Some Like It Hot:
The History of Chili Peppers
& Hot Sauce
Chili Peppers & Hot Sauce Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, looks at the history hot sauce and their key component, chili. It is a journey that takes us around the world from the Americas, Europe, West Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and back to the Americas. All as people search for something spicy to add to their diets. It’s an ingredient that tells us as much about cultural identity as taste.
Find out more about the fascinating history of the chili pepper & hot sauce, and tune in now.
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EAT MY GLOBE
SOME LIKE IT HOT:
THE HISTORY OF CHILI PEPPERS AND HOT SAUCE
Why did the crew abandon their boat carrying chili peppers?
I don’t know, Simon, why did the crew abandon the boat carrying chili peppers?
It was capsaicin.
I am bouncing up and down with joy with. . .
. . . at the wonder of that joke.
I am bouncing up and down.
And, welcome to a brand-new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, on this week’s episode, we are going to be looking at not only the history of a condiment but also at the history of its main ingredient. It’s a condiment that is to be found in the fridge or pantry of most homes, not only in the United States of America, but also in so many countries around the world. It’s a condiment whose sales in 2018 had a global market value of nearly $2.3 billion US dollars and is expected to rise to nearly $3.8 billion by the year 2026. And, it is a condiment whose existence not only has a fascinating history, but also still plays an important role in the self-identification of large groups of American citizens, particularly those from Latinx, African American and Southeast Asian heritage.
It is also a condiment whose perhaps very existence – and we shall discuss that – but certainly whose immense global popularity is owed to the widespread distribution of its key ingredient as the result of colonialization. A key ingredient that itself had a global value of $4.1 billion dollars in 2018.
And finally, if you are someone like me – as you will know if you listen to my awesome conversations with our producer, April, at the beginning of each episode – who loves great puns and corny jokes, it is a condiment that has inspired some often humorous, if not particularly “politically correct” names for some hot sauce names. I am not going to name them here. This is, after all, a family podcast. However, for those who are so inclined, we shall post a link on the annotated transcript, so you can go and look them up for yourselves. You have been warned.
Yes folks, today, we are going to talk about the origin of that kitchen staple, the history of hot sauce and with it, of course, the history of the chili pepper.
Well, as always, let’s begin by defining exactly what it is we’re going to be talking about, so we can, as you might say, make sure we are pouring from the same bottle.
Our pals at Merriam Webster, to whom I often turn first, describe hot sauce as,
“a pungent condiment sauce made from hot peppers.”
While the Collins English Dictionary calls it,
“any of several highly spiced, pungent condiments, esp. one containing some type of pepper or chili.”
Both of which tell us two things. One that all hot sauces are made with the use of chili peppers. And, that the process is one that produces an end result that is “pungent” or has a sharply strong taste or smell.
We will take a look at the process of making hot sauce as it has evolved around the world later on in the episode. But, first, let’s a look at that pre-requisite ingredient in all hot sauces: the chili pepper.
Now, chili pepper is an ingredient that is now found in a huge number of varieties and cuisines throughout the world. Be it the salty and smoky tastes of the chilies from Calabria, Italy, to the fiery small “birds eye” chilies of Thailand, to the chilies of Kashmir, India, whose popularity is as much for their ability to give dishes a bright red color as it is for their mild flavor, to the Poblanos and Jalapenos we associate so much with the food of Mexico.
There are five domesticated species of chili: “Capsicum annuum,” “Capsicum chinense,” “Capsicum frutescens,” “Capsicum baccatum” and “Capsicum pubescens.” Interestingly, Capsicum is a member of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes and potatoes. It was not until the late 15th century – during the arrival of Europeans to the Americas – that Capsicum began to be known outside of the area to which they were indigenous.
Subsequently, they have been taken around the globe to be used in cuisines and, for our purposes, in hot sauces. There is some debate as to where exactly the chili peppers first began to grow, with both what is now Peru, Bolivia and Mexico having viable claims. There are claims that there were in fact a number of different domestication events ranging from two to five in total.
The term, “Chili,” is taken from the words for “hot pepper” from the Nahuatl language of the people from central and western Mexico. It’s a language that was used by the Aztec and Toltec civilizations, and it is a language that is still used today by over one million people in that region.
