Thanks to Claire for writing today’s entry, the last in the food and plant diversity series:
This photograph of Capsicum chinense was provided by Eric Hunt of San Francisco, California (Eric in SF@Flickr) via the BPotD Flickr Pool. His image of habanero peppers was taken at the Alemany Farmer’s Market in San Francisco. Much appreciated Eric!
Capsicum chinense is in the Solanaceae. Other cultivated species with edible tissues in this family include tomato, potato and eggplant. Capsicum chinense is well-known for having a number of cultivated varieties, including the Habanero group of cultivars and ‘Datil’ as well as being a parent of the Naga Jolokia cultivar group (peppers of hybrid origin from Bangladesh and Assam, measured to be the hottest in the world). Nikolaus von Jacquin, who described Capsicum chinense in 1776 from seeds acquired in the Caribbean, incorrectly thought the species came from China (in part the reason for the scientific name Capsicum chinense, “of China”).
Chili peppers (PDF) get their incredible heat from capsaicinoid molecules present in the fruit. The hotness is traditionally measured by the Scoville scale in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). However, the Scoville scale is subjective, so a quantitative measure, high performance liquid chromatography, is now used with subsequent conversion to SHU. Peppers from the Habanero group range from 100,000 to 350,000 SHU while the Naga Jolokia group range from a whopping 855,000 to 1,075,000 SHU! By way of comparison, Jalapeño peppers range from 2500 to 8000 SHU.
Some major producing areas of Capsicum (encompassing many cultivated varieties of edible pepper) are Spain, eastern Europe, north Africa, Mexico, and the southwest United States. Originally from the Americas, Capsicum chinense was likely first cultivated in Peru or Bolivia, but spread throughout the world, first locally in the tropical and subtropical New World and then to distant continents. Spicy chilis are now a major ingredient in numerous dishes from cultures all over the world. It can be dried or eaten fresh, ground up, chopped, put in salsas, sauces and more! Pass that Tabasco please!