Perhaps no cuisine is more associated with the alchemy of spices than India. The multi-layered, apparently endless flavouring system of the “masala” is intrinsically linked to Indian cuisine, and no spice seems more Indian than chilli.
But the chilli is not at all Indian in origin. In fact, it is South American and as such was entirely unknown in most of the world before the first contact with the Americas by Europeans around 1500.
Chilli was first domesticated in Mexico about 8000 years ago, one of the first self-pollinating crops developed in the Americas. Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to consume one, and thought they were a pepper – which provided an unusual coincidence later on.
There are several stories of scientists, monks and cooks in Europe having unfortunately fiery experiences experimenting with the extraordinary spice brought back to the Old World.
In 1510, Portugal, then a major world power, established one of the first European permanent settlements in India at Goa and soon after, brought the chilli to India. Almost immediately, the remarkably fiery spice spread throughout India, which became the world’s largest producer and consumer of chilli.
Prior to the introduction of chilli, Indian cuisines were heavily flavoured with black pepper, and Indian food appears to have been very spicy even then. In fact, linguistic evidence shows that Indians, like Columbus, drew few distinctions between the two spices with a number of languages using variants around the word “mirch,” which usually denotes chilli now, for both spices.
After this, chilli began to spread throughout Asia, deep into the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as China and Indochina, becoming a major aspect of most Asian cuisines.
The arrival of migrant communities in Europe and North and South America completed the rise of the chilli in the 19th and 20th centuries.