In what I think is one of the most interesting discoveries about the spread of the chili species, it is also believed that part of the reason that chili peppers were distributed throughout this region so widely was their seeds were – how can I put this nicely, I can’t – they were pooped out by birds on flights of migration. The symbiotic relationship between plants and animals is one we are all well aware of, and that this concept believes that birds eat the fruit – and according to the smart people at Harvard – like candy, and, as the seeds traveled through the body, help germinate the seeds, and then excrete the seeds as they traveled. This might seem counter intuitive for a plant with such heat as the chili pepper, but whereas many mammals avoid eating chili peppers because of the capsaicin their fruit contained, which promotes a burning sensation, birds do not have a receptor for this element and could eat the fruits without suffering the consequences and could later discard the seeds as they travelled. This took the particular plants over quite a distance.
In his mega work, “The Oxford Companion to Food,” Alan Davidson suggests that wild chilies were being gathered and eaten in Mexico by around 7,000 BCE. And, by around 3500 BCE, we begin to see them being cultivated by humans, rather than just gathered from the wild. The most recent research I could find suggests that this was in the Central-Eastern part of Mexico in the Valley of Tehuacán.
Much of what we do know about how chili peppers were used by those who first cultivated them in the pre-Columbian era, comes from the use of chemical extractions from excavated pottery. In a recent study, 2000-year old pottery samples from Southern Mexico were found with traces of capsicum. The different purposes of the samples giving a clue to the varied ways in which peppers were used. These included making spicy beverages – perhaps the first hot sauces – and dining condiments.
By the time of the Aztec civilization, which was at its height between 1345 to 1521, it might be fair to argue that chilis were almost ubiquitous in the daily diet. They used fresh, dried, or smoked chilies in their sauces and seasonings. Indeed, in the book “Aztec Codices: What They Tell Us About Daily Life,” author Lori Boornazian Diel says that chili peppers were such a part of Aztec cooking that when they fasted for religious purposes, it did not mean that they stopped eating; it meant that they removed chili peppers and salt from their cooking. As she sums it up perfectly,
“Presumably, for an Aztec, having to each such bland food would have been quite a sacrifice.”
I tend to agree.
What we know about Aztec cuisine comes to us via books together known as “The Aztec Codices,” and predominantly written in the post Colombian period. There are a few pre-Hispanic codices, which are largely pictorial, and the major ones are commonly known as the “Borgia Group,” so named after the European owner who acquired these codices. In contrast, there are almost 500 post-colonial codices.
The “Codex Mendoza” and the “Codex Florentine” depict the daily lives of the Aztec. The latter is known as the “Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana” or the “General History of the Things of New Spain.” It is credited to Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, who is perhaps one of the first culinary historians. The Florentine Codex has 12 books. Book 10 discusses,
“The People, Their Virtues and Vices, and Other Nations.”
Among other things, it discusses Aztec food and drink including recipes for a chocolate beverage with spices. Sahagún also describes in vivid detail the variety of chilies that are now difficult to find.
Sahagún also describes a food seller, who,
“sells foods, sauces, hot sauces. . . .”
As well as selling food,
“. . . with hot chile, with yellow chile, with mild red chile sauce, yellow chile sauce, hot chile sauce, with ‘bird excrement’ sauce, sauce of smoked chile. . . .”
Although I should note that the phrase, “bird excrement,” is in quotes so I assume that it’s not really bird excrement but perhaps related to the bird’s tendency to poop them to help with germination of the seeds. Sahagún’s account not only shows the variety of chilies but also the variety with which the Aztecs used chilies and how they made hot sauces with them.
It is with the arrival of the Spanish, of course, that we begin to see the start of a process that we have discussed many, many times on Eat My Globe, in the past episodes – The Columbian Exchange. In fact, we have discussed it so many times that it is now almost tempting to overlook it assuming that our audience knows all about it. [Ed Note: find those discussions on the history of fish & chips, chocolate, beef, garlic, and pork, and in our interviews with UCLA History Professors Teofilo Ruiz and Carla Pestana.] However, that would be wrong of me, particularly for any new listeners, who might not have encountered this explanation of this vast exchange of elements between the Americas, Africa and Europe that occurred during the age of colonization. So important, in fact, that we have done a whole episode about the Columbian Exchange that went out last week. So, if you have the chance, do go and listen to it.
