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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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