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Andean aji


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Page 195 Peppers Peppers have become the number one spice ingredient in the world. Red, yellow, green, or brown; hot, mild, or in-between—more are now consumed than any other. In almost every country of Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, North America, and Latin America, they are the most popular condiment, employed to enliven rice, beans, cassava, corn, and myriad other staples. What is more, peppers have a large—and growing—following in countries that have not traditionally used them. In the United States, for example, produce markets carry fresh peppers in rainbow colors from white to purple, sizes from a gram to a half kilo, and shapes from flat to spherical. Grocery shelves display dozens of concoctions to fire the taste buds. Restaurants serve everything from chile relleno to Korean beef. Even some cocktails come spiced with pepper. All this would have seemed unbelievable to the South American Indians who were probably the first to use peppers—extremely hot, pea-sized fruits they found growing around them—perhaps more than 7,000 years ago. 1 Such pungent foods should have limited appeal, but the history of peppers is one of enthusiastic acceptance wherever they were taken. By the time of Columbus, peppers were a principal seasoning of the Incas and the Aztecs. Montezuma received them as tribute. Columbus came to the New World looking for the black pepper of Asia and stumbled upon this even more piquant spice. (Believing he had reached the Indies, he named the people “Indians” and the spice “pepper,” thereby creating endless subsequent confusion.) After Columbus, peppers quickly spread around the world. The plants adapted to new environments and became so thoroughly entrenched in many cultures that the little green and red fruits have 1 The ancestors of all peppers are believed to have originated in an area of Bolivia, but peppers spread quickly and reached Central America and Mexico in very early times. Information from W.H. Eshbaugh.

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Page 196 become an even bigger spice than the black one the Admiral had been looking for. Chili powder, cayenne, Tabasco, pimientos, and paprika all derive from peppers. Today, one can hardly imagine what many national diets must have been like without them. The foods of India, Hunan and Szechuan (China), Thailand, Indonesia, Ethiopia, West Africa, and others became synonymous with highly spiced foods. And Hungary and Spain became known for paprika and pimientos. These developments are most often based on one species, Capsicum annuum. Two others, C. frutescens and C. chinense, 2 are also used in a few tropical areas. But in the Andes, the probable homeland of peppers, there remain other promising species that have scarcely spread outside the region. These are grown mainly in rural home gardens, but several are still wild plants. Examples of both cultivated and wild types are highlighted below. SPECIES Rocoto. 3 The rocoto (Capsicum pubescens) is widely cultivated in the high Andes. Its purple and white flowers, fuzzy leaves, and black, wrinkled seeds make it easy to recognize. It produces fruits sometimes almost as large as bell peppers, but instead of being mild in flavor, they are pungent like hot chiles. When ripe, these beautiful, thick-fleshed fruits are brilliantly colored—shiny red, orange, yellow, or brown—and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are often eaten stuffed with meat. The plant is the most cold tolerant of the cultivated peppers. It grows at higher altitudes than other species, generally from 1,500 to 2,900 m, but cannot tolerate the heat of the lowland tropics. It is a perennial that grows for 10 or more years and is sometimes called the “tree chile.” The Incas prized rocoto for its special flavor, and 450 years later it is still mainly confined to the Andean area formerly occupied by the Incas. However, it is also cultivated a little in the highlands of Costa Rica (particularly for producing yellow food coloring), Guatemala (where it is called “siete caldos”), and southern Mexico (where it is known as “apple chile” or “horse chile”). It is virtually unknown 2 Capsicum taxonomy is not clear-cut; these two species may be one and the same. Their best-known use in North America is as the prime ingredient of Tabasco Sauce. 3 The name “rocoto” (also spelled rokkoto) is used in Peru, Chile, and Ecuador; locoto (or lokoto) is used in Peru (Puno) and Bolivia. Other names are “chile manzano” (Mexico) and “panameño” (Costa Rica).

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Page 197 ~ enlarge ~ Peppers in the market at Cliza, Bolivia. Foreground, ají; background, rocoto. (W.H. Eshbaugh) anywhere else, and its introduction north of Colombia is almost certainly post-Columbian, perhaps even twentieth century. Rocoto occurs only in cultivation; its wild ancestors have not been defined, although genetically it is closely allied to the ulupicas (see below). Andean Ají. The common cultivated pepper of the southern part of the Andean area is the brilliantly colored Capsicum baccatum. 4 Cultivated forms seem to have been domesticated from wild, weedy plants in a large band of territory stretching from southern Peru eastwards through Bolivia and Paraguay to southwestern Brazil. The center of origin is probably Bolivia. Some peppers unearthed from archeological sites resemble this species, and this has led people to 4 More properly, C. baccatum var. pendulum. The wild progenitor of this crop, C. baccatum var. baccatum, grows at even higher elevations (up to 1,600 m) in Bolivia. Its local names are “arivivi” and “cumbai,” and it has a narrow distribution from central Peru, through Bolivia, to northern Argentina and southern Brazil. It, too, deserves research and testing. Information from W.H. Eshbaugh.