In short, however, though, the phrase, “the Columbian Exchange” comes from the book of the same name written by Alfred W. Crosby and published in 1972. In the book, he splits the exchange into three categories: Diseases, Animals and Plants.
Diseases such as small pox found their way to the Americas, along with a plethora of others, while it is believed that syphilis headed the other way. As far as animals, horses, pigs and sheep, amongst others, found their way to the new territories. And, as for plants, the diet in the New World would be a whole lot less interesting without the arrival of peanuts, pineapples, squashes, potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa and, of course, chili peppers. Can you imagine Italian cuisine without tomato-based sauces? Or British Fish and Chips without potatoes?
Famously, Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to come across what we now know as chili peppers. He made a series of four voyages from 1492 to 1502 during which he hoped to find a sea route from Europe to Asia. Spoiler alert, he never got there. It is believed, however, that during his first voyage, he encountered chili peppers or “aji,” as they were known in the language of the indigenous people. He wrote of them,
“There is also plenty of aji, which is their pepper, which is more valuable than pepper, and all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome.”
The notion of chilies being “more valuable than pepper” – referring to black pepper – might have been an attempt at what we might call today as “spin.” That’s because Columbus had not found true black pepper, which was often called “black gold.” However, he did name the chilies he encountered as “peppers” or “pimiento” as he took the heat that they brought with them when consumed to indicate that they came from the same family as the black pepper from Asia.
Later, some Europeans did offer some warning about “aji.” Jesuit priest Father Jose de Acostas wrote about chili in Book IV of his major book, “Natural and Moral History of the Indies,” which was first published in 1590. In it, he gives a detailed account of how it is used and how it is made into a sauce using salt and sometimes tomatoes.
“for that they eate it greene and dry, whole and beaten, in the pot, and in sauces… so Axi is the most common spice for all sauces.”
But he also warns,
“if they take too much, it hath bad effects, for of its self it is very hote, fuming, and pierceth greatly, so as the vse thereof is preiudiciall to the health of yong folkes, chiefely to the soule, for that it provokes to lust.”
That’s why they call me the hot stuff.
Unlike their reaction to other items brought from the Americas, such as tobacco, the Europeans did not develop an immediate affection for the joys of chili pepper. In fact, for much of their early existence in Europe, they were grown more for their aesthetic as ornamental plants than they were for their edibility. But, European monks, who first grew them for their novelty, started to experiment with them in the kitchen, and it became a cheap substitute for the expensive “Black Gold” pepper.
Others soon grew to love them. I have already mentioned the famed chilies of the Calabria region of Italy at the beginning of the episode. They are smoky and spicy. One of my favorite peppers – the Pimenton de Padron – are from Galicia, Spain. They are long and thin, and similar to Shishito peppers, which I pan fry in olive oil until they’re slightly charred, and I believe is the traditional method of preparing them. And, I doubt that too many of you will have a pantry that does not include a container of Paprika. It is worth noting that the Turks, via the Bulgarians, brought that ground spice to Hungary. There, it is popularly used in Hungarian goulash. The Turks also used chilies as a medicine to cure fever and malaria. As with many ingredients we have talked about on Eat My Globe, the notion that they were distributed as much for their supposed medicinal values as their culinary value is one that we should always be aware of.
However, Europe’s real role in today’s story of the history of hot sauce is as middlemen. It was the European traders, primarily the Portuguese, who had well established trade routes, who took chili around the globe.
The Portuguese introduced chilies in the 16th century to India, though their rule of the territory of Goa. The Goan dish, Vindaloo, makes good use of the chili pepper. And, I do have a great recipe for Vindaloo on my website at Simon Majumdar dot com slash pork dash vindaloo.
During the same period, the Portuguese also introduced chili to Thailand, then known as Siam. The Siamese port city of Ayutthaya was a major trading point in Asia, where it is believed that the Portuguese came ashore and traded chilies. And, therefore, as well as being used in Thai cuisine, chili spread from there to places such as Indonesia and into China.
Chili peppers also found their way, thanks to the Portuguese, to Brazil, and from there to both West and South Africa. This is unsurprising as Portugal had established colonies in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. Surely, wherever they went, the use of chilies in local cuisine was soon to follow.
