History of chillies

Prehistoric fruits….

Wild chillies were first gathered and eaten in Mexico around 7000BC. Plant remains, and archaeological research, tell us that locals were collecting and storing various types of chillies at this time. Over time, the wild plants were cultivated. 

Chillies were used for cooking but also valued for their medicinal properties. The Mayans and Aztecs used chillies to treat stomach aches, rashes, rheumatism and arthritis, among other things. In the West Indies, chillies were traditionally used as a digestive aid.  

Global takeover…

Little was known of chillies in the rest of the world, until the 1490s, when Christopher Columbus brought the plants back to Spain from the Caribbean. 

The addition of the name “chilli-pepper” was a misnomer – Columbus and his men mistakenly thought that the chillies were related to black pepper plants. In actual fact, chillies are far more closely related to tomatoes, aubergines, potatoes and even goji berries! 

Chillies were first recorded in the UK in 1548 – their popularity spread like wildfire across Europe and beyond! Spanish and Portuguese traders sold them across Africa, India and the Far East.

Commercial Success…

By the 1800s, chilli based sauces were being sold commercially in the USA and elsewhere. They were still being used for both their flavour and their medicinal benefits. 

In 1912, an American Pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville invented a test to detect the relative strength of different chillies. 

Scoville’s aim was to be able to deliver the exact level of pungency for a type of pain-relief cream that his drug company was selling – which used capsaicin as its active ingredient! 

His test involved drying the chillies, dissolving them in oil and then mixing with sugar water. The more sugar needed to completely dilute the detectable heat, the higher the Scoville rating! 

We still use the Scoville Heat Scale to this day, and measure the heat of chillies in Scoville Heat Units (SHUs). 

Here come the Super Hots…

Before the 1990s, there were only 2 chillies that had been measured at over 350,000 SHU – the Scotch Bonnet and the Habanero. 

The Scotch Bonnet hails from the Caribbean and is so called for its resemblance to a Scottish Tam O’Shanter hat,

The Habanero is named after Havana, the city in Cuba where it was commonly traded. In 1999 the Habanero held the Guinness Record for hottest chilli in the world. But things were about to change….

In 2001, a researcher collected Bhut Jolokia samples from the Assam region of India. These were tested, and it was discovered that this chilli measured more than 1,000,000 SHUs! 

This discovery opened the flood gates in a big way – growers all over the world now compete ferociously to create the world’s hottest chilli – with scandals, accusations, sabotage and even death threats being commonplace in this war! 
In 2017, Guinness crowned the Carolina Reaper as the World’s hottest, with SHUs measured at 1,641,183, and in 2023 the Pepper X took the crown with a rating of 2.69 million SHUs! 

The creator of the Carolina Reaper & Pepper X credits eating fresh chillies daily as the reason for him beating skin and thyroid cancer.