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Looking Back at the Chile Pepper
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Janis McPhilomy. Contributing research by José Luis Guzman
Girl Scout Cookies and Chapstick were not the only things sent to our soldiers in the recent Gulf War. Soldiers from the Southwest, and particularly those stationed at Ft. Bliss, missed one of the region's food essentials -- chile. Local chile growers quickly responded and sent various chile products to help lessen another type of homesickness. After all, chile is a border staple.
Many border residents eat various salsas daily, but the rest of the country is catching up. The El Paso Times reported in 1989 that hot salsa sales had grown 55% since 1985, and salsa sales will reach $789.7 million by 1993. Although chile has only recently become big business, peppers have been part of the human diet for thousands of years.
As early as 7000 BC native Indians in the New World were eating the wild "chiltecpin" (piquín) pepper. This is a small and very pungent chile eaten like peanuts today only by the brave.
It is believed that chile peppers were domesticated between 5200 and 3400 B.C. by nomadic Indians dependent on the harvesting of wild plants for more than half of their food.
Chile peppers were first cultivated in South America around 2300 BC by the Incas who called them "uchu" in the Quechua language and "huayca" in the Aymara language. In one of the Inca myths chile was believed to be one of brothers of the Incas creation known as "Agar-Uchu" or "Brother Chile Pepper", the brother of the first Incan king. The Incas worshipped the chile pepper as one of the holy plants and used it to represent the teachings of the early kings.
Before 1500 B.C. chiles traveled north into Mexico and gained the reputation as a spicy condiment, becoming an important part of the native diet. Around this time the Olmecs, one of the first agricultural tribes, settled in what is now Veracruz, Mexico.
About 500 B.C. the Monte Alban culture of the Zapotec Indians from the valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, began exporting to neighboring tribes the "Suchilquitongo" bowls that resemble the handheld mortars or molcajetes. These bowls are believed to be the first evidence that people crushed chiles for chile powder.
When the Mayas reached the peak of their civilization about 500 A.D. in southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. They were growing many different varieties of chiles, an important ingredient in the Mayan diet. They used chiles in almost every meal, from breakfast, which was a hot cereal of ground maize spiced with chile peppers called atole or pozol, to the evening meal of various stews spiced with chiles.
The Aztec were the last agricultural tribe to arrive in the area of Mexico City around 1200 A.D. The marketplaces of the Aztec overflowed with chiles of all shapes and sizes and many colors. They called this pungent fruit "chillis" in the Nahuatl language, which referred to both the red and green chile peppers.
Much of today's Mexican food is based on Aztec cooking. And many of the dishes from the Aztecs have survived virtually unchanged to this day.
The Aztec ate a variety of seafood stews spiced with different kinds of chiles. They had two types of moles (pronounced mo-lehs) which evolved from thick stews, one with red chiles, the other with yellow chiles and both with tomatoes. These sauces became the moles that are famous today in Mexican cuisine.