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6 June 2020

The politics of the spice rack: chili powder

Each jar and packet in the kitchen is part of a wider story, involving geography, culture and politics.

By Stephen Bush

Evolution gone wrong – or right? Botanists believe that chilies developed their high levels of capsaicin, the chemical compound which produces the burning sensation in the back of your mouth, because it deterred fungi and mammals, but birds, who have significantly less developed taste receptors, ate them freely, spreading their seeds unharmed.

But there is one mammal who quite likes the spicy sensation caused by capsaicin: us. Far from deterring us from eating them we have been growing them and cultivating them for thousands of years.  Our love of them, and our desire to find and try the hottest of them, led the American pharmacist Walter Scovile to invent the Scovile scale, which measures the number of capsaicinoids in a chili, to differentiate the mild and gentle flavours of the bell pepper from the punch and power of the habanero.  And while our digestion is not as kind to the chili as that of a bird, we have spread chilis far and wide with far greater dedication than any other animal. The capsaicin didn’t protect the chilis from mammalian consumption: but it did facilitate the spread of them nonetheless.

Our love of chilis may even be responsible for the development of civilisation as we know it. Chilies originate in Mesoamerica, one of the five or six parts of the world where early humans, entirely independently of one another, abandoned their lifestyle of hunting and gathering in order to rear livestock, plant seeds and build permanent dwellings. (The reason why I say “five or six” is we still aren’t certain whether south-east Asia produced two separate independent civilisations or if they were interlinked.)

The descendants of these early chilis provide the bedrock to the cusines of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The early civilisations of Mesoamerica spread chilis as far as the West Indies, and the descendants of those chilis can be found in the cuisines of the Caribbean.

It was Christopher Columbus who helped to spread chilis further afield: ironically he did so while searching for another spice: pepper, the original “black gold”. He hoped to discover a second trade route to Asia, which the Spanish government, the financiers of his journey, would control the new supply of pepper and with it finance their military adventures closer to home.

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Instead he gave Europeans access to a host of other spices. But it was not his employers, the Spanish, who were the major spreaders of chilis: the Portuguese, the 16th century’s most successful empire builders, were the major spreaders of chilis. They brought chilis to the Indian subcontinent, where they grew so naturally and so rapidly that for years, botanists believed they were native flora: rather than the children of their Mesoamerican parents. Through conquest and trade, the Portugese brought chilis to Brazil, south-east Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

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The British Empire brought chilis full circle. The Africans they bought and traded took their cooking methods – which included the chilis brought by the Portuguese – with them to the plantations of the West Indies. And the love for the foods – if not always coupled with an awareness of who produced them – of those conquered nations of the Empire is seen today in the United Kingdom, where Indian cooking and eating can be found in every town and food shop in the country. 

Chili powder – as a commodity to be bought and sold rather than something you do yourself with a mortar and pestle – is an American invention. Just as early humans turned to animal husbandry in five (or six) different places entirely independently, two late nineteenth century American businessmen both appear to have invented it at similar times, entirely independently of one another.

Cincinatti businessman DeWitt Clinton Pendery and German immigrant William Gebhardt, both of whom travelled to Texas to make their fortunes, were shopkeepers trying to overcome the same challenge. The cuisines of Mexico, Spain and the various immigrant communities that made up the United States were already blending together to make the cuisine we know now as “Tex-Mex”: the result was the meal known as “chili” that is now enjoyed the world over. But there was a problem: you needed chilis to make the meal and you couldn’t secure fresh chilis the year round. So they ground chilis into a powder – Pendery ground ancho chilis along with cumin and oregano, while Gebhardt ground red chilis. The rest is history.

Although in the United Kingdom chili powder is largely bought and used for cooking recipes from the Indian subcontinent, like Pendery and Gebhardt’s powders, the contents of your chili powder are up for grabs.

Because chilis can grow basically everywhere, the modern spice trade tends to operate by taking small amounts of spice from hundreds of individual farms, grinding them at a third or a fourth site and then finally bottling and selling them. The result is that very little of the value of your spices makes it back to the grower, and the environmental impact of growing them is far greater than it needs to be, though there are a number of businesses that are happily beginning to emerge which are shortening their supply chains, benefiting both the growers and the climate.

If you look at the chili powder in your own cupboards, unless you have been very disciplined in your choice of brand, you will notice that they have very different compositions and very different ingredients. You don’t even need to check the back of the packet to see that – just look at the colour. What constitutes “mild” or “hot” chili powder is completely up for grabs.

Now, of course, the value of chili powder is that, just as with chilis, you can do an awful lot with it. I have a lot of named chili powders which I’ll discuss over the coming weeks: I also have a lot of generic chili powder, some from quite different brands that I’ve had to buy on holiday.

I’ve never found that a recipe that goes really well with Sainsbury’s hot chili powder is utterly horrible with some from the Co-op: but it will be a bit different, sometimes very different. I’ve started to try to discipline myself by buying my spices from one company partly because of the good work they do around supply chains, but also because it improves my cooking to know just exactly how much punch my chili powder has and what it’s made from. Mine is ideal for recipes from the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean, but a poor fit for food from elsewhere.  

As strange as it may seem, there really is no such thing as “chili powder”: and the only way to work out which you like best and how much of it to use is to try different types.

This week I fucked up…

…because I ordered a “box” of cherries and a box turned out to be quite large. It didn’t really matter because I just didn’t have any other fruit. At the suggestion of the FT’s Federica Cocco I bought some miso paste to have with the cherries, some sour cream and a sprinkling of sugar. It was very good though I now have a lot of miso paste leftover and have been cooking with it a great deal in what feels like the culinary of the old lady who swallowed a spider.

This week I enjoyed…

…some Dover sole. I melted salted butter, dill and parsley together, poured it over the fish and stuck it in the oven to roast for half an hour.  

I got my fish from Pesky Fish, a new start-up that allows fishermen to sell their catch direct to you and me, without it spending days and days in transit or on supermarket shelves. This means fresher, tastier fish, more sustainably sourced and a better deal for fishermen. It also means you can enjoy the rush of clicking through the day’s catch every morning from 8am, desperately hoping that someone else hasn’t got the last of the sea bass. (They had.)