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Page 198 ~ enlarge ~ Peppers appear to have originated in what is today central Bolivia. Here can be found the greatest wealth of Capsicum species and varieties. From this small but very diverse location (it includes temperate, subtropical, and tropical zones), one species spread throughout much of the world to become the chili and sweet peppers that liven foods on every continent. The other species, including two domesticated and perhaps a dozen wild ones, remain to be exploited beyond the Andes. (J. Andrews) believe that it has been in cultivation for perhaps 4,000 years. Today, the Andean ají 5 (pronounced ah- hee) is cultivated in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil, as well as in Costa Rica, where it is called “cuerno de oro” (golden horn). This is primarily a lowland species, but it is found today up to around 1,100 m elevation. It is a sprawling shrub, distinguished by the (yellow- or green-) spotted corollas of its flowers and by its long, conical fruits. Although described as a distinct species more than 150 years ago, it was later regarded as a variant of the common C. annuum, some types of which resemble it in everything but the spotted corollas. It was “restored” to the status of a separate species only in 1951. Andean ají fruits are most commonly shiny orange and red, but rare yellow and brown forms are also known. They are very hot and are made into sauces, some of which are bottled commercially with herbs and onions. Typically, these sauces are used on cassava (yuca) and in marinated, uncooked fish (ceviche). A few are sweet types. Only in this species and the common pepper are nonpungent cultivars known. 5 Ají is a name often used in Spanish for any pepper, including the common pepper (C. annuum), more generally called “pimiento.” In the central Andes, however, ají ordinarily refers to C. baccatum. For this reason we have coined the common name Andean ají.

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Page 199 CAPSAICIN A pepper's pungency is caused by capsaicin (pronounced cap- say-i-sin), a chemical that is odorless, colorless, and flavorless, but that irritates any tissue it contacts. Biting into a pepper stimulates nerve receptors in the mouth to signal “pain,” and the brain in turn induces sweating, salivation, and increased gastric flow in an attempt to rid the body of the irritation. Capsaicin is related in structure to vanilla (structurally, it is the vanillyl amide of isodecylanic acid), but it is very acrid. A single drop diluted in 100,000 drops of water will produce a persistent burning of the tongue. Diluted in 1 million drops of water, it still produces a perceptible warmth. Capsaicin is concentrated in the pepper's placenta, the inner part that supports the seeds. There is a rough correlation between the amount of capsaicin and the amount of carotenoid pigment. Thus, the stronger the flavor, the deeper the color of the fruits. Capsaicin has many uses of its own. Applied in concentrated form to the skin, it induces a feeling of warmth (actually an irritation), and because of this it is used in sore-muscle remedies. It is also the ingredient that gives the “bite” to commercial ginger ale and ginger beer. It is so powerful an irritant that it is used to make antidog and antimugger sprays. Also, it is used in concoctions to deter deer and rabbits from devouring vegetable crops. Recently, it has been found that the brain probably releases painkillers when nerve receptors send it the “capsaicin signal.” It has been tested in topical treatment for relief of pain caused by shingles, psoriasis, and other skin conditions. In another modern twist, capsaicin and peppers are being touted for the diet conscious. Peppers, it is said, perk up the taste of food without adding fat. Indeed, it is thought that they may burn more calories than they provide. Wild Andean Peppers. 6 In the peppers' probable “homeland” in Bolivia are two essentially undomesticated species, known as “ulupicas,” both of which are greatly appreciated by the local peoples. 7 They are aromatic, tasty, and much hotter than rocoto or other common peppers. As the Indian name implies, they are closely related to one another, and perhaps to rocoto. Both have purple flowers or, occasionally, white flowers. 6 Information in this section from W.H. Eshbaugh. There are about 20 other wild species of Capsicum. Those are less closely related to the domesticated peppers, but some of them will cross with the domesticated species. 7 It is not unusual for wild peppers to be popular and pricey. In northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, some wild peppers (called “chiltepins,” one of the bird peppers) are in such high demand that they sell for up to 10 times the price of cultivated bell peppers. The chiltepins are often smuggled across borders, and harvesting pressures are so heavy that in many places these wild plants have become scarce.

