Monday, October 26, 2009

Chile Wreaths and Etymology

I was in Seattle recently for work and I got a chance to eat lunch at the famous Pike Place Market. After walking around I made my way to Post Alley and El Mercado Latino. This is rainy Seattle not New Mexico so I was surprised to see many gorgeous chile ristras and wreaths in so many shapes and colors! I took some photos for your enjoyment. All these chiles inspired me to write on the origins of the word "chile".

Chile or Pepper?
Christopher Columbus was the first European to encounter plants from the genus Capsicum in the Americas. In Spanish these plants came to be known as chiles (from their original Nahuatl name, chil). Columbus tried to pass these plants as the same spice known to Europeans as pepper. At the time pepper was highly priced in Europe, known as a spice, a preservative and a medicine. Black pepper (Piper Nigrum) is however from the family Piperacea, a spice native of South India. Columbus may have thought Capsicum and Piperacea were the same, since confused Europeans believed to be in India when the "new" word was first "discovered". This is the reason Native Americans are erroneously called "Indians", and why in English we are stuck with the same word (pepper) for two different plants.

Chile or Ají?
The South American country of Chile is long and skinny...but it is NOT named after a chile.
The name of the country has different roots than those of the chile pepper, originating from the Quechua chilli, a combination of the words "Chi", meaning trascendental and "Levu" (shortened to "Le"), meaning river. Loosely translated it means "The River of the Ancestors". Curiously, in South America the Spanish word for hot pepper is Ají picante, as opposed to chile, as it is known in Mexico and other North American Spanish speaking countries. However in all Spanish speaking countries black pepper is called pimienta a word similar to the Spanish word for bell pepper: Pimiento.

Chili or Chile?
"Chili" is the anglicisation of the word Chile, and it is used only in the US. It is also the name of the popular Chili stew made with meat, chiles and some times beans. The dish has its roots on food eaten in Mexico for centuries, basically meat seasoned with chiles, or "carne con chile", by its name in Spanish (literally it means "meat with chiles"). In the American Southwest the name of the dish (and the dish itself) went trough a reincarnation and became "Chili con Carne", or the powdered spice blend used to season this dish. The good folks of ChileTraditions mention that in 1983 New Mexico Senator Pete Dominici made an official congressional record on the correct way of spelling Chili: With an "E" at the end.

More fastidious chile grammar and slang
English speaking folks usually say "chile rellenos" or simply "rellenos" when referring to the dish consisting of battered stuffed peppers. The plural of the Spanish word would be "ChileS rellenos", if there is more than one.

So, rellenos or not, how HOT are chiles really? The chemical called capsaicin in the chile stimulates the papillary glands and dermis and produces a "burning" sensation, and make you release endorphins, creating a reaction similar to heat exposure. The chile itself doesn't produce heat. Eating chiles while in the middle of a snowstorm won't save you from hypothermia.

The spiciest chile is probably the Habanero. It is spelled HabaNero, not Habañero, since it is named after the city of La Habana, where the chile was traded. The origin of this chile, however, was the Yucatan peninsula and it is featured in many delicious Yucatecan recipes.

In Spanish when something is spicy it is called "picante", from the word "picar", meaning something that pierces like a needle or stings like a mosquito. In Mexico the word chile also has sexual connotations, it alludes to the penis.

So my friends...Al Chile (A slang saying, meaning: To the point!)

If you go to Mexico don't ask for chile "caliente", if you are expecting something spicy - you'll just get something warm. If you are a guy, don't ask for someone to heat your chile, unless you are expecting...Oh, never mind. If you go to Seattle, make sure you visit Pike Place Market.

Happy eating!

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