There can be few foods whose popularity and usage have spread so rapidly. As Simon Robinson put it in a 2007 article in Time Magazine,
“The speed of their spread was phenomenal. Within a half-century of chilies arriving in Spain, they were being used across much of Asia, along the coast of West Africa, through the Maghreb countries of North Africa, in the Middle East, in Italy, in the Balkans and through Eastern Europe as far as present-day Georgia.”
There is an argument to be made that chilies became the first truly global ingredient.
And, of course in each region, as the peppers were cultivated, they were also modified to produce a style that suited the local culinary requirements. To the point where it is now estimated that there are now 50,000 types of pepper in the world.
The popularity of chilies can be attributed to a number of elements. One is that they are relatively easy to cultivate in a variety of climates. The second was that, in part because of this ease of cultivation, they were affordable, certainly more than black pepper. And the final reason was their suitability to the cuisines in hotter climates. The heat properties of peppers, which encourages increased perspiration, bring with them an apparent capacity to cool the body. In West Africa, for example, local cuisines already strove for this using local ingredients like Melegueta Pepper, from the ginger family and otherwise known as “Grains of Paradise.” These were also used to treat many medical conditions such as dysentery and stomach issues.
The notion of spiciness is the result of an activation of pain receptors on the mouth. The heat comes from a chemical within all peppers known as Capsaicin. This is measured by a system known as the Scoville Scale, which is comprised of a rising number of Scoville Heat Units.
The system’s development was the work of one Wilbur Lincoln Scoville, who lived from 1865 to 1942. Scoville was a pharmacist who, in his day, was well respected for writing a major textbook known as, “The Art of Compounding,” a book that was still in use until the 1960s. As well as his academic work, he also worked for pharmaceutical companies. It was during experiments for one of these, Parke Davis, that he developed the Scoville Scale in 1912.
He was working on improving the production of a pain killing cream known as, “Heet Liniment,” which used capsaicin as its main component. And, in an attempt to measure the exact amount of capsaicin, Scoville carried out what is known as an “organoleptic” test, which determined the amount of sugar water needed to dilute the spiciness of chili peppers until there is no longer a discernible amount of heat tasted. In the case of this experiment, Scoville took dried ground peppers and mixed them in alcohol to extract the capsaicin. He then diluted the extracted capsaicin in sugar water. Using five taste testers, he gave them a series of increasingly diluted capsaicin extract until none of them could taste the heat any longer. The large or small amount of dilution was given a unit known as a “Scoville Heat Unit.” The number of units decided where it fell on the Scoville Scale.
Today, as I said, there is a vast variety of peppers available with an equally vast range of heat bringing Capsaicin. From sweet bell peppers that rate at a zero level on the Scoville scale, through mildly spiced peppers such as Poblano peppers that rate about 1,500 on the Scoville Scale. Through Serrano peppers – the pepper I use for most of my preparation of Indian meals – coming in at about 6,000 to 23,000 Scoville Heat Units. Through hot peppers such as Bird’s Eye Chilies, which originated in the Americas but are now readily associated with the cuisine of Thailand, coming in at about 50,000 to 250,000 Scoville Heat Units. And hitting the super-hot peppers that sear the tongue and other parts of the body – you know what I mean – such as Scotch Bonnet peppers, so popular in the Caribbean, which rate up to 350,000 on the Scoville Scale.
Finally, to the spiciest peppers, which can rate well over a million on the scale and seem to have no other purpose than to be a boastful conquest if you can eat one. These are peppers such as the Bhut Jolokia Pepper, a pepper from the Indian subcontinent that is also known as the “Ghost Pepper,” coming in at 850,000 to about 1,050,000 on the Scoville Scale.” That is often held up as one of the world’s hottest peppers.
However, as far as my research shows, the leader on the “why would you do that to yourself?” board is currently the frightening sounding “Carolina Reaper,” which was listed in 2013 by the Guinness Book of World Records as the hottest pepper on earth. It was created by the rather appropriately named Ed Currie in South Carolina and it delivers a whopping 1,569,300 Scoville heat units. Bloody hell.
