Around the World with the Hot Pepper

From its discovery in Toltec kingdoms to its use in modern kitchens, follow the journey of the traditional chile pepper.

  • This young girl holds a "ristra" - an arrangement of drying chile peppers.
    Photo by Kelley Fowler/
  • Chipotle powder is made from smoked jalapeño peppers after they've ripened from green to red.
    Photo by iStock/abbielmages
  • Dried ancho chiles can be ground up or crushed before being added to a recipe.
    Photo by iStock/bhofack2
  • The chiltecpin pepper is the only wild chile native to the U.S.
    Photo by iStock/ariadna126
  • Capsicum pubescens originated in the Andes above 5,000 feet elevation and has black seeds and purple flowers.
    Photo by Wikipedia Commons/Peter Presslein
  • 'Lemon Drop' pepper from Peru has a slightly citrus-flavored heat.
    Photo courtesy
  • 'Ajvarski' is an heirloom pepper from Macedonia with sweet, flavorful pods.
    Photo courtesy
  • The 'Zavory' habanero has all the flavor without all the heat.
    Photo courtesy
  • 'Chile Caballo' hails from the highlands of Central and South America.
    Photo courtesy
  • 'Ediuda' is a mandorin orange bell pepper from Poland.
    Photo courtesy
  • The 'Estaceno' pepper is a northern New Mexico heirloom that won the prize for best green chile at the Santa Fe farmers market.
    Photo courtesy
  • The famous 'Tabasco' heirloom was introduced into Louisiana in 1848.
    Photo courtesy

Legend says that King Huemac, the last king of the Toltecs, married his daughter to a humble farmer who came to pay tribute in the form of his best chillis, as was the custom at the time. The princess saw how handsome the young farmer was and how faithfully he brought the best of his crop to the king, so she fell in love with him and convinced her father that she should marry the farmer instead of one of the many rich contenders. The loyal chile farmer was eventually promoted to head of the King’s Guard, causing the Toltec nobles — who resented the king’s decision — to form a coup. The uprising was successfully halted by the King’s Guard with the chile farmer as lead commander. During the celebrations that followed, the chile farmer revealed his true identity as the warrior god Tezcatlipoca.

Chileatole Recipe

From this legend, we learn that the chile pepper was a highly valued commodity that traveled from the fields to the city states of the Toltec, Aztec, and Maya and to the palaces of their kings as tribute. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they classified the local chile into eight groups, all belonging to the Capsicum annuum species. Most of these Spanish classifications can still be found today with some variations.

Spanish Chile Classifications

Quauchilli (chile de árbol): These peppers were used as condiments but are no longer found.

Chiltecpin (Chiltepin): The mother of all chile peppers, Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum is harvested in the wild under mesquite trees and has to pass through the guts of birds for its seeds to germinate. The tiny round pod is very flavorful and is used in condiments.

Tomalchilli (chile mirasol): This pepper is named for the upright position of the pods, which face up toward the sun. Mirasol means “looking at the sun” in Spanish.



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