Last week I was doing some research and stumbled across a study highlighting the health benefits of cayenne pepper. The study stated that eating cayenne peppers increase digestive fluid production and boost the stomach’s defense against infections. It occurred to me that I didn’t know how to say cayenne pepper in Mexican Spanish.
So I started with Google which reported that it was “pimiento de cayena.” The lady at the molino (spice grinding shop) just looked at me blankly when I used that. Then I tried Wikipedia which said chile morrón. However, chile morrón is a bell pepper in our area.
Next I polled my Facebook group, Women Surviving Rural Mexico. One lady said she’d heard the term cayene (pronounced kai-en-nay). Another said chile dulce, which can also be used for bell peppers. And still another woman said chile piquín. Chile piquín in my area refers to very small, very spicy orange chiles.
So I asked my sister-in-law who took a poll among her pistoleras (the ladies that make tortillas with her). They came up with the name chiltecpín roja. Doing some research on that term, I don’t think it is correct either. The word chiltecpin in Nahuatl means ‘flea chili’ and is a small, extremely hot, red chile. Incidentally, this variety is thought to be the oldest of the Capsicum genus ever cultivated.
The name game gets even more complicated when you realize that dried and fresh chiles have different monikers. The jalapeno becomes chipotle, poblano changes to ancho, chilaca dries and is then pasilla. The Anaheim chile becomes colorado, mirasol changes to guajillo, serrano dries and is then chile seco. The bola chile dried is cascabel.
None of this helped me find out the name for the cayenne pepper, unfortunately. If anyone can give me some insight on this, I’d appreciate it!
On the other hand, a little more digging produced the fact that any of the chiles in the Capsicum annuum family will provide similar health benefits. These chiles have been used as a spice and medicinally in Mexico since before the Spanish arrived, the uses of some of which I’ve experienced myself.
For example, chile cola de rata (Chile de árbol) toasted on the comal will certainly clear your nasal cavity. A generous bite of chile piquín will instantly banish a headache, after your eyes stop watering that is. Getting chile juice on your hands and touching another body part will stimulate circulation rapidly and painfully.
The chile has been acknowledged by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Evidence points to the chile being part of the indigenous diet as far back as 6500 BC and domesticated by 4100 BC. Excavations under the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan have uncovered fossilized remains of Capsicum chiles dating back to CE 150-250.
Chile continues to be a primary ingredient in Mexican cuisine. Chile seed shakers are on the table in the restaurants that serve birria. Bell peppers are mixed in the nopal servings. Every salsa, including guacamole, is spiced with this little fruit. Even the candy often has chile powder on it!
Capsaicin is the active ingredient in chile peppers. Capsaicin is what gives them medicinal properties and their spiciness. The more capsaicin in a pepper, the spicier it is. Interestingly, you can develop an immunity to the effects of capsaicin over time. So those who consume chiles regularly don’t receive the same benefits as those that ingest them only on occasion. On the other hand, long-term consumption of capsaicin has been shown to reduce high blood pressure.
Eating chiles increases energy expenditure and core body temperature which is lowered again through perspiration. Capsaicin reduces the production of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and reduces the risk of stomach ulcers.
Capsaicin can also reduce pain when applied in a cream to the skin. It decreases the amount of a neuropeptide that travels to the brain to signal pain. Capsaicin cream is recommended for muscle, joint, lower back, and post-operative pain. It can also help lessen pain from nerve conditions like shingles. Capsaicin cream has been successful in the treatment of psoriasis as well.
Capsaicin slows the growth of cancer cells and causes cell death for prostate, pancreatic and skin cancers. Chiles contain antioxidants including vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, choline, lutein, zeaxanthin, and cryptoxanthin which give them their red color.
Capsaicin has antimicrobial and anti-virulent activity and is useful in combating Streptococcus pyogenes. Cayenne chile in particular has been shown to suppress the development of 16 different fungal strains.
In Mexico, chile powder and olive oil are mixed for a liniment to treat joint and back pain. It can be sprinkled on food to improve digestion and circulation. Eaten whole, chiles are useful to promote sweating to break a fever.
The seeds can be rubbed on hands or feet to warm the areas up. Be careful not to get any in your eyes. If that happens, use hair to rub them to reduce the burning. It works, amazingly enough. If you have long hair, don’t be offended if someone grabs a hunk over lunch to do just that.
So even though I still don’t know exactly what cayenne pepper is called in Mexico, chiles are a healthy addition to any diet!
Would you like to read more about Mexican traditional remedies?