(Cucurbita sp.— Family Cucurbitaceae)Although all three are closely related members of the Gourd family and classified as fruits, they are used for vastly different purposes.
can be used as a food or such useful items as water bottles, decorations, or musical instruments.
are classified as winter or summer with the winter squash having a longer storage capacity. In the vast majority of cases, it is the fruits that are eaten and not any other part of the plant.
The Cucurbitaceae family consists of about 100 genera and 850 species of mostly creeping vines and bushes indigenous chiefly to the topics, subtropics, and moderately warm latitudes. A few members occur in the wild in temperate zones.
The fruit of the species, with which most are familiar, belong to the genera Cucumis (eg. melons and cucumber), Cucurbita (eg. pumpkin/squash), and Citrullus (eg. watermelon).
In the tropics, fruits from the genera Lagenaria (eg. gourd), Luffa (eg. sponges), Momordica (eg. balsam apple/pear), Sechium (eg. chayote), and Trichosanthes (eg. snake gourd) are also cultivated. The fruits of all species are used in the human diet. Their weights can range from just a few ounces to giant varieties which can reach almost 1,000 pounds.
Squash is an abbreviation of the native North American Indian word “askutasquash” meaning ‘eaten raw or cooked’. It is a term that is used interchangably with the pumpkin in many countries of the Americas, but generally embraces numerous members of the genus Cucurbita.
The squashes originated in the Americas and are believed to have been cultivated for as long as 10,000 years, but arrived in Europe only after the discovery of the New World.
Wild forms were originally gathered for their seeds and were only later found to have tasty flesh. The seeds
were used as food, but also pounded into a meal and mixed with oatmeal and applied to the face to bleach freckles and other blemishes.
In Ethiopia, squash seeds are used as laxatives and purgatives; and, worldwide, the seeds are used to expel intestinal parasites. By the 17th century, the seeds were mashed and used in bread or boiled and heavily buttered.
The shapes and colors for pumpkins and squash are as varied as the fruit themselves. They can be long and slim, round and fat, smooth, or with ridges. Their size ranges from huge to tiny enough to hold in your hand.
Colours can be various shades of orange, green, turqoise, white, yellow, black, or metallic blue. Generally speaking, the larger the seed that is planted, the bigger the squash or pumpkin.
Squashes, pumpkins, and gourds are usually classified into certain groups: winter, summer, and vegetable marrows (gourds).
Winter squash is a name applied to the fruits that are allowed to mature on the vine and then stored for use in the winter. In other words, their shells are tough enough to keep the flesh for longer periods of time.
Summer squash is a term used for those varieties which are eaten fresh in season because their soft skins will not permit long storage. Summer squash tend to be more watery, while the winter types are fleshier and drier.
Gourds are the type of squash found mainly in Asia and Africa and the hotter zones of the world. Although they can be used as food, these tend to be grown more for other uses.
Squash and pumpkins usually grow on vines, but some grow on bushy-type plants, producing separate male and female flowers on the same plant which are pollinated by bees.
In order to have a nicely shaped fruit, a bee must visit the same flower as many as thirty times. As is often the case, bees will visit other nearby plants, resulting in cross-pollination and the creation of a new variety of fruit. It is not uncommon for a fruit to result as a cross between a pumpkin, hubbard squash, and zucchini, for example, if these are grown in close proximity to each other.
These fruits usually require much room to develop, especially the larger varieties. Some require as much as forty square feet of room per pumpkin while smaller ones need only about twenty square feet. They also require considerable amounts of water, but the water needs to drain well; otherwise, the fruit will rot. Most growers “hill” or mound up the earth around the plants so that the water will run off.
Like most plants, pumpkins and squash do have enemies. The main pest is the ‘squash vine borer‘,
a white worm that burrows into the stem at the base of the plant, causing the whole plant to die. In order to get rid of it, gardeners will take a knife and cut it out of the plant and then cover the area up with dirt so that new roots will grow in that place, thereby strengthening the plant.
But when there is a big field of pumpkins or squash, the farmer cannot go around cutting out all the worms, so he sprays the field with pesticides. This solution lasts for only one season and has to be repeated.
Rather than using companion planting and crop rotation to rid the area of the pest permanently, this seemingly easy, but temporary, solution is chosen.
There are also such other problems as mildew or mold and leaf spotting. These result in the death of the plant because the chlorophyll in the leaf is blocked from the sun and unable to make the nutrients the plant needs.
The most helpful insect for squash and pumpkins is a special bee called a “hoary squash bee”. It is found from Canada to Central America.