So, we have seen so far just how chilies spread around the central and southern Americas – thanks bird poop – and how they were used in a variety of ways by the Aztecs. We have also seen how, once they were encountered by the Europeans and brought to Spain and Portugal, chili peppers soon found themselves being distributed around the globe through trade in seeds and through the colonialization of Asia and Africa.
So, now, it’s time to chat about what many people consider the chili pepper in its finest form. Let us talk about hot sauce.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about, to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep listening.
Now, obviously, just about every cuisine that has a love affair with the chili pepper has an expression of that love in sauce form. And, obviously it would be impossible to touch on all of them. So, with your permission, I’m going to pick out a few of my favorites from around the world and talk about how they came to exist. There may be some that I leave out of this section – other than a mention – because I have chatted about them at length in other episodes. So, no complaints from you ardent Sriracha fans who can find a whole discussion about this wonderful sauce in season 5, episode 7.
As we discussed at the beginning of the episode, archeological research has shown us that some of the earliest uses of chili peppers may well have been in the form of a liquid. Some of the pottery fragments that archeologists from Kennesaw State University examined were from an area in Mexico known as Chiapa de Corzo. The artifacts dated from the period between 400 BCE and 300 CE, when the area was settled by those who spoke “Mixe-Zoquean,” who lived between the time of the Olmec and the Maya civilizations. Amongst the excavated artifacts included “spouted jars” that contained chili pepper residues. These were jars that were used to decant liquids into other containers, and the finding suggests that the contents were used as a liquid or a condiment. So they probably made hot sauce.
By the time that European colonists took chilies to their colonial territories, people began to modify peppers that originated in the Americas so they could flourish in their newly acquired lands. In Africa, for example, a form of bird’s eye chili was developed from the cultivar “Capsicum frutescens” to produce a pepper that is known as “Peri Peri” or “Pili Pili” that has become the prerequisite ingredient for a sauce with the same name. The words “peri peri” mean “pepper pepper” in Swahili. The sauce is made using the peppers that rate about 15,000 units on the Scoville Scale, lemon juice, garlic, bay leaf and vinegar. Many of the former Portuguese colonies claim that they were the ones who created this now famous pepper sauce, although most seem to give that credit to Mozambique. I don’t know the answer to that, but I can say on my all too brief visit to Mozambique, I did eat a lot of it.
The pepper sauce can be used as a condiment in its own right, and I do love mixing it through steamed rice, for a spicy treat. However, it has become most famous – or, perhaps, infamous – because of its use as a marinade for chicken in the chain restaurant group, Nando’s. Nando’s is a South African chain that was founded in 1987 and now operates, according to the website www dot Rate Your Nandos dot com – yep, that really does exist – over 1,100 restaurants with the United Kingdom having the most branches at 392 while the United States has just about 40 branches. In the United Kingdom, the term, “to pop out for a ‘cheeky Nando’s’” has become part of popular culture. Their proprietary sauce is now available for sale in retail, and there are dozens of versions on how to make wannabe versions of it online.
In North Africa, perhaps the most well-known hot sauce is known as Harissa. It is one of my favorite pepper sauces. It delivers a decent kick of heat, and it has a distinctive earthiness from the addition of spices such as cumin and coriander, which, I think, are spices that speak to North Africa’s importance as a hub in the spice trade. The name is derived from the Arabic word “harasa” which means,
“crush, bruise, pound.”
It is believed to have originated in Tunisia. However, harissa is now almost ubiquitous throughout North Africa and you will see it being used in Libya, Algeria, and perhaps the country with which it is most often associated, Morocco. I can just imagine going to the aromatic souks or markets where people would wait for their selections of spices to be pounded to order. What glorious sights and smells.
In each country, different ingredients are added to their Harissa mix including caraway seeds and dried mint. As with Peri Peri sauce, Harissa can be both added to a meal as a condiment or used in the cooking process itself. I think it is a wonderful marination for chicken wings that are to be cooked on the grill. It’s a favorite of mine when mixed through with cous cous or added to a warm potato salad, and a small amount can add a deep flavor to a slow cooked Moroccan tagine, such as one with duck and prunes.
Oh. [inhales] Wonderful stuff.
