Saudi Aramco World: March/April 2014 - page 8

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Saudi Aramco World
and by signs told
him that in the
neighborhood
there was much
of it.” The
allspice berries
they brought
him smelled like
cinnamon and
pepper, but they
were not the
Piper nigrum
he
had hoped to find. In an early example of hopeful rebranding,
Columbus called the new spice
pimento,
after the Spanish
pimienta
, black pepper.
A month later, Columbus found another kind of pepper: the
capsicum pepper that is now familiar—and
indispensable—around the
world. The journal entry
for New Year’s Day, 1493,
reads, “The spicery
that they eat, says
the Admiral, is
abundant and more
valuable than either
black or malagueta
pepper [grains of
paradise]. He left
a recommendation
to those whom he
wished to leave
there, that they
should get as much as they could.” The “Indians” called this
pepper
aji
or
axi.
Two weeks later, the journal records, “There
is also much
axi,
which is their pepper and is stronger than
pepper, and the people won’t eat without it, for they find it very
wholesome. One could load 50 [ships] a
year with it in Hispaniola.”
The “spicery” Columbus was
introduced to had by then been a valued
food crop in the New World
for some 6000 years. The fleshy,
pungent fruits of a plant of the
Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi
received a Nobel Prize in 1937 for isolating
vitamin C, using vitamin-rich capsicums, and
elucidating the citric-acid cycle. Vitamin C
is among the ingredients that made capsicums
a highly beneficial addition to the diet
of poor people around the world.
CHILE PEPPER,
or
Capsicum
species, are members of the
Solanaceae
family, which includes potatoes,
eggplants and tobacco. Botanist and pepper expert W. Hardy Eshbaugh reveals that there are 25 species
of wild capsicums, of which four have been domesticated:
C. annuum
var.
annuum,
C. chinense, C. baccatum
var.
pendulum,
and
C. pubescens.
(A fifth species,
C. frutescens,
grows semi-wild in the Old World.) Peppers
may be either annuals or perennials, depending on species and climate, and can grow as vines, small
shrubs or bushes. Jean Andrews states that
C. annuum
var.
annuum
and
C. chinense
became established
in the Old World; they and
C. frutescens
all grow in Africa.
C. annuum
var.
annuum
and
C. frutescens
grow in
India.
C. baccatum
var.
pendulum
and
C. pubescens
stayed in the Americas. Most capsicums sold in world
markets are
C. annuum
var.
annuum
. Columbus took
C. annuum
var.
annuum
back with him on his first trips
to the Caribbean islands, where they are thought not to be native, but to have been brought from Mexico
by pre-Columbian sailors. Except for bell peppers, which have been bred to lack it, all capsicums contain
greater or lesser amounts of capsaicin, which is responsible for their heat. That relative heat is defined
in Scoville Heat Units, a somewhat subjective measure that determines at what dilution a capsicum’s
heat ceases to be detectable in a sugar solution. (Laboratory chemical analysis by machine is more
accurate.) Anaheim peppers rank at 1000 units, jalapeño peppers at 5000, Indian Tabiche peppers
90,000, habaneros 300,000, and Trinidad Moruga Scorpions can reach 2,000,000 Scoville Units. Police
pepper spray tops the list at 5,000,000 units. Frequent exposure to capsaicin reduces the eater’s
sensitivity to it, and it is possible that people who eat lots of hot chiles become psychologically addicted
to the endorphins released by the brain in response to the peppers’ burn.
BLACK PEPPER,
or
Piper nigrum,
is the dried fruit of a woody vine of the
Piperaceae
family native to the
monsoon forests of Kerala in southern India. Although these peppers are Old World plants, they have a
pantropical distribution. The genus includes 17 species, including Old World peppers like long pepper
(
Piper longum
in India,
Piper officinarum
in Indonesia), cubeb (
Piper cubeba
), kava
(Piper methysticum
)
and India’s betel (
Piper betle
). It takes several years for the pepper plant to mature at more than 3½
meters tall (12'), but it can grow to nine meters (30'). The vines are supported by trees or poles so the
peppercorns are easier to harvest.
Piper nigrum
likes humidity but also well-drained soils, which is why
it is so difficult to grow anywhere but in tropical rainforests.
Chile Pepper
Black Pepper
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