Chocolate and chilies
Chocolate and chilies are both species native to Central America, meaning that before 1492 they were completely unknown in the rest of the world. [Read more: “The Columbian exchange“] Chocolate is made from the roasted and ground seeds of the cocoa tree, yet the beans themselves have a bitter taste and must be fermented in order to develop the right chocolatey flavor. Already the Olmecs consumed chocolate and it was popular with both the Mayas and the Aztecs. [Read more: “Big heads of the Olmecs“] Among the Aztecs, chocolate was a ritual beverage and cocoa beans were used as a means of payment. Milk chocolate is sweet chocolate which contains milk powder; white chocolate contains cocoa butter but no cocoa solids. Today, two thirds of the worlds cocoa comes from West Africa, with Ivory Coast as the largest producer.
Chilies originated in Mexico but spread throughout the Americas, and after 1492 quickly throughout the world. Columbus called them “peppers” since the flavor was similar to that of black pepper. They are commonly divided into bell peppers, sweet peppers and hot peppers. Chilies were introduced to India by the Portuguese in the 1500s. Today they are an indispensable ingredients in Indian cuisine. The Thais make a distinction between prik meaning “chili” and prik thai, which is the name for the indigenous black pepper. Prik is essential to all Thai cooking, just as no Indonesian food is possible without sambal, a mixture which includes chilies, shrimp paste, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, spring onion and lime juice. Berbere and mitmita are similar chili-based spice-mixes popular in Ethiopia whereas Tunisians use harissa. In Hungary, paprika is the national vegetable.
Capsaicin, the compound responsible for the fiery flavor of the chilies, has medical properties and as curry lovers around the world can attest, releases endorphins in the brain. Since it can be used to relieve pain, capsaicin is a banned substance in equestrian sports. Moreover, chili spray is an effective means of crowd control since it produces pain in contact with skin, eyes and mucous membranes. Today China is the largest producer of fresh chilies, responsible for half of the world’s output.
15 Minute History, “The Precolumbian civilizations of Mesoamerica”