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Page 200 The more widespread ulupica is Capsicum eximium, found between about 1,400 and 2,800 m in the drier, cooler parts of Bolivia, northern Argentina, and parts of Paraguay. It may reach 2 m in height, and its small (6 mm diameter) fruits are round, red, and fiery. They are frequently bottled or pickled. The natives like this ulupica so much that they often encourage it to grow, even though it is basically a weed. The other ulupica (C. cardenasii) 8 is known only from the Andean sierra of Bolivia. It can be found at elevations between about 2,600 and 2,900 m, and may be cultivated in certain places. The exceptionally pungent fruits are found in markets in La Paz. 9 They are sometimes boiled and diluted with water (to reduce their bite), and then preserved in oil and vinegar and used as pickles. Also, the boiled fruits are dried and ground with tomatoes to make a very popular, aromatic condiment. Two other wild species, C. chacoense of northern Argentina and Paraguay (locally called “covincho”) and C. tovarii of Peru (called “mukúru”) are even less well known, but they, too, are used locally. C. chacoense seems to have the advantage of being extremely drought tolerant. It is found between 1,450 and 2,200 m elevation. Although the wild peppers seem to be in the process of domestication, they still lack certain qualities for widespread commercial success. For example, the fruits are small and tend to fall from the plants if touched or jarred. Also, they ripen rapidly and become soft soon after being harvested. 10 PROSPECTS The Andes. Peppers are already common in the Andean diet and their use is widespread, but there is nonetheless ample opportunity to select better growing and more diverse varieties. Moreover, the use of peppers (particularly the pungent types) in prepared foods could increase with expanded industrialization and export markets. The five cultivated species are all highly variable in plant type, fruit type, pungency, and degree of adaptation. Wild and primitive cultivars undoubtedly contain useful sources of resistance to viral, bacterial, and fungal diseases, as well as nematodes, in addition to possessing desirable culinary qualities. Also, genes for greater environmental 8 This scientific name, by P.G. Smith and C.B. Heiser, honors Martín Cárdenas, one of the foremost authorities on Andean food crops and botany (see dedication to this report). This ulupica is little known—the original scientific specimen was bought by Cárdenas in a La Paz market in 1958. 9 The pungency in peppers is due to capsaicin (see sidebar), and research has shown that ulupicas have 4,000–5,000 units of capsaicin, a very high number. Information from G. Veliz. 10 Information from G. Veliz.

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Page 201 adaptation surely exist. Collection of all species should continue and accessions be carefully preserved. The Andean germplasm is a potentially vital source of resistance to diseases that afflict common peppers, such as fungal root diseases that sometimes kill a high proportion of the plants before they can be harvested. Also, it could be a significant resource for increasing the pungency and color of peppers. Both these qualities are of huge economic importance. Other Developing Areas. Peppers are now perhaps the most widespread commercial vegetable in the tropics. Millions of the poor and destitute live on rice, beans, cassava, dahl, or another bland staple set off by a little dash of peppers. India's ubiquitous chutney and curry, for example, are unimaginable without the “heat” of peppers, whose origin is actually the Andes. Peppers, therefore, constitute a potentially key intervention for the improved health of the Third World. Their nutritional content is relatively high, and they are good sources of vitamins, particularly vitamin C, and in the dried pungent types, vitamin A. Fortunately, these nutrients are not lost during the varied types of processing. So far, selection has concentrated almost entirely on Capsicum annuum, but the other species deserve exploration. The screening and evaluation of the “lost” Andean species could provide useful characters to common peppers. Unfortunately, the species fall into a number of distinct genetic groups that do not hybridize freely with one another, thus limiting the usefulness of genes from other species. 11 Industrialized Regions. The common pepper is increasingly popular in the United States and other nations that have had no tradition of eating spicy food. The related species of the Andes therefore are potentially valuable future resources, even in such countries. Rocoto, for instance, is thick fleshed like a bell pepper, but spicy like a chile. That combination could encourage specialty uses that might project this now unknown pepper into a place in the cuisines of the world. For use outside the tropics, however, varieties that are daylength neutral and adapted to cultivation outside the Andes will have to be located. Thanks to the foresight of biologists, a number of germplasm collections are in place. What now needs to be done is to identify and create superior types suitable for commercial production. 11 C. annuum, C. frutescens, and C. chinense hybridize among themselves easily. C. baccatum hybridizes with each of them with some difficulty. Unfortunately, however, C. pubescens is genetically isolated and will not hybridize with any of the others. Information from W.H. Eshbaugh. Perhaps advances in biotechnology will change this picture.