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Red pepper, generally known as chili pepper, belongs to the capsicum family of vegetables. The two commonly used chilies are- the milder paprika or Spanish pepper (capsicum annuum) and the fiery cayenne (capsicum frutescens). Besides these widely cultivated varieties, there are about ten capsicum species, grown in South Central America, parts of South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
One of the oldest plants cultivated in the Americas, cayenne pepper is considered to be native to the Cayenne region of French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America. It is one of the oldest cultivated crops of the central and south Americas and the West Indies. Since about 7500 BC capsicum has been a part of the human diet. Based on scientific research, the word "chile" is a variation of "chil" from the Aztec dialect. The same peppers are now grown in India, Japan, and Africa. The earliest documented evidence of cayenne pepper dates back to the fifteenth century when Christopher Columbus and his crew discovered it in the Americas. The discovery of this hot spice was very important in that era of booming spice trade.
This fiery spice adds flair to dishes from Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East. Unlike the milder varieties, cayenne pepper uses the seeds and membranes of a high-capsicum chili, making it especially hot and pungent. There is much confusion about exact naming and identification because of pepper’s easy cross pollination and different regional names in dozens of languages and dialects. Words such as pepper, chili, chile, chilli, aji, paprika, and capsicum are often used interchangeably.
It isanherbaceous annual that has white flowers, and fruit that vary in length, color, and pungency. Cayenne peppers are allowed to ripen on the plant to bright red pods. After harvesting part of the crop for use as fresh green chili, the remaining crop is allowed to ripen on the plant until the pods are bright red. These pods are sun-dried and sold both whole and ground pepper.
Capsicum annum L and tabasco-like frutescens species are the popular chilies for Indian cuisine. Until the beginning of the sixteenth century, hot chili pepper, one of the principal spices of Indian cuisine today, was totally unknown in India. The honor of introducing India to capsicum annum L, chili peppers, belongs to the Portuguese traders. When the Portuguese ventured abroad in search of a new sea route to the land of black pepper, chili pepper traveled on merchant ships, along with tobacco and cotton, to the next trading posts.
Because of their familiarity with pungent spices, Indians were quite taken with the fiery red chili. Today chilies appear in a variety of ways in Indian cuisine. Tolerance for hot chilies is substantial, especially in tropical south India. The diversity and intensity of pepper used in this cuisine rivals that of Mexico and Southwestern United States.
Chili pepper is the ultimate decongestant. Research studies have shown that chili peppers lower the LDL cholesterol, the type associated with high blood pressure and heart disease. They are rich in vitamin B and C and beta carotene. As a medicinal plant, the Capsicum is used in Ayurvedic remedies for colic, diarrhea, asthma, arthritis, muscle cramps, and toothache.
Spicy Hot Chicken Curry
There is no consensus of opinion among historians about the arrival of Jews in Kerala, India. Trading contacts from the Pre-Christian era onwards between the small kingdoms of India’s southwestern shores and ancient Israel resulted in the formation of the earliest Jewish communities in India. In ancient times Kerala’s trade was dominated by the Jewish community and they became prominent spice merchants and business owners. Over the years the Jews accepted and modified many of their host country's customs and cuisine. The many fragrant spices that they traded, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander and others - slowly but surely were incorporated into their traditional cuisine. Coconut milk became a perfect substitute for milk whenever kosher laws forbid the use of diary products. Tamarind became a handy souring agent. Spicy hot chicken curry and fish cooked in a spicy sauce thickened with fresh grated coconut became their specialties. Following is a recipe for a spicy chicken curry, specialty of Cochini Jews.
This rich and flavorful curry is traditionally prepared with plenty of hot green chili peppers and cayenne pepper. If you prefer a milder taste, reduce the quantity of peppers and cayenne and/or remove the chili seeds before adding them to the dish.
4 Tablespoons sesame oil *
3 onions, thinly sliced
8 to 10 fresh green chili peppers (Serrano or Thai)
15 fresh curry leaves
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
3 cloves of garlic crushed
1 ½ inch piece of fresh ginger finely chopped
2 tomatoes, cubed
1 Tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken pieces cut into cubes
2 green bell peppers cut into small pieces
Salt to taste
Heat the sesame oil in a heavy deep pan. Add onions, green chili peppers and curry leaves and fry until onions are soft. Stir in turmeric, garlic, ginger, cayenne and tomato slices. Simmer for ten minutes, stirring periodically. Dissolve tamarind paste in ½ cup of warm water. Put in chicken pieces, bell pepper and tamarind water and stir. Season with salt. Sprinkle in a little more water if necessary. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 30 to 35 minutes, until chicken is tender and the sauce has thickened. Stir occasionally to prevent the spice mixture from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Serve with rice.
* Sesame oil is used in the traditional recipe. It may be substituted with canola, vegetable or corn oil.
A financial analyst turned freelance food writer, Ammini Ramachandran, writes about the history, culture and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India, on her web site http://www.peppertrail.com. Her recipes and articles have been featured in The Providence journal, Flavor & Fortune, www.leitesculinaria.com, and www.ThingsAsian.com. She is working on a cookbook about the vegetarian cuisine of Kerala against a backdrop of cultural and culinary history. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Culinary Historians of New York.