The squash bee
does not go to other plants like the cucumbers, canteloupes, or watermelon to pollinate them, they like only squash and pumpkins. Without these plants, the squash bee will die. This particular bee does not live in hives but, instead, lives alone in such undisturbed ground as along fencelines or the edges of fields. Burrowing underground, the squash bee makes a long, pencil-like tunnel where it creates little rooms to store the collected pollen.
Squash bees lay only one egg at a time. Males hatch and leave just before the females emerge. Squash bees are smaller than the honeybee and fuzzier, and have bands of grey and brown.
The females work from just before dawn to noon and then spend the rest of the day and night in their burrows. The males are gone all day looking for food and mates. They rarely sting and have to be really provoked before they will; but, even then, their sting is just a tiny pick. Pumpkin growers prefer this bee as their crops are bigger and better than if only the honeybee does the pollinating.
Pumpkins and squash are very nutritious, although winter squash tends to be more so. Depending on the variety, and despite having a high water content (some as much as 95%), they will contain varying amounts of protein, iron, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, some B vitamins, and vitamins A, C, and E.
The more orangey the colour is inside, the more beta carotene (vitamin A) it contains. The seeds are also are very nutritious and contain a dark green, highly aromatic essential oil. They are good to eat raw or roasted. One ounce of dry pumpkin seeds provides seven grams of protein, which is equal to a similar serving of meat or eggs.
The squash flowers
are also quite edible and nutritious. They are delicious when stuffed with a bean and vegetable filling, the petals twisted closed, and then dipped in batter and lightly fried in olive oil until crispy brown – stems included.
Pumpkins/squash can be baked or steamed in their skin. Once cooked, the flesh can be scooped out and used as is or combined with other foods, spices, and herbs and used in any number of dishes.
The term bean is used to refer to a number of genera, including Phaseolus, Vigna, Vicia, Cajanus, Dolichos, and Lablab.
Elsewhere, bean is generally taken to mean only the genus Phaseolus, where most beans were formerly classified; but many species have now been assigned the genus Vigna.
Common names are also confusing and vary with the number of countries and areas of the world.
Greens are generally high in vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. The darker the leaf, the more vitamin A it provides. There can be as much as fifty times the amount in dark leaves as in pale ones.
Ounce for ounce, greens will have as much calcium as whole milk, with some having more. However, some greens contain oxalic acid (spinach, rhubarb, sorrel, and Swiss chard), which inhibits the absorption of calcium and iron and encourages the formation of kidney stones. Some of it is destroyed by cooking the food in plenty of water or by blanching it, but there is always some left.
Oxalic acid is easily detected in the mouth as it sets the teeth on edge and causes a slight numbness of the tongue. It is wise to avoid feeding children these otherwise nutritious vegetables too often and in excessive quantities – something kids have instinctively known all along!
In addition, many greens contain nitrates that convert naturally into nitrites in the stomach. This causes a reaction with the amino acids in proteins, forming nitrosamines, some of which are known, or suspected to be, carcinogens. These do not pose a problem to the healthy adult; but, when they are cooked and left to stand at room temperature, bacterial enzymes rapidly convert nitrates to nitrites, which are especially hazardous to young children.
On the plus side, greens have chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants. Chlorophyll enables sunshine to combine carbon dioxide with water to create carbohydrates and oxygen. By utilizing light, chlorophyll is the primary source of plant energy, and its chemical structure is similar to hemoglobin, the red blood pigment that carries oxygen in humans. This is why chlorophyll is often used in the treatment of certain anemias as it has the ability to promote growth, metabolism, and respiration, while at the same time, having the ability to stimulate tissue growth and wound healing.
- P. acutifolius (Tepary bean/dinawa)
- P. aconitifolius (Moth bean)
- P. coccineus (Runner/scarlet bean)
- P. lunatus (Lima/sieva/Madagascar/butter bean)
- P. vulgaris (Haricot/kidney/cannellini/French/navy/black/pinto/snap/common/frijol/chumbinho/opoca)
- V. angularis (Azuki/feijao)
- V. mungo (Urd/black gram)
- V. radiata (Mung/green gram/golden gram)
- V. umbellata var. umbellata (Rice bean/frijol arroz)
- V. unguiculata, formerly sinensis (Cowpea/black-eyed pea or bean)
- V. unguiculata ssp. sesquipedalis (Asparagus/yard long bean/dow gauk)
Other species include as follows:
- Bauhinia ssp. (Tree bean)
- Canavalia ensiformis (Jack/sword bean/chicksaw lima)
- Cyamposis tetragonoloba (Cluster bean/guar)
- Vicia faba (Fava/broad bean/haba)
- Glycine max (Soya bean)
- Lablab purpureus ssp. purpureus (Lablab/hyacinth/bonavist/field/Indian butter/Egyptian kidney/seme/louvia/frijoles caballeros)
- Pachyrrhizus tuberosus (Yambean/jicama/potato/Mexican water chestnut/saa got)
- Psophocarpus tetragonolobus (Winged/goa/asparagus pea)
Beans are one of the oldest food forms in the world. In America, cultivated remains were found in the Ocamp caves of Mexico, dating from 4,000 BCE. Carbon dating also revealed that over 8,000 years ago, Indians of the Ancash province of Peru cultivated the same kind of lima beans and common beans that we know today as navy beans, pinto beans, black beans, and others.
