Capsicum (or pepper in the US, Canada and United Kingdom) is a genus of plants from the nightshade family (Solanaceae) native to the Americas, where it was cultivated for thousands of years by the people of the tropical Americas, and is now cultivated worldwide. Some of the members of Capsicum are used as spices, vegetables, and medicines. The fruit of Capsicum plants have a variety of names depending on place and type. They are commonly called chilli pepper, red or green pepper, or sweet pepper in Britain, and typically just capsicum in Australian and Indian English. The large mild form is called bell pepper in the US and Canada. They are called paprika in some other countries (although paprika can also refer to the powdered spice made from various capsicum fruit).
The original Mexican term, chilli (now chile in Mexico) came from the Nahuatl word chilli or xilli, referring to a larger Capsicum variety cultivated at least since 3000 BC, as evidenced by remains found in pottery from Puebla and Oaxaca.
Capsicum fruits and peppers can be eaten raw or cooked. Those used in cooking are generally varieties of the C. annuum and C. frutescens species, though a few others are used as well. They are suitable for stuffing with fillings such as cheese, meat or rice.
They are also frequently used both chopped and raw in salads, or cooked in stir-fries or other mixed dishes. They can be sliced into strips and fried, roasted whole or in pieces, or chopped and incorporated into salsas or other sauces.
They can be preserved by drying, pickling or freezing. Dried pepper may be reconstituted whole, or processed into flakes or powders. Pickled or marinated peppers are frequently added to sandwiches or salads. Frozen peppers are used in stews, soups, and salsas. Extracts can be made and incorporated into hot sauces.
Crushed red pepperAccording to Richard Pankhurst, C. frutescens (known as barbaré) was so important to the national cuisine of Ethiopia, at least as early as the 19th century, “that it was cultivated extensively in the warmer areas wherever the soil was suitable.” Although it was grown in every province, barbaré was especially extensive in Yejju, “which supplied much of Showa as well as other neighboring provinces.” He singles out the upper Golima river valley as being almost entirely devoted to the cultivation of this plant, where thousands of acres were devoted to the plant and it was harvested year round.
In 2005, a poll of 2,000 people revealed the capsicum pepper to be Britain’s 4th favourite culinary vegetable.
In Bulgaria, South Serbia and Macedonia, peppers are very popular, too. They can be eaten in salads, like Shopska Salata; fried and then covered with a dip of tomato paste, onions, garlic, and parsley; or stuffed with a variety of products—like minced meat and rice, beans, or cottage cheese and eggs. Peppers are also the main ingredient in the traditional tomato and pepper dip—lyutenitsa and ajvar. They are in the base of different kinds of pickled vegetables dishes—turshiya.
Capsicums are also used extensively in Sri Lankan cuisine as side dishes.
Species And Varieties
Capsicum consists of approximately 20-27 species, five of which are domesticated: C. annuum, C. baccatum, C. chinense, C. frutescens, and C. pubescens . Phylogenetic relationships between species were investigated using biogeographical, morphological, chemosystematic, hybridization, and genetic data. Fruits of Capsicum can vary tremendously in color, shape, and size both between and within species, which has led to confusion over the relationships between taxa. Chemosystematic studies helped distinguish the difference between varieties and species. For example, C. baccatum var. baccatum had the same flavonoids as C. baccatum var. pendulum, which led researchers to believe that the two groups belonged to the same species.
Many varieties of the same species can be used in many different ways; for example, C. annuum includes the “bell pepper” variety, which is sold in both its immature green state and its red, yellow or orange ripe state. This same species has other varieties as well, such as the Anaheim chiles often used for stuffing, the dried Ancho chile used to make chili powder, the mild-to-hot Jalapeño, and the smoked, ripe Jalapeño, known as a Chipotle.
Most of the capsaicin in a pungent (hot) pepper is concentrated in blisters on the epidermis of the interior ribs (septa) that divide the chambers of the fruit to which the seeds are attached. A study on capsaicin production in fruits of C. chinense showed that capsaicinoids are produced only in the epidermal cells of the interlocular septa of pungent fruits, that blister formation only occurs as a result of capsaicinoid accumulation, and that pungency and blister formation are controlled by a single locus, Pun1, for which there exist at least two recessive alleles that result in non-pungency of C. chinense fruits.
The amount of capsaicin in hot peppers varies significantly between varieties, and is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU).
Synonyms And Common Names
The name given to the Capsicum fruits varies between English-speaking countries.
In Australia, New Zealand and India, heatless species are called “capsicums” while hot ones are called “chilli/chillies” (double L). Pepperoncini are also known as “sweet capsicum”. The term “bell peppers” is rarely used, and then usually in reference to C. annuum and other varieties which have a bell-shape and are fairly hot, they are more usually called “bell chillies”.
In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the heatless varieties are called “capsicums”, “sweet peppers” or “peppers” (or “green peppers,” “red peppers,” etc) while the hot ones are “chilli/chillies” (double L) or “chilli peppers”.
In the United States and Canada, the common heatless species is referred to as “bell peppers,” “sweet peppers,” “red/green/etc peppers,” or simply “peppers”, while the hot species are collectively called “chile/chiles,” “chili/chilies,” or “chili/chile peppers” (one L only), “hot peppers”, or named as a specific variety (e.g., banana pepper). In many midwestern regions of the United States the Sweet Bell Pepper was commonly called a mango. With the modern advent of fresh tropical fruit importers exposing a wider latitude of individuals to the tropical fruit variety of the mango, this usage has become archaic. However some menus still call a stuffed bell pepper a mango.
The name “pepper” came into use because the plants were hot in the same sense as the condiment black pepper, Piper nigrum. But there is no botanical relationship with this plant, nor with Sichuan Pepper.
In Polish there is different confusion. The term “papryka” is used for all kinds of capsicum peppers (the sweet vegetable, and the hot spicy) as well as for dried and ground spice made from them (named paprika in US-English). Also fruit and spice can be attributed as “papryka ostra” (hot pepper) or “papryka słodka” (sweet pepper). The term “pieprz” (pepper) instead means only grained or ground black pepper (incl. its green, white, and red forms) but not capsicum. Sometimes the hot capsicum spice is also called “chilli” (what is actually improperly spelled).
In Italy and the Italian- and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, the sweet varieties are called “peperoni” and the hot varieties “peperoncini” (literally “small peppers”). In French, capsicum are called “poivron”. In German and Dutch, capsicum are called “paprika”. In Switzerland however, the condiment powder made from capsicum is called “paprika” (German language regions) and “paprica” (French and Italian language region).
In Spanish-speaking countries there are many different names for each variety and preparation. In Mexico the term chile is used for “hot peppers” while the heatless varieties are called pimiento (the masculine form of the word for pepper which is pimienta). Several other countries, such as Chile, whose name is unrelated, Perú, Puerto Rico, and Argentina, use ají. In Spain, heatless varieties are called pimiento and hot varieties guindilla. In Indian English, the word “capsicum” is used exclusively for Capsicum annuum. All other varieties of hot capsicum are called chilli. In northern India and Pakistan, Capsicum annuum is also commonly called “Shimla Mirch” in the native languages. Shimla incidentally is a popular hill-station in India (and “Mirch” means chilli in local languages).
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