. Pymble, Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
(Call no.: YR 633.84 FRE)
Chile (Capsicum frutescens L. and others), Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages. Retrieved on March 04, 2003, from www-ang.kfunigraz.ac.at/~katzer/engl/generic_frame.html?Caps_fru.html
The information in this article is valid as at 1999 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.