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FOOD 101: Chile Or Chili or Chilli or…Pepper?

Assorted Chiles
[1] Assorted chiles that are popular in U.S. kitchens (photo courtesy Melissa’s).

Cayenne Chiles
[2] Cayenne chiles (photo courtesy Good Eggs).

  Wild chiles have been a part of the diet in the Americas since about 7500 B.C.E.

While the first chile may have been domesticated in Bolivia, the oldest known traces of have been found in bowls in Ecuador, dating back 6,100 years*.

Chiles were carried to different parts of Latin America, where soil, climate and cross breeding created many different species. Today there are six species of chiles in the genus Capsicum.

But how did we get so many different spellings for the chile? And why are chiles called peppers?

  • Chilli: The original word in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, is “chilli,” the spelling that is used in the U.K. and its former colonies.
  • Chile is the spelling used by the Spanish, the first Europeans to taste them, who adapted the spoken word to their spelling conventions. They first brought chiles to Europe in the mid-1500s.
  • Chile is used in the U.S. to describe any hot Capsicum.
  • Bell pepper: The mildest member of the genus became known as bell pepper in the U.S. (because of its shape), but is called capsicum in the U.K.
  • Chile pepper is a misnomer that has stuck, unfortunately, thanks to Christopher Columbus. Upon first tasting chiles in the Caribbean, he equated them to the only other spicy hot food he knew: black pepper, which had been available in Europe since Roman times.
  • Black pepper (Piper nigrum) and chiles (Capsicum) are not related in any way. See the details below.
  • Chili powder, a mixture of ground chiles and other ingredients cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano), is a spelling common among American spice manufacturers.
    And by the way:

    Chiles are a fruit, not a vegetable. Here’s the difference between fruits and vegetables.


    But Columbus’ name stuck, but it isn’t correct. Our suggestion is to simply call hot chiles—ancho, jalapeño, habanero, serrano, etc.—chiles.
    If you live in the U.S. (we can’t address other countries):

  • For the fruits: chile. (In New Mexico, a big chile state, this official spelling was entered into the 1983 Congressional Record [source]).
  • For the ground spice and the Tex-Mex dish it’s used in: chili.
  • As for chilie and chilly: Don’t even go there!

  • The History Of Chiles
  • The Scoville Scale, classifying chiles by hotness
  • The Different Types Of Chiles
  • _____________________
    *Science magazine, February 16, 2007.

    †Taxonomy includes Kingdom, Subkingdom, Infrakingdom, Superdivision, Division, Subdivision, Class, Superorder, Order, Family, Genus, Species. The simplified list is Kingdom, Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Black pepper (Piper nigrum genus and species) and chiles (Capsicum genus, 6 different species), are not related at all, although both are in the plant kingdom.



    Their only relationship is that they are both members of the plant family in the official taxonomy.

    Taxonomy is the branch of science concerned with classification of organisms plants and animals.


    Kingdom Plantae Plants
    Subkingdom Viridiplantae
    Infrakingdom Streptophyta – land plants
    Superdivision Embryophyta
    Division Tracheophyta – vascular plants, tracheophytes
    Subdivision Spermatophytina spermatophytes, seed plants
    Class Magnoliopsida
    Superorder Magnolianae
    Order Piperales
    Family Piperaceae – peppers
    Genus Piper L. – pepper
    Species Piper nigrum L. – black pepper



    Kingdom Plantae – Plants
    Subkingdom Tracheobionta – Vascular plants
    Superdivision Spermatophyta – Seed plants
    Division Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants
    Class Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons
    Subclass Asteridae
    Order Solanales
    Family Solanaceae – Potato family
    Genus Capsicum
    Species Capsicum annuum
    Species Capsicum baccatum
    Species Capsicum chinense
    Species Capsicum frutescens
    Species Capsicum pubescens
    Species Capsicum praetermissum


      Jalapeno & Habanero Chiles
    [3] Jalapenos, habaneros and a glimpse of red bell peppers. The pink peppercorns shown in the photo are not related to Piper nigrum, nor to Capsicum. They’re berries from the Baies Rose Plant (Genus and species Schinus molle, Family Anacardiaceae), a small mastic tree related to the rose bush, from the French Island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Green peppercorns are immature black Piper nigrum peppercorns, picked while unripe.

    Red & Green Bell Peppers
    [4] Bell peppers, the non-spicy chile.



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