The early Greeks and Romans not only ate beans but they also voted with them. A white bean meant “yes” and a coloured one meant “no”.
In Boston, nicknamed “Beantown”, a traditional Saturday night supper began when Puritans, who did not want to cook on Sundays, would cook a large pot of beans the night before and kept them warm on the hearth throughout the next day. The earliest Bostonians cooked their beans only with a little salt. Molasses was not added until after the West Indies trade was established in the early 18th century.
In China, during the Han Dynasty – 3rd century BCE to 124 CE – a total of eighteen different kinds of beans were cultivated in the coastal region of Hang Chow. Later, the soybean and its derivatives became the staple of the poorer classes.
Native Americans taught the colonists how to plant three crops together so that the soil would be replenished each year, but that advice was not heeded for long. A fish was also planted with the beans to act as a fertilizer.
Bean seeds were planted between corn seeds so that, as the corn grew, the beans could climb the stalks for support. Broadleafed squash was then planted between the rows of corn to shade the earth and keep the soil moist during the growing period. This also prevented weeds from taking hold.
A story is told of a young Mountie (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) serving in a remote northern outpost many, many years ago, who may have been one of the first to develop the “fast food” idea. Periodically, he would cook up a big batch of beans and then pour them into a lady’s nylon stocking and hang them outside to freeze. Whenever he wanted a meal, he would chop off a length of hose and heat up the beans. How he kept himself supplied with stockings though, is not recorded.
A rancher, in southern Alberta, did much the same thing, only he wrapped his beans in newspapers and froze them.
Although beans have been an international staple for thousands of years, their popularity has regained new status in recent years, as a “designer” class of food noted for lowering cholesterol levels. Beans have three qualities that contribute to this: insoluble fiber, their protein composition, and starch content.
In addition, beans slowly release their carbohydrates, helping to control diabetes by regulating blood sugar levels. Since beans are digested slowly, they produce a gradual rise in blood-sugar levels. As a result, the body needs less insulin to control blood sugar after eating beans than such other carbohydrate foods as bread or potatoes.
The University of Kentucky took a diet developed at the University of Toronto which consisted of one rich in beans, whole-grains, vegetables, and fruit. This diet enabled patients with Type I diabetes to cut their daily intake of insulin by 38%, while those with Type II diabetes were able to reduce their insulin intakes by 98%.
Beans are actually seeds.
Their thin outer covering is an excellent source of cellulose and the noncarbohydrate, lignin. Their interior is rich in carbohydrates (pectins, gums, starches, and sugars – including the indigestible complex sugars called raffinose and stachyose which cause flatulence).
Up to 25% of the bean is incomplete protein. The proteins in grains are deficient in the essential amino acids of lysine and isoleucine, but contain sufficient amounts of tryptophan, methionine, and cystine. However, the amino acids in beans are the exact opposite; and, by combining the two, a complete serving of proteins is achieved.
Soybeans are the only bean considered to have complete proteins. By eating foods rich in vitamin C with a meal of beans, the body’s ability to use the iron in beans is enhanced by converting the ferric acid form in beans into the ferrous form which is more easily absorbed.
As beans sprout, they convert stored starches and sugars into energy needed to produce the green sprout. As a result, sprouts have fewer carbohydrates than the bean seed, plus having up to five times more vitamin C – although less protein, iron, vitamin A, and B vitamins.
The most nutritious way to serve bean sprouts is fresh or steamed. When buying bean sprouts, pick those that have moist and tender ends – the shorter the sprout, the more tender it will be.
Sprouts sold from water-filled bowls should be refrigerated, protected from dirt and debris, and served with a utensil and not scooped out by hand.
Sprouts need to be rinsed thoroughly under cold running water and served as soon after purchase as possible to avoid a minimum loss of vitamin C. Once sprouts are torn, they release enzymes that begin to destroy that nutrient. Cooking will also destroy nutrients; and, to avoid this, they should be stir-fried quickly or a cooked dish be added them just before serving.
