Columbus’ hot and sweet discovery

Over the last few weeks, I told you about many different New World foods that transformed Europe’s nutrition, cuisine, and health. And today, as we draw nearer to Columbus Day, we will look specifically at foods Christopher Columbus brought back with him to Europe following his voyages to the New World.

As you probably remember from grammar school, Christopher Columbus wanted to find a direct sea route to the Spice Islands in the Pacific Ocean. He already knew the Earth was round and thought if he crossed the Atlantic Ocean, he would hit the East Indies. He promised his sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, that he would bring back great riches to Spain. Including precious, exotic spices.

Of course, Columbus never reached the Spice Islands. He did, however, reach the Americas. And the moment he set foot on dry land, Columbus started asking the “Indians” about native foods. (It is said that Columbus called the Native Americans “Indians” because he believed he had reached the East Indies. Another interpretation is that he called them un gente “in dios” or “a people with God.”)

The Native Americans introduced Columbus to one of their oldest cultivated vegetables–the pepper.

Experts believe chili peppers and capsicum peppers originated in the tropical regions of Central or South America. And people widely consumed them for thousands of years before Columbus ever set foot in the Americas. Archeologists have even found pepper seeds in ancient Peruvian burials. Peppers were also popular among the Olmec. This tribe preceded the Aztecs along Mexico’s Gulf Coast between 600 and 100 BC.

While exploring the island of Hispaniola (now in Haiti), Columbus found a “new” kind of pepper the natives called aji. And he took samples with him back to Europe.

Since farmers had cultivated peppers for thousands of years in South America, they readily adapted to new growing conditions in Europe. And later, back in North America and other continents as well.

Today, we divide peppers into two main categories: sweet or hot.

And there are four main types of sweet peppers: quadrato (box-shaped),  cuore di bue (resembling a top, literally “ox heart), pomodoro (small and compressed), and corno (thin and elongated, straight or curved).

You can use sweet peppers to flavor main dishes with ground meat and sausage. You can also use them in soups and stews. In French, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, and Eastern European cuisine, they stuff pepper “shells” with meats, rice and other fillings. Of course, you can also add sweet peppers to salads. And eat them on their own.

You can use hot peppers to add “kick” to your dishes. In fact, hot peppers served as a spicy alternative to the expensive black pepper Columbus originally sought on his voyages.

Today, hot peppers are popular around the world. In Italy, they use hot peppers with garlic, pepper, and olive oil to make aromatic oils, vinegars, and grappa (or vodka). They also use them in fermented cheeses.

They also use hot peppers in Eastern Europe, Spain, Mexico, Central and South America. You’ll even find them in Chinese, Indian, Burmese, Thai, and Vietnamese as well cooking.

Curiously, chefs in hotter climates seem to use hot peppers more often. Of course, an ingredient called capsicum found in hot peppers does cause sweating. And sweating does cool the skin and the body. So, maybe this helps explain their popularity in hot locales.

Of course, capsicum also soothes joint pain effectively. Most often, you’ll see capsicum included in topical creams that you apply directly to your joints. It appears to disrupt the pain signals coming from your sore joints. But capsicum can also reach your joints through your blood. So, if you have sore joints, try cooking dinner tonight with hot peppers. And see if you notice a difference in how you feel in the morning.