How did a spicy fruit like chili evolve in the wild in the first place? What could possibly have lead to a plant deciding its fruit needs to burn and sting the taste buds of whoever is consuming it?
Let’s start with chiltepins, formally known as Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum, and in Texas as “bird peppers”. Chiltepins are believed to be one of the original wild chilies from which all other chilies evolved. Originally from southern Brazil or Bolivia, they have migrated northwards and can now be found in Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, and the US/Mexico borderlands.
Their taste can be distinguished from modern chili peppers by their intense heat and unique smokiness. They also look different – they have a tiny ellipsoidal shape. sometimes perfectly round, more like berries or tiny tomatoes.
Among certain foodies, chiltepins are beloved for their quick, intense and dissipating heat, and there are a range of recipes calling specifically for the use of chiltepins instead of other chilli peppers. Both in its dried and fresh forms, it is a favorite ingredient in the southwest US where it can still be found in the wild, where it’s used in salsas, soups, Mexican-style flans and a range of other traditional dishes.
The distinct taste of chilies enjoyed by a lot of cultures around the world is produced by the compound capsaicin. Unlike other fruits, the spicy taste produced by capsaicin evolved in order to ward off microbial pathogens and predators. The chemical deters microbes and fungal infections which kill seeds prematurely, explaining the variance of spiciness in chiltepins based on environmental and climatic factors. It also disagrees with the gastronomic preferences of most mammals that have the similar taste receptors to that of humans.
When it comes to birds however, it has been found that they don’t have these taste receptors, making chiltepins a favorite snack. This is no coincidence. There has been a lot of research in the last years looking at why chiltepins evolved to be so spicy, and the role that our airborne little friends play in bringing humanity one of its favorite spices.
Two processes are at play here. On one hand, it makes sense that being digested and excreted by a bird, an animal that travels widely and across diverse terrain allows for wide dispersal of the seeds. However, there’s more to the relationship between chilies and birds. The journey through a bird’s gut passage removes pathogens and chemical attractants to predators such as seed-eating ants. The trip through a bird’s digestive system has been found to increase seed survival by 370 percent, according to Evan Fricke, a Doctor in Biology at the University of Washington.
In comparison, most rodents and other mammals don’t travel as widely as birds, their molars tend to destroy chili seeds in the chewing process, making the chili seeds unfit for re-semination, and their digestive track doesn’t have the same protective effect as bird’s guts do on chili seeds.So, perhaps we can thank birds and their distinct taste buds for our next spicy meal. After all, if rodents had wings and if birds scuffled about on the ground only, the chili pepper may have carried on a secluded life somewhere in Southern America and have never made it to your plate.