The Capsicum genus includes mild peppers and hot chillies, such as tabasco, jalapeno and habanero. Cayenne is a favoured ingredient in Creole and Cajun cooking, giving the gumbos and seafood dishes their distinct flavour.
The active ingredient in chillies is capsaicin, found in the skin, seeds and inner ribs of the fruit. Modern research is looking into the pain relieving properties of this substance. It is already known to help arthritis suffers when applied topically in cream form.
In Peru, where chillies have been cultivated since before the 15th century, they have been used in food, as medicine and as currency. They are also considered an aphrodisiac.
When Columbus set out to discover India and rich spices, he landed in the New World instead and discovered the locals (whom he decided to call Indians anyway). He also found the chillies that they were growing. Black pepper was very expensive, so once the discovery of this new pungent plant spread to Europe, and rest of the world, it was welcomed as an easy-to-cultivate, affordable alternative. All modern chilli varieties descend from the ones discovered in the Americas.
Chillies come in many colours, shapes, and degrees of pungency. The colours and potency don’t always match expectations; the world’s hottest chilli is bright red and so strong that it’s a match for pepper spray. Chilli hotness is officially measured in Scoville heat units, ranging from zero to sixteen million.