“THE CHRISTMAS ORNAMENTS OF THE VEGETABLE WORLD”
Bell peppers, part of the botanical genus capsicum, are native to Mexico, Central America and northern South America. Christopher Columbus accidentally ‘discovered’ America while searching for a short cut to the East Indies that would facilitate Spain’s access to the lucrative spice trade. Black peppercorns, the fruit of piper nigrum, an unrelated plant from India, were highly valued in Europe at that time. So, when Columbus found Caribbean islanders flavoring their food with spicy capsicums, he erroneously called them pimientos, or peppers, and likely brought them back to Europe from his first voyage.
Spain, and many other European powers, were happy with the pepper designation, but Dutch traders, who profited from importing black pepper from the East Indies and feared competition from the cheaper newcomer, were not. They favored the Nahuatl (Mexican) Indian term chili (aji in colonial Spanish). Remnants of this marketing war are visible today: chili is now the word for capsicums in most of South and Central America, while Brazil uses the word pimenta. Compared to Europe’s slow acceptance of other New World plants, like potatoes and tomatoes (to which capsicums are, in fact, related) peppers became extremely popular in the Old World and spread rapidly eastward. Europeans did not learn the word chili until after the Mexican conquest in 1521.
Bell peppers are mild, not hot, and today they sometimes are grouped with less pungent peppers called “sweet peppers.” In fact, the genus capsicum includes hot peppers like cayennes and jalapenos . Bell peppers have a recessive gene that eliminates capsaisin, the alkaloid that creates heat in other plants in the genus. Stuffed peppers have long been traditional in Spanish cuisine, especially in the Basque country (pimientos rellenos). They also are found in many other cultures, including India (bharvan mirch), Mexico (chiles rellenos) the Middle East (dolma) and Greece (yemista). Bell peppers only became popular early in the 20th century, but they are perfectly designed for stuffing.