Although Christopher Columbus may be credited with helping the popularity of chillies spread across the world, the origins of these spicy, capsaicin-filled wonders are rooted in Mesoamerica, which is a region that stretches from Central Mexico down across Central America as far as northern Costa Rica.
Long before the explorer made his voyage to the New World, chili peppers played a huge role in the traditions of Mexico, especially in the ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures. Not only were they prized for the spicy, flavorful kick that they lend to a wide range of cuisine, they were also used for medicinal purposes and to fumigate homes. The native tribes of Mexico had fully domesticated chili peppers far earlier than the days of Columbus, with archaeologists tracing them all the way back to 5000 BC in the country’s Tehuacán Valley. The word “chili” can be credited to Nahuatl, an Aztec language from which many modern terms are derived.
Research has been done on the connection between chili peppers and beverages in ancient Mexico, which has turned up some very interesting information. Archaeological sites close to Chiapa de Corzo, located in southern Mexico amongst the Mixe-Zoquean culture, have produced ancient pottery including drinking vessels that have been chemically analyzed for the types of beverages they would have held. By scraping small samples from the inside of each vessel, they discovered that several of them contained dihydrocapsaicin, among other irritants, that pointed to the Capsicum species which includes spicy chili peppers. It is believed that these vessels likely held beverages, although they may have also been used for a variety of salsas. This evidence shows that chili peppers were used as part of spicy drinks dating back as far as 400 BC, making it the oldest known use of chilies in beverages in Central North America.
Of course, over the centuries, chilies have become one of the most important elements used in Mexican cuisine. From charred and fresh chilies used in countless styles of salsas to scrumptious stuffed and battered chilies starring in the famous dish known as chiles rellenos, they lend the ideal complexity of flavors and heat that make these dishes so unique and memorable. Today’s Mexican hot chocolate features a spicy kick that is no doubt a descendant of the drinks ancient tribes enjoyed that included chilies and a liquid form of chocolate made from cacao. Given the incredible range in flavors and heat between chili varieties (there are more than 150 types!), there are sure to be a few that your taste buds will go wild for. For the most authentic flavors, dishes should be made with the chilies that the traditional recipes call for.
The next time you sit down to a meal that features the flavors of chilies, just remember they have been enhancing meals and drinks in Mexico for centuries, from ceremonial treats to everyday dining!