Raw beans contain anti-nutrient chemicals that inhibit those enzymes that make it possible for the body to digest proteins and starches, factors that also inactivate vitamin A. Therefore, all kinds of beans should be cooked for a minimum of ten minutes, although much longer is better.
Beans also contain hemagglutinens that cause red blood cells to clump together. These unpleasant features are also inactivated by cooking.
Refried beans is a misleading translation of a term familiar only in Spanish-speaking countries. The term frijoles refritos literally means “refried beans” in English.
However, in Mexico, beans are not fried twice, but are cooked once, mashed, and then fried in oil. Thus refrito actually means well-cooked and not repeated as the English would assume from the prefix.
In English, “re” usually means to do something again; but, in Mexico, it is used as an emphasis. For example, by adding an “re” prefix to “marcar” (to mark) making it “remarcar”, the meaning changes to “highlight”, but not to mark again.
Other such examples include: to burn with very hot oil (as opposed to regular cooking with oil) becomes “requemar”; to divide up, but not several times, is “repartir”; and, “chiles rellenos” are stuffed peppers, not peppers stuffed a second time.
Another common example is found in the stores and markets. They say, “precios rebajados”, meaning “lower prices”, and not prices that have been lowered several times. Too bad.
(Leguminosae or Fabaceae)
With some 700 genera and about 18,000 species, legumes are the third largest order of flowering plants.
Despite the large number of species available, only about twenty-two are grown in any quantity for human consumption.
Legumes are also characterized by seed-bearing pods, with the seeds themselves inside.
If the fresh pods are eaten, they are known as legumes; but, if the seeds are removed from the pod and eaten, they become known as pulses. Pulses can be eaten fresh, dried, frozen, or canned.
Legumes are found in the temperate latitudes, humid tropics, dry regions, savannas, and mountain ranges. While the soybean needs warmth, pigeon peas prefer the heat and humidity of the tropic. The haricot bean thrives in Mediterranean climates, while the hardy butter bean tolerates colder latitudes.
Legumes are extremely varied in appearance – round, flat, winged, long, short, thick, thin, straight, curved, papery, leathery, woody, or fleshy. Their size can range from that of a pinhead to those over three feet long.
Generally speaking, their pods burst open lengthwise at one or both ends when ripe, releasing the seeds, which are the actual fruits. The protein content of legumes is almost three times that found in grains.
Since legumes are low in methionine and high in lysine and essential amino acids, they make a perfect companion for grains, which are the opposite, high in methionine and low in lysine.
Well over 150 million tons of legumes are cultivated worldwide each year, with the majority grown in home gardens and on small commercial farms. Next to soybeans and peanuts, from which oil is commercially extracted, beans are in the forefront internationally. These legumes are the most important sources of protein for the poor rural populations of Africa, Asia, and South America, and should be for the more affluent as well.
Legumes in India are called dhal/dal, and are vital to some 600 million vegetarians in that country. Next to peas, many varieties of beans and lentils supply the inhabitants of this huge country with their desperately needed protein.
Eaten together with rice or bread, spicy bean and lentil curries provide the ideal combinations of nutrients in the form of good-quality protein, carbohydrates, and dietary fiber. In India and South America, their way of preparing legumes with a variety of seasonings and spices is not only exemplary from a culinary standpoint, but also helps the body cope with the hard to digest seeds of the legume.
Spices stimulate the flow of digestive juices, alleviating the unpleasant consequences of the indigestible carbohydrate stachyose that is found in beans and lentils. Both Indian and Western cooks are aware of a second way of reducing the undesireable side effect of gas after eating beans and lentils: that is hulling them. Although the starchy seeds disintegrate very quickly, their hulls do not.
Although legumes are an important staple for millions of people, several toxic substances occur in kidney beans, garbanzo beans, peas, lentils, among others. They can all be rendered harmless by soaking and vigorous boiling.
Phytic acid is also found in such foods as legumes, seeds, and grains. Phytic acid, or inositol hexaphosphate, is a form of inositol, considered by many to be a B vitamin but has the tendency to bind minerals including calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc preventing their absorption in the body.
Thus in order to prevent this from happening, such foods must have this substance deactivated through leavening, baking, or sprouting. These are the reasons that legumes should never be eaten raw.
Legumes are divided into three main families, with a fourth that includes some unusual ones.
These are as follows:
Old World Legumes:
- Beans which also include favas and chickpeas
- Peas which include starchy peas and sweet peas, as well as lupini
New World Legumes:
- Phaseolus family, which consists of common and true beans of more than 4,000 varieties, some of which have now been assigned to the genus Vigna.