As we move back East along the Spice trail, one of the hot sauces that is becoming increasingly popular is a Yemeni spice sauce called Sahawig, which Yemeni Jews brought to Israel where it is called, Zhug. It’s a sauce that can be green, red, or brown depending on the chili types used. It is made by grinding the ingredients down, typically with a mortar and pestle. It is great when added to pastas, soups and meats. But, I particularly loved it when I had Zhug with the delightful Sabich, an Israeli dish based on breakfast salads brought by Iraqi Jews to Israel.
The mortar and pestle style of preparation is one that is used around the world to grind chilies for the preparation of local pepper sauces. In Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, you will see the fiery Thai red chilies being ground with local ingredients, such as shallots, galangal – a member of the ginger family – lemon grass, turmeric, garlic and fish sauce, to make condiments that are used in dozens of ways. Sambals, or chili pastes or chili relish, they may also include dried shrimp, nuts and even catfish. In fact, there are about 1,500 kinds of Sambal in Indonesia. The potential combinations can be endless.
Heading into Thailand, some listeners might be surprised that I do not stop to mention one of the world’s most popular hot sauces, Sriracha. Well, let me just point you off in a direction of Eat My Globe from Season 5 where I discuss “5 Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know Came From Los Angeles.” Although there is a small coastal town in Thailand, known as Si Racha, which does actually produce a delicious chili sauce, the famous “Rooster Sauce” produced by the Huy Fong Company, which bears the name Sriracha, is very much a US invention, and is created by a Vietnamese immigrant to the United States who took the name of the sauce from Thailand as inspiration. If you want to know more about that sauce, Sriracha, do go and check out that episode.
Quite apart from Sriracha, however, chilies do play a significant part in much of Thai cuisine. And perhaps one sauce, or range of sauces, to seek out would be known as “Nam Prik,” arguably Thailand’s national dish.
As I suggested, there are many types of Nam Prik, which literally means chili water. Each region has a spin on Nam Prik where for example, northern Thailand tends to use salt with their chilies while central Thailand, which has many coastal communities, tends to use fish sauce or shrimp pastes with their chilies. Some also add garlic, shallots, sour tomatoes, fish and even more to make their chili sauce. These are ground together in a mortar and pestle, and then served as a dip for raw vegetables, or combined with soups, or fish or rice. With the combination of chilies and fish or seafood paste, the flavors can be definitely an acquired taste for a European palate, but once you do acquire that taste, it is extraordinarily addictive. Try serving it with crudites such as cabbage, carrots, and radishes for something truly delicious.
In South Korea, we find a chili sauce that has now become so popular in the United States that you can find it on sale in most supermarkets. Gochujang has a constant presence in my refrigerator and I use it for dishes such as chicken wings, galbi (ribs) or bulgogi (beef). I use the thick, red paste to make a spicy version of ketchup. And these recipes are on my website at Simon Majumdar dot com slash recipes or otherwise linked in the transcript of this episode. Gochujang is made using fermented soy beans, glutinous or sticky rice, peppers and salt. The mixture is then left outside to ferment in earthenware pots for a considerable time – extending into years – where the starches in the rice begin to transform to sugars. The end result is a unique combination of sweetness, saltiness, earthiness, a decent but not overwhelming heat, and an umami kick from the soy beans that gives the sauce its addictive flavor. If you don’t have a container of gochujang at home, you really are missing out.
Now, it would be wrong for me to talk about hot sauces without returning to the Caribbean and to the motherland, as it were. That is, to the Americas.
There are so many wonderful hot sauces in the Caribbean. Perhaps the most well-known are those used in Jamaica, which are definitely not for the lily livered. A fierce combination of yellow, orange, or red Scotch Bonnet peppers – with a Scoville rating that can reach up to 350,000 units – ouch! – combined with white vinegar, brown sugar and often with ground allspice berry. This is a berry that is interesting, not only because it’s probably the only spice grown exclusively in the Western Hemisphere, but also because it derives its name from the fact that its aroma and taste reminded the Spanish colonizers of a mixture of ginger, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Hence, “all-spice.” The tree from which the berry came was also named pimento, confusingly, and it is the use of pimento wood for smoking, and the ground allspice berries that are a pre-requisite for that most well-known of Jamaican dishes, jerk chicken.
