Naming Chile Peppers
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There’s a lot of confusion around the terminology for Peppers in general and Capsicums in particular.  Of course different languages have different names for Capsicums, but things have been further confused by the same name being used for different Peppers.  We’ll talk about a few of the most perplexing ones below.  The context can also give you a hint as to which kind (or form) of Pepper is being referenced.

AjíAjí is the name of many types of Chile Peppers in South America and parts of the Caribbean that are part of the species Capsicum baccatum (see below for more info).  It is also a general South American term for all Capsicum Peppers.  Ají Peppers range from mild to hot on the Scoville Scale.

Ancho, Poblano & Pasilla – This trio is particularly hard to unravel.  We’ll address them one at a time.  The Spanish word “ancho” means wide, describing the shape of one of the most popular Peppers in Mexico.  Ancho Peppers are dark green when young and ripen into either red or a dark brown.  If the mature Anchos are red, they are still called Anchos; if they turn dark brown, they are called Mulato Peppers.  (Some people claim Mulato Peppers are similar to but not the same as an Anchos.)

Next up, Poblanos.  Scientifically speaking, Poblano Peppers are one particular type of Ancho Pepper that is grown in Puebla, Mexico.  However, in the US, Poblano is a general term.  In America any fresh Ancho Pepper, either green or ripened, is often called a Poblano Pepper and the name Ancho Pepper is reserved for dried Ancho Peppers.  In fact, calling fresh Ancho Peppers Poblanos and dried ones Anchos is so commonly accepted that if you look up Ancho Pepper in the dictionary, more than likely the definition will call it a dried pepper.

Lastly, PasillasPasilla Peppers are long, thin peppers with a moderate amount of heat (1000 to 1500 on the Scoville Scale).  They are 6 to 12 inches long and about 1-inch wide.  They are green when immature and dark brown when ripe.  The green form of Pasillas are also called Chilaca Peppers.  Dried Pasillas are best known as an ingredient in Mexican Mole Sauce.  The confusion surrounding the name Pasilla again occurs in the US, in this case usually in California, where Ancho Peppers (both fresh and dried) are often called Pasillas, and the term is so commonly accepted that even the labeling on Ancho Peppers often says Pasillas.

Capsicum– In general, Capsicum is the name of the group of all Peppers that come from the New World.  The word is derived from either the Greek word “kapto,” which means swallow or However, in Southeast Asia, “Capsicums” means specifically Bell Peppers.

Chili, Chile and Chilli– This term originated in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs of Mexico.  In Nahuatl, Capsicum Peppers are called “chillis,” which both the Spanish and Americans adopted to Chili (or Chile) and which both use to identify the Stew-like dish and the spice powder used to create the stew.  Today, the three spellings are basically interchangeable.

Just to make things interesting, in Spain, many Spanish-speaking countries, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Canada, Chile Peppers or Chilies (any spelling) is a term usually used only for Hot/Spicy Peppers as opposed to Sweet Peppers (in Spain Hot/Spicy Peppers can also be called guindillas).  Also, Chili/Chile/Chilli is a slang term for the wide variety of salsas that are made with Capsicums.  For instance, a chef may choose to top Tacos or Enchiladas with a Chili (the salsa) made with Chilies (the Hot/Spicy Peppers).  (Check out Smart Kitchen’s Recipe section for some delicious salsa recipes.)

Pepper or Peppers– In America, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom, Sweet Peppers are often abbreviated to simply “Peppers” (in America “Peppers” can also refer to Hot/Spicy Peppers).  The confusion arises because plants in the genus Piper that produce Peppercorns are also called Pepper plants, even though the two plants are not related.  The dried and ground powders from both Capsicum and Piper genus plants are also called Pepper and Peppers.

So why did two different plants, not even in the same genus, end up with the same name, Pepper?  It may all be Christopher Columbus’ fault, as we’ll explain below.

Pimientos (also Anglicized to Pimentos) – Pimientos is the Spanish name for all Sweet Peppers.  It is also the name of a specific medium-sized Sweet Pepper with a pointy end and thin skin.  Columbus is likely to blame for the original misunderstanding that led to Capsicums’ erroneously being named Peppers to begin with.  When Columbus wrongly assumed he had reached the Orient, he also assumed that the hot/spicy Capsicums he found must be related to the hot/spicy black peppercorns which were already known to come from the East.  Columbus is believed to be the person who named Capsicums Pimientos in order to show their supposed close relationship to black peppercorns (peppercorn in Spanish is “Pimienta”).

The naming of allspice also became part of the confusion.  When Columbus showed West Indian natives some black peppercorns he had brought with him from Spain, the natives mistook the black peppercorns for allspice berries (they look very similar) and informed him there were plenty growing on their islands.  As a result, even though the taste turned out to be quite different, the Spanish named the similar-looking allspice berries “Pimentos” (minus the second “i”), again to show their supposed close relationship to black peppercorns.