Asian and African Legumes:
- Asian: many Vigna species and soybeans (more than 1000 varieties)
- African: cowpeas, yardlong beans, black-eyed peas, pigeon peas (many varieties)
Unusual legumes include: winged beans, yam beans, purple hyacinths, goober peas.
Peas, English pea, garden pea, green pea, snow pea, sugar pea, dried marrowfats, field peas, French peas (petit pois)
Peas are an ancient staple originating in western Asia.
There are three main kinds:
- the familiar garden pea (Pistum sativum ssp. sativum)
- the field or gray pea (P. sativum ssp arvense, formerly P. arvense) grown mainly as fodder
- the small, wild Mediterranean pea (ssp. elatius), also known as the oasis or maquis pea.
Others, commonly called “peas”, are legumes of different genera.The earliest records are of smooth-skinned types found in Mediterranean and European excavations dating from 7000 BCE. Remnants were also found in relics of Bronze Age settlements in Switzerland, dating from around 3000 BCE, as well as in pre-dynastic Egyptian tombs, in ruins of Troy, and in buried caves in Hungary.
The Greeks and Romans cultivated and ate them in abundance, and it was the Romans who introduced them to Britain. They were also likely responsible for its spread through India, where it is still a popular vegetable.
However, it appears that peas did not reach China until the 7th century CE, where they were given the name hu tou, meaning foreign legume.
In classical Greece, peas were known as ‘pison’, which was translated into English as ‘peason’. By the time of Charles I, they became known as pease; and, by the 18th century, this was shortened to “pea”.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, various types were imported from Holland.
The traditional English “pease pudding” is made from dried peas and was a versatile food as referred to in the popular nursery rhyme.
Peas were generally eaten dried or ground until the 16th century, when Italian gardeners developed tender varieties for cooking and eating fresh, although it took another century before this practice was accepted by the wealthy and fashionable English.
Peas were not eaten fresh until the 17th century, when Louis XIV developed a liking for them.
Peas were a favourite vegetable of Thomas Jefferson, who held the annual competition among his friends to see who could grow the first peas of the season. The winner had the privilege of inviting other group members to dinner to celebrating their arrival. Invitations were issued saying “Come tonight, the peas are ready”.
As peas age, they convert their sugar to starch; and, within a few hours after picking, as much as 40% of the sugars will be converted.
Sugar peas should be eaten immediately after picking, and are eaten as immature pods.
It takes about one pound of unshelled green peas to yield one cup of shelled peas.
Fresh peas are a moderately good source of the food fiber of pectins, gums, hemicellulose, cellulose, and the noncarbohydrate food fiber lignin. Peas are also high in incomplete proteins, lacking only tryptophan, methionine, and cystine; but, by combining them with grains, the proteins are made complete.
Peas are also an excellent source of vitamin A, which comes from the yellow carotenoids hidden under the green chlorophyll. As peas age, their chlorophyll fades and the yellow pigments begin to show through. Peas are also a good source of vitamins C, E, B complex, iron, and magnesium.
Snow peas and sugar snap peas supply about half the fiber but much more vitamin C than green peas, which are also an excellent source of Vitamin B6. Peas and other legumes are a good choice for diabetics as they help regulate the flow of blood sugar.
Fresh peas are generally one of the most digestible and non-gassy of the legumes and have a mild diuretic and laxative effect. Instead of throwing out the pods after shelling, store them in the freezer until the next time a soup stock is needed. They can be leeched of their nutrients at that time.
Green split peas
are one of the oldest of vegetables, but early varieties were quite starchy even when young. When the peas are split, cooking time is much less.
Both the Greeks and the Romans cultivated shelling peas for drying. They are sometimes found in the whole, dried form but they take much longer to cook.
Yellow split peas
are a favourite of the French Canadians living in Quebec, as well as in India and Sweden.
Thursday night is the traditional time for Swedes to make thick, yellow split pea suppers to commemorate the death of King Eric XIV, who was poisoned when arsenic was put in his yellow split pea soup.
In India, the yellow split peas are sometimes roasted, ground, then used as a binder or thickener in foods.
Today, however, peas are cultivated in almost every country in the world. The largest producers are the US, Europe, and India, and cultivated almost exclusively out of doors, but only about 5% are ever marketed fresh. The vast majority is processed by the food industry in such forms as canned, frozen, and dried.
At the end of the 19th century when canned vegetables began to be widely sold, peas were a popular item. When canned, however, they turned them a dull khaki colour as their chlorophyll was destroyed by heat. To counteract this, processors turned to dying them a bright green.