There are many, many hot sauces or salsas, as one might hope there would be at the chili pepper’s place of origin, the Americas. Ones to look out for include, “Aji Criollo,” from Ecuador, which I find interesting because it has kept the same name for chilies that Columbus encountered on his voyage to the New World. It’s also quite delicious mix of hot peppers, cilantro leaf, garlic, salt, and lime.
In Mexico, homemade “Salsa” can be found on most tables. And they generally include chilies. Their uses are seemingly endless. Quite apart from being used as dips and marinades, I have used fresh salsas to top burgers, and to liven up mayonnaise, and as the base for salad dressings. I have used them for simmering seafood and fish, and as the center point of a ceviche. You name it, and I have done it. I won’t lie, I have been known to just stand at the fridge spooning leftover salsa into my mouth in the middle of the night.
Yep, we’ve all been there.
Arguably, the most famous commercially available hot sauce in Mexico is named after the city of Cholula, which claims to be the oldest populated city in North America and now a UNESCO heritage site. You will, I am sure, know this sauce from its iconic bottle, featuring a yellow label, a portrait of “La Chila” and a rounded stopper. The sauce is made primarily from arbol chilies. It’s a relatively mild hot sauce, where the company claims that its Scoville rating is only 1,000. But, despite that, it has become a big hit and the US is now its biggest market.
Which perfectly brings us to the United States of America.
Now, before we go any further to talk about the most famous sauces in the United States and the history of them, I think it is worth noting that some of the indigenous people of what is now the Southwestern part of the United States grew chili peppers. The chili pepper’s exact arrival in the area, however, is still unclear but there is an argument to be made that chile arrived in New Mexico via trade between the Pueblo Indians who lived in what is now the Southwest of the United States and the Toltec Indians who lived in what is now Mexico.
As a far northern territory of Spain prior to becoming a member of the state of the Union in 1912, New Mexico was at the end of what you might call the “bird pooping” range for chili seed distribution as we discussed earlier. As such, although archaeologists found a cultivated chili carbon dated to be from the middle of the 12th century to the very beginning of the 14th century, it was found in the Mexican Northwest area of Chihuahua, Mexico, which is near but not in the American Southwest, such as New Mexico. The argument many historians use is that the real popularity of chili peppers in the American Southwest began in the 1700s with the arrival of a colonial presence.
It is likely that the first commercial hot sauces would have been seen in the United States in around 1807, when a newspaper in Massachusetts ran an advert for bottled hot sauce. However, I think it is very likely that home-made versions of hot sauce had been around for some time, and very possibly since the arrival of the first slaves from West Africa, since they had already been using piquant spices in their cooking.
In the 19th century United States of America, highly spiced food was considered as something to be avoided by what one might call “polite” society, because it was contrary to the more aspirational food coming from Europe, and particularly France. It was primarily tolerated by this strand of society as a form of medicine. That is why, during that time, hot sauce tended to be used primarily by the poorer strands of society, in what I think is an attempt to literally add spice to their – what I would imagine to be – bland diet. This included poor white farmers, immigrants from Asia and Latin America and enslaved African Americans.
Now, the identifying role that hot sauce has played in African American life is one that is now gaining wide attention, particularly after Beyonce released her song, “Formation.”
“I’ve got hot sauce in my bag. Swag.”
It’s a subject that I think is worthy of far more consideration than I am able to devote to it in this episode. And, we will add some links to articles to the annotated transcript. However, in brief, it is an identity that is linked primarily to what some historians refer to as the “Great Migration.” This was the relocation of over 6 million members of the African American community from the American South to other parts of the country between 1916 and 1970. Savage “Jim Crow” laws and the lack of opportunities for economic advancement offered to them in the South prompted this movement. They moved from the South to cities such as Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago and Detroit in vast numbers and in search of better and less restrictive life.
As Mikki Kendall puts it in her feature article on Eater, hot sauce was,
“used by the people that raised you, the people who gave you a sense of your roots, no matter where you were in America.”
And practically speaking, Kendall says,
“Hot sauce, as essential a condiment to the Black Southern table as salt, is treated in much the same way. If your host has it, great. But it’s good practice to have some in your bag just in case.”
