The New World endowed the rest of the globe with one of the spices of life: chilies. The word comes from the Aztecs’ Náhuatl language. The Taino Indians called them ajíes, and in the Incan Quechua tongue they are known as uchu. The 1st of January is a festive occasion for the world’s millions of spicy food lovers. It commemorates the day in 1493 that Columbus tasted chilies for the first time. He had no word for them and dubbed them ‘peppers’ for their visual resemblance to the non-spicy bell peppers of Europe. With his word choice, confusion was inevitable. What he sampled was probably of the genus capsicum, which has ancient roots, as there is evidence that they were harvested by the cave dwellers who peopled the Andes. These fierce little chilies, together with conventional black pepper and other spices, would revolutionize Europe’s previously bland cuisines and spark world trade during the 16th and 17th centuries. Peppers brought prices as high as those for gold, helped by the fact that they were reputed to be aphrodisiacs. Imported to Africa by European traders and explorers, chilies became an essential part of the native diet there and, ironically, were later re-introduced to the New World via the hands of African slave cooks.
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