The Difference Between Chili and Chile

Learn about the long history and fascinating origins of the chili and the chile and discover the differences between the two.

Photo by Pernilla Bergdahl

The scientific name Capsicum is Latin for pod, or box. It appears in the writings by the Byzantine physician Actuarius of Constantinople in the 13th century. He used the Greek spelling kapsikon, but it is uncertain if it is only capsicum he’s referring to. The first European description of Capsicum that we know for sure is about the chili was written by the Frenchman Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in 1719.

The word “chile” originates from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs and other indigenous populations of South America. Their word chilli (pronounced chil) means “where the world ends.” When the Spaniards arrived, the indigenous population called themselves “chillis men.” The Spanish and Portuguese translated the word chilli into chile (pronounced tschi:le) when they brought the chili plant back to Europe. The Portuguese, who in the 16th century were competing with the Spanish for discoveries on the continent, were probably the first to call chili Spanish pepper. Once chili spread worldwide, its heat was compared to that of pepper, and in many languages chili is called pepper locally, like piri-piri in Swahili. Even the name paprika has its origin in the word pepper.

Chile, the country, stretches along the western coast of South America, and we can say that it has the elongated form of a cayenne pepper. Chile was part of the Incan empire and was inhabited by various indigenous peoples. Its capital, Santiago, was founded in 1541 by the Spanish and by conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. The country remained a Spanish colony until 1810, but it wasn’t until 1818 that it became an independent state. They still call chili an aji, a word included in many chili names.

In English we refer to chile/chili peppers or hot peppers—which translates into strong paprikas, in contrast to sweet peppers, bell peppers. Chile is often written with an i in England, though opinions are still divided as to the correct spelling. Some say that we should spell chili with an e at the end, or cut out the word pepper that follows it. Chili pepper is the botanically correct name for Capsicum annuum— the Chili Pepper Group–according to the Swedish database for cultivated plants (Svensk Kulturväxtdatabas). We call them chilies in everyday parlance.

Things started to move for the chili at the end of 1980, and when chef Jonas Borssén’s cookbook Eat the Heat was released in 1996, he quickly attracted a large following who wanted to eat hot, spicy food. Simultaneously, the import of chilies increased, and in the years following the new millenium different associations and chili groups started up, both in the physical world and online. This is a growing circle of chili enthusiasts who share their growing tips and spiciest recipes. The members range from hobby growers who seek growing tips, to extreme chili nerds who try out different growing methods, compete in eating the hottest chilies, or test every dish and chili-containing products they can find. Some even plan their holidays around visits to the most exciting chili areas.



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