This practice had a few reasons, as Kendall explains in her excellent article. The first being that in the South, under “Jim Crow” laws, African Americans might be able to order food from restaurants serving white customers, but they were often not allowed to eat there. Also, these establishments forced them to carry their own utensils, serving dishes and condiments, which, of course, included the bottle of hot sauce.
Added to which, as the Great Migration began to take place, the notion of carrying hot sauce was an important way not only of spicing up some of the more bland food they would encounter as they moved north, but also a way of expressing their identity through culinary means when they were not able to bring a great deal else with them on the road. I think there is also a longer discussion, perhaps too long to go into here, to be had about how displaced communities often cling to their shared food experiences as a way of holding on to their culture and communities.
As I said, I don’t have as much time here as I would like to go into great depth about this really fascinating subject, but do go and do your own research into a unique piece of African American culinary history.
But I will leave this topic with Kendall saying,
“for years I always had a little bottle of Tabasco handy. It was part childhood habit — my grandmother always kept a bottle in her cavernous bag —and part the defense against my discovery that even though hot peppers and hot sauce were regular condiments at home, not all of the people who invited me over for meals kept a bottle of hot sauce in their kitchen.”
Which I think is a perfect segue to talk about perhaps the most famous U.S. brand of hot sauce of all, Tabasco.
As I write this episode, I am wearing around my neck a cheap silver spoon on a thin necklace. It is not much to look at, but it is in fact one of my prized possessions. It is proof of my membership of a very special and very limited club known as the “Not So Sacred Order of the Not So Silver Spoon.” A club for those who have sampled the mash of Tabasco Sauce before it has been processed and strained for the bottle. It came during a weekend visit in 2011 with the family owners of Tabasco to see how this most famous of sauces is made. I wrote about it on my long moribund blog, Dos Hermanos, and you can still go back and see the post along with pictures of me from a decade ago.
According to the “Pope of Peppers,” Dave DeWitt, the McIllheny family, the family behind the Tabasco brand, were not the first to produce a version of hot sauce using Tabasco chilies. That credit is given to an Irish immigrant called Colonel Maunsel White, who owned sugar plantations in the Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. He also enslaved over 230 people. During a virulent cholera epidemic he saw his enslaved workers lacing their food with cayenne chili pepper as a potential prophylactic. It prompted him to see if he could turn some of his land to cultivating chilies, which he did using a new chili, which had made its way to the United States after the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848: the Tabasco chili. He successfully grew Tabasco chilies and claimed that medical studies showed that the use of Tabasco chilies mitigated the impact of the cholera epidemic.
Colonel White found that this particular pepper was not suitable for drying, but if it was boiled and then made into a sauce using vinegar, it was able to last much longer and was delicious. In 1850, the New Orleans Daily Delta said of it,
“A single drop of the sauce will flavor a whole plate of soup or other food.”
Colonel White never marketed his sauce. But in 1867, Edmund McIlhenny of Avery Island began to cultivate the Tabasco pepper. Previously, McIlhenny had been ruined by the failure of Confederate banks and businesses he operated during the American Civil War. He later decamped to Avery Island where he began to grow the peppers. There are some claims that he may have received the Tabasco seeds and the recipe from Colonel Maunsel White. However, the company denies that, and in 1870, he claimed a patent for the sauce.
The Tabasco pepper derives its name from where it allegedly originated: the Mexican state of Tabasco. And the Tabasco sauce is a relatively simple one, using vinegar, chili peppers, and salt. The pepper was picked after it had ripened, which ripeness was measured using a stick called, “le petit baton rouge” painted a particular shade of red at the end. If the peppers matched the same shade, they were picked, aged with salt, then mixed with white wine vinegar – if I remember correctly, which came from Burgundy – and was then bottled.
The first shipment of the sauce was a mere 658 bottles. But, it soon became a huge success where it was being sold across the United States and in Europe.
So much so that sales of that famous bottle still bearing Edmund McIlhenny’s signature, along with other bottles in the Tabasco range, are now worth over $200 million a year. Not bad for a bit of pepper, vinegar, and salt.
Which seems like a good point for me to go and end this episode and go and make something using chili peppers. An ingredient that has literally taken us all around the world and back again to the United States.
See you next week folks.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: June 14, 2021
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.