Even though processing has come a long way since then, the canned pea bears little resemblance to the fresh interms of nutrition and taste, and may almost be considered a separate food item. Processed peas are treated with alkali to make them soft and starchy.
The term “garden pea” is used to distinguish the fresh from the processed. Freezing peas, which began in the 1920s became a preferred method of processing as they retain much of their attractive qualities, including nutritive value.
There are only two varieties of plant in terms of growing habits. These are the low-growing and climbing peas, which can reach heights of over six feet.
In seed catalogues, peas are usually listed according to the timing of the crop, early, second early maincrop, and maincrop types. However, some descriptions may refer to the pea itself or to the pod.
Earlier varieties are lower growing than later ones, which are taller and higher yielding. Petits pois
are small with a good flavour. They are a dwarf variety of pea, not ones harvested prematurely.
Semi-leafless varieties have more tendrils than leaves, becoming intertwined and self-supporting as they grow.
One unusual pea is the Marrowfat Pea,
an old English variety thought to taste as good and rich as the marrow fat enjoyed in such dishes as osso buco.
Commercially, peas are classified as wrinkled, round, smooth, or having edible pods.
Round-seeded types (convar. sativum) are easily recognized by their smooth, round yellow or green seeds. The tough, green pods are harvested while the seeds are still small and tender. They are often dried when fully ripe, and, because of their high starch content, taste slightly mealy and less sweet than wrinkled or sugar snap peas.
Smooth-seeded types are hardy and are used for early and late crops.
Wrinkle-seeded varieties (convar. medullare) are less hardy and generally sweeter. They are a type of pea that is particularly large, sweet, and tender and do not become soft when cooked, but sold only as a fresh vegetable. Tall Telephone is a wrinkled type of marrow pea which grows on eight foot vines with pods that hang straight down. It is also known as Dwarf Telephone pea, Alderman pea, and Carter’s Daisy pea.
There are differences between green peas, snow peas, and sugar snap peas.
Green peas are the garden pea hidden within a large, green pod. Generally, the pod is discarded after the peas are removed; but some young tender varieties have an edible pod, which are often used in Chinese dishes. Green peas are highly perishable and the sugar to starch conversion begins the moment they are picked.
have flat, tender pods three to four inches long that protects tiny, immature peas inside. Both the peas and the pod are edible and the colour is a bright green.
Sugar snap peas
are totally edible and are a combination of the green and snow peas. Like green peas, they are slightly tubular, but a little smaller. The pods are thicker than snow peas, but more delicate than the green. The peas inside are more developed than the snow peas. Both snow peas and sugar snap peas last much longer than the green pea.
Botanically, the pepper is classified as a fruit and not a vegetable.
However, as with many other “fruits”, the use of the pepper is strictly as a vegetable.
There are an estimated 1,600 hundred different varieties of peppers developed throughout the world. In Mexican markets
alone, there are at least 140 different peppers sold with each variety, whether fresh, dried, or roasted, having its own unique flavour and pungency which are dependent upon the soil, rainfall, and temperature of the region.
Not only do they vary in pungency from variety to variety, but can also differ among fruits from the same bush. That difference extends to size, shape, and colour as well.
Today, peppers range from the pea-shaped chili piquin, the cherry-shaped cherry pepper, the lantern-shaped habanero, the stumpy-pointed jalapeno, the pattypan-shaped rocotillo, and the uncommonly long and thin Anaheim.
The original “pepper country” extended from Mexico in the north, to Bolivia in the south.
There is no written evidence to substantiate claims that the pepper originated in India or any other nation other than the Americas. No reference is made to the Capsicumin Sanskrit, Roman, Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic literature.
Both the hot and mild peppers come from one wild species native to Central and South America. It is thought that the hot types were the first to be cultivated as seeds have been found in Mexican settlements dating from 7000 BCE.
Another site in Tamaulipas, dating from about 6544 BCE, showed chiles being used as “tributes” or food used to pay taxes. During the rule of the Toltecs, thirteen of the thirty communities were required to pay their tributes only in chiles.
One particular regime required a tribute of twenty baskets of anchos, twenty baskets of menudos, and ten baskets of chile pequeños every seventy days. This did not end with the coming of the Spanish, who forced the people to pay 400 crates of dried chiles to the first viceroy of New Spain.
Soon after finding the peppers in the new world, Spanish and Portuguese explorers were distributing them around the world.
They arrived in Spain in 1493, in England by 1548, and Central Europe by 1585. From there, it spread to Asia. It was the Turks who brought it to European attention during the Turkish invasion of India.
