Chili vs Pepper

I love hot spicy food. I am so glad to hear that at least this one vice of mine has been shown to be good for our health. (see this BMJ article).  I am not sure if that study was done well, but good for you or not, I will keep eating spicy food.

I made the above diagram to show you some of the biology of chilis.  Below, let me discuss some of the odd linguistics involved with the word “chili”.


Let’s start here: “spicey” is a vague term — heck, basil and oregano are spices but most folks don’t mean things like that when they say a food is “spicy” but instead, they are talking about chili peppers.  To clarify this, most people say “hot spicy food”.

Pepper vs. Chili

Chili and Pepper are both hot spicy foods. But the terms are often confused. Chili (used all over Asia) came to Asia from Central America while black pepper (used all over the Western world) came to the West from India.  Black Pepper and the Chilis (as my diagram points out) are from different Orders of plants — they are not related at all.  Peppers reached Egypt and Greece very early but were rarely used until the Romans around the 1st century CE. Black pepper was very expensive at that time because of its long journey on the spice roads from South India where it was extensively since BCE.

“Pepper” comes from the South Indian Tamil word for “long pepper” (“pippali”)  a plant in the same family as “black pepper” but the Romans assumed the spices the same. Then in the 1500s the word “pepper” was used also for the spicy “chili” coming from the New Word — “Chili Peppers”.  And so the confusion multiplied.

“Chili” comes from the Nahuati word “chilli” which is the name of the wonderful capsicum fruit the Aztec’s were eating when the Spaniard conquered them in the 1500s.

One last odd linguisting point. Sichuan Pepper — one of my favorite spices from Asia (particularly Sichuan China, where I used to live) — is neither a pepper, nor a chili but instead it is of the citrus family (see my previous post).  Sichuan Pepper is called “HuāJiāo” in China is translated as Flower Pepper or Flower Chili — the confusion persists.

Sichuan Pepper is umami (the fifth flavor) amplified.  It is great in omelets, stews, curries and much more.  Beware though, it can make your tongue and lips numb if you eat a lot.  And remember, it compliments cayenne pepper wonderfully. On first tasting it, my 14 year-old son called it “electric lemon”.


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