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The Origin of Mexican Chillies

Christopher Columbus is most commonly credited with aiding the spread of chillies (and their popularity) across the globe, but did you know that these spicy little plants originated in Mesoamerica? Particularly in ancient Mexico.

Long before Columbus ever reached the “New World” the ancient Aztecs and Maya had domesticated the chilli plant; archaeologists can trace them as far back as 5000 BC in the Tehuacán Valley! The word chilli comes from Nahuatl (an Aztec language from which many modern terms and words are derived). The plant itself had many uses beyond spicing up food and drinks; it was used for medicinal purposes and for the fumigation of homes in certain cultures!


So you see, the chilli has been popular for a very long time!


In fact, research conducted near Chiapa de Corzo has turned up some interesting results concerning the use of chilli peppers in beverages amongst the Mixe-Zoquean peoples. The site, found in Southern Mexico, turned up a number of pottery vessels (some believed to be for holding drinks); the sides of these vessels were scraped for samples, and when these were analysed several contained irritants like dihydrocapsaicin. This pointed to the capsicum species found within hot chilli peppers. Though there is a chance that these vessels were used for Salsas, it seems there is a possibility that the people in this region were using chillies in their drinks as far back as 400 BC in this region.

Of course, the reputation and use of the chilli has changed over the centuries; it has become one of the most important elements of Mexican cuisine, and today there are over 150 species of chilli pepper which are eaten and prepared in many ways. Whether charred, diced, pasted, dried, or stuffed and battered (as in the famous dish chiles rellenos) chillies add complexity and kick to any dish. This is part of why they have taken the world by storm. Some more ancient traditions have held on, however; in Mexico you can enjoy a thick chocolate drink which has a spicy chilli kick. This is no doubt a descendant of the liquid cacao and chilli mixture that ancient Maya and Azteca enjoyed.

If you enjoy cooking Mexican dishes you will be familiar will chilli, no doubt, and though authenticism would require you to use the kind of chilli traditionally used in certain recipes it is  just as acceptable to substitute. There are over one hundred types of chilli, varying in heat and flavour so you need never be stuck with just one kind!

So, the next time you cook a Mexican dish or sit down to a meal that features the humble chilli pepper remember where these tiny firecrackers come from: ancient Mesoamerica!