The pepper eventually made its way with the Ottoman soldiers to their conquered territories in Hungary, where it was “warmly” received and forever changed their cuisine, just as it had it every other place.
By 1989, Hungary was able to produce only 62,000 tons of its infamous paprika. During the same year, India produced 800,000 tons of peppers, but consumed 95% of them.
China, Pakistan, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Thailand, and Japan produced about 4,000,000 tons of chile peppers, while only 200,000 tons of black pepper was produced in the same year. Today, India and Indonesia are the world’s largest producers.
Peppers grow on bushy plants that are usually two or three feet high, but they can reach ten feet. One type of wild pepper in Bolivia grows to over sixty feet in height.
In the broadest of generalities, peppers that grow in hot climates are hotter in taste than those that grow in cooler climates. In addition, when it comes to hot peppers, small ones tend to last longer than the large ones and green ones last longer than the red.
All peppers turn red as they ripen. Unripe, colours range from green to bluish-green or brownish-green, to whitish yellow, yellow, purplish black, or dark green with a lavender hue.
Size, shape, and pungency will vary even within the same growing plot and on the same plant. When peppers are cross-bred, no one can be sure what is going to come out.
Sometimes, it takes many years to obtain the type of pepper for which one is aiming. Each variety of pepper has literally hundreds of thousands of genes that can be passed on, producing a new variety.
Just one raw green hot pepper can supply almost twice as much vitamin C as the RDA. Depending on the colour, they are also high in vitamin A. The redder the pepper, the more vitamin A. Mature peppers may have as much as ten times the amount of green peppers.
Carrots contain only a fraction of the carotene found in peppers. They are also high in flavonoids and other phytochemicals, including phenolic acid and plant sterols, which have proven to inhibit the formation of cancer cells.
Peppers also contain another important constituent called vitamins P so named by a Hungarian scientist after finding large quantities of the substance in bell peppers. Vitamin P (bioflavonoids) funtions by maintaining the walls of blood vessels.
Szent-Györgyi later wrote: “We have succeeded in curing certain diseases accompanied by hemophilia”.
Bell peppers are considered to be the absolute leader among vegetables and fruits of this nutrient. Depending on ripeness, they can contain from 150 mg (green bell peppers) to 300 mg (red bell peppers) per 100 grams. Hungarian wax peppers can even contain up to 400 mg. for the same amount.
When preparing the whole pepper for stuffing, the outer membrane has to be removed, otherwise, the end result is an unappealing shriveled mass.
To do this, immerse the pepper into hot water and then immediately plunge it into cold water. Roasting the pepper accomplishes the same thing.
Hot peppers are best handled, literally with “kid gloves”. The burning sensations left on the fingers will last for hours. If you forget and rub your eyes, the agony is compounded.
Peppers can be dried, frozen, blanched, or roasted. They do not require defrosting before use. Just heat and serve or add to dishes as they are being prepared.
Peppers can also be dried and then stored in glass containers away from heat and light. Water never squelches the heat of a pepper but a milk product will, to some extent; so it is better to have some yogurt on hand when eating a particularly hot meal of peppers.
Peppers around the world:
- The Maya in the Yucatán will eat only the habanero pepper, maintained to be the world’s hottest. Mashed, the habanero makes a sauce called xnipek, meaning “dog’s nose”, indicating that when the peppers are eaten, the nose becomes as moist as a dog’s.
- The favourite in Brazil is a small pepper called malagueta. This same pepper also grows on the Guinea coast of West Africa. However, another plant of the same name bears pungent seeds called “grains of paradise”, which are known as allspice.
- In Guatemala, it is common for hot green chiles to be fried and eaten on their own.
- Peruvians eat the rocoto, a fiery pepper that looks like a cherry and grows high up in the Andes. Too hot for many, it is usually opened up and stirred into soup and then pulled out and discarded. The Maya do the opposite. They dip their stuffed hot pepper into a steaming bowl of soup and then eat it. The hot soup serves to heat the chile as well as flavour the pepper, just as the pepper flavours the soup for the Peruvians.
- Bees at markets in Bolivia fly into sacks of powdered red pepper where they pack their legs with it as they do with pollen and then fly off. It is very bizarre and one cannot help but wonder about the honey they produce.
- In India, cooks are pepper alchemists. They begin by tossing some dried pods into some oil; and, as the dish progresses, spoonfuls of the same pepper in powdered form are added. This is finished off with a purée of fresh pods. As a result, a dish often contains the same pepper in three different forms, each adding its own distinctive flavour. Guntur, in southeast India is considered to be “one” of the pepper capitals of the world. Pepper crops are shipped there from all over India, brokered, and then distributed worldwide.
