The Chilli of the Discoveries

Few people know it, but it was the Portuguese who brought chillies to the Old World.

Why do some people love chillies and other peppers? Is it sadomasochism? The uninitiated are surprised and think that those who love chillies spoil the food. The latter, however, reply that chillies enhance the flavour of certain foods and transform meals into a moment of great pleasure. Maybe they just don’t notice it anymore, maybe their taste buds have gone numb, reply the former.

Chilli lovers are right about one thing, however: those who get used to it continue to distinguish among the various tastes and acquire a certain resistance to the more painful effects of chillies. But a large part of the pleasure is derived precisely from the pain caused by the piquancy. Surprising? Not really, as pain may be associated to fruition. And it is precisely this that the piquancy manages to bring about, when used in an appreciable quantity.

In the presence of pain, our body releases certain substances destined to numb even the more painful reactions of the brain: the so-called endorphins (the name is derived from the contraction of “endogenous” and “morphine”). These substances were discovered in the seventies, after conducting research on the action of morphine in specific receptors of the brain. The term cannot be found in the Dicionário da Academia (like so many others), but the Brazilian dictionary Aurélio comes to our aid, describing it as substances “that occur in the brain, in the hypophysis and in other tissues of vertebrates, capable of producing a prolonged analgesic action, and whose effects are very similar to those of morphine”. Piquancy causes a certain amount of pain, a dull pain, that is capable of making the brain release endorphins which combat the pain, giving us a feeling of pleasure. Piquancy is almost a sedative, yet a harmless one.

In normal doses, chillies do not cause any adverse effects on the body and besides the pleasure they bring about by the release of endorphins, they have tonic and anti-septic effects, they stimulate the circulatory and digestive systems and they increase perspiration. They are therefore a natural drug of recommended effects. Where, then, do these miraculous plants come from?

Contrary to what is often thought, chillies have nothing to do with traditional spices, or even with common pepper (piper nigrum), which may be slightly aggressive but is not hot. Common pepper is originally from India and the part of the plant that is used is the fruit, which is made up of tiny spheres with a few millimetres in diameter. Both red pepper and black and white pepper come from the same plant – red pepper is the freshly picked fruit, black pepper is the dried fruit and white pepper is the seed once the outer covering has been removed. This spice was known in Europe long before the voyage of Vasco da Gama. The Portuguese brought it from India and spread it throughout the world. It started to be cultivated in Africa and Brazil and found its way to the table of all, not merely of the wealthiest.

Hot-tasting spices, however, are made from another plant (Capsicum frutescens), which is given the name gindungo, pimentinha, malagueta, pili-pili (in Africa) or piri-piri. The entire fruit is used and can differ both in terms of size and appearance according to the climate, cultivation conditions and treatment. The active piquant substances it contains are not found in common peppers or in any other spice.

Few people know it, but it was the Portuguese who introduced chillies to the Old World. They brought the plant from South America, from its natural habitat in the Amazon, and took it to Africa where it adapted itself extremely well. They then took it to Asia, where it was highly appreciated.

Chillies were brought to India by the Portuguese. Before this, the Indians did not use this spice. They knew common pepper, cloves and many other spices, however they were unaware of the existence of this food sedative.

Nuno Crato

© Instituto Camões 2003-2005