- It is estimated that Thais eat more hot peppers than any other people in the world, consuming an average of five grams per person per day, which is twice that of India. Their clear soups are transformed in a literal “fire water” with the use of the extremely pungent green pickeenu pepper.
- The Koreans come close to the Thais in hot pepper consumption, with the use of the highly pugnacious dried red pepper in the country’s staple dish called kimchi.
- The people of Szechwan, in China, begin each day with a breakfast of hot pepper oil or sauce over noodles.
- The Japanese use a mild green horseradish or wasabi that accompanies sushi. The country produces small quantities of two very hot peppers – santaka and hontaka. Because land is scarce, the Japanese have people in China grow them to meet the rising domestic demand. These are then returned to Japan as tentaka.
- Of all the pepper centers around the world, Hatch, New Mexico, must also be considered. Its plant breeders and botanists create taylor-made peppers which are introduced to the locals like new car models. One such pepper is called Big Jim or Number Six. This pepper is so big that, at a distance, it can be mistaken for a green banana except that it is flat and pointed like a chisel. The Guinness Book of Records states the biggest pod was picked in 1988, measuring 13½ inches. Like the proverbial fisherman’s tale, the grower responsible for the world record also stated that she grew some that were seventeen inches long, but never entered them again into the record. One year, a Big Jim plant became so stressed that it ended up intensifying its heat, and loyal customers began to complain. These plants had grown in a corner of a field that was too sandy and suffered from a lack of water, which stressed the plants and thus produced a hotter variety than normal.
- The Santa Fe School of Cooking had, at one time, enlisted a pepper botanist to give students a education on pepper botany, especially the varieties, their flavours, and their pungency. This idea of introducing botany to a cooking class shows just how serious this spice is pursued for adoption into American cuisine. Judging from the varieties of tomatoes and their flavours, bringing in a tomato botanist could be a unique approach to the art of Italian cooking.
- George Washington was one of the earliest Americans to grow extremely hot peppers. In 1785, grew two rows of bird peppers and one row of cayenne peppers in his garden in Virginia. It is not known what became of them as they never were mentioned in any of Martha’s recipes.
Chile is a general term derived from the Nahuatl language for a wide range of Capsicum fruits, but not including the mild-tasting pimiento or sweet pepper.
Chilli was first used in print by Francisco Hernandez (1514-1578), and is the form adopted by most English-speaking peoples.
The British added the double “l”, and the Americans adopted that along with changing the “e” to an “i”. Therefore, the spelling varies from the English-speaking world to the Hispanic form of chile.
Chilli can refer to a pungent type of peppers.
Chili refers to the spicy meat dish or a blend of slices.
Chile in italics refers to the native Mexican cultivar of peppers, and not in italics refers to the South American country. However, there is no right or wrong way to use the word, according to “chili” lovers, but for the sake of continuity, we will use the Hispanic form of the word which is chile.
Incas called the pepper ajf. Aztecs called it chile. When Columbus discovered the pepper growing in the new-found world, he thought he had discovered the source of the black pepper which, at the time, was very expensive.
Capsicum annum consists of all species of modern cultivated sweet capsicums, as well as most of the hot ones. Despite its botanical name which means annual, it is a perennial in its native habitat. The smaller hotter chiles are classed from the Longum Group.
Capsicum peppers are not related to the black pepper, but acquired the pepper name because the South Americans flavoured their food with ground bell pepper.
To distinguish the pepper pod from the peppercorn, Greek spice merchants in the 16th century, called it a chile pepper. Hungarians changed the name to paprika. Italians called it peperone. In England, it was the red pepper. In Germany, Indianifcher pfeffer.
In France, it is poivre de l’Inde – still erroneously link it to India. But, in India, it is called mircha. In the 17th century, A Frenchman gave it the Latin name of Capsicum, which some believe came from the Greek root word kapto meaning “I bite”, which aptly describes the fruit.
With the overwhelming number of pepper cultivars and local names for each, The United Nation’s agricultural committee in 1976 had to intervene to devise a nomenclature so that botanists and farmers alike could identify the same pepper.
According to the latest classifications, the list was narrowed to 1,600 varieties. Only about 200 are grown commercially, with the bulk of them belonging to just one species, Capsicum annum.
This grouping is based on the fact that these varieties must be replanted every year in order to bear fruit.
There are five species of Capsicum cultivated, but most modern cultivars are bred from either C. annuum or C. frutescens. A third, C. chinense is well behind in third place with two more obscure species, C. baccatum, native to the west coast of South America and usually called “ajf”, and C. pubescens, native to the Andes and known as “rocoto”, from the Incan Quechua language.