“You Say Chili, I Say Chile;” A Culinary Firestorm Gets Hotter; Does Spelling Matter?

Ah, the Hatch chiles have arrived from New Mexico.

At the ridiculous price of 50 cents a pound, I’ve stocked up. This morning they were just languishing, untouched and unloved, in the supermarket bin. Does no one else in North Carolina know how delicious these incendiary green peppers are?

Right now I’m fire-roasting a dozen or so on my outdoor grill. They’ll spice up a cornbread later today, and next week I’ll finally get to make classic New Mexican pork and green chile stew. But while I’m inhaling clouds of spicy, chile-scented smoke —and choking a little—I’m pondering a question I posed last week.

What exactly is the correct spelling of chile…er, chili…um, chilli? And does it matter?

This is a writer’s question of course. It doesn’t come up when you’re just talking about…them.

The problem stems from the yen for an “umbrella” word that covers all the hot peppers. You know: the jalapenos, the poblanos and the anchos, not to mention the datils, the cayennes, and the naga jolokias—that is to say, all the lip-searing pods that have taken root around the globe, in Mexico and South America, India and Africa, all those smoldering red, green, brown and black peppers that give addicts a natural endorphin rush even as our bodies burn hot and hotter.

All those….chiles ?

Here in the U.S. there’s a clash of warring publications. Gourmet appears to have come down on the side of chile (see the July 2008 issue), while the newspaper of record is firmly in the chili camp. Just yesterday, in an article about Latin food invading the Hamptons, New York Times writer Julia Moskin described birra as a “[Guadalajaran] beef stew spiked with cinnamon, clove and [italics mine] chili.” Even more surprising, recipes for seafood cocktail and steak with Columbian green sauce include “green jalapeno chili peppers.”

As Jean Andrews, author of Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums, has observed, whether you spell it with an “i” or an “e” it’s redundant to write “chili pepper” since a chili is a pepper.

It’s tricky.

A botanical aside, just to be sure that we’re all on the same page. What I’m talking about here are the fiery fruit of the capsicum clan: hollow, fleshy peppers, that grow on bushes and whose seeds and flesh get their heat, in varying degrees, from the pungent alkaloid, capsaicin.

Hot peppers have no connection whatsoever to peppercorns, which are the dried fruit of the tropical piper nigrum vine, an entirely different botanical family. Peppercorns get their heat from piperine, a chemical compound which, according to Harold McGee, is 100 times less pungent than capsaicin.

This war of the words has a lot to do with geography. In 1518 when the conquistadors landed in Mexico, they found that the Aztec diet included lots of incendiary red fruit the likes of which they had never seen—or tasted– before. In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the generic word for this spicy fruit was chilli. (The stem, chil-, refers not only to the plant but also the color red, Andrews explains.)

Chilli was one of a group of Nahuatl words adopted by the Spaniards to describe things that were unknown before their arrival in the New World (Others included ocelote, tamale, and chocolate, all of which have made their way into the English language.) The first written mention of the word may have been in the works of Francisco Hernandez de Toledo, a physician and naturalist in the court of King Philip II who spent 7 years studying medicinal plants in the New World. His magnum opus, Plantas y Animales de la Nueva Espana, a collection originally written in Latin and published in Mexico in 1615, described over 3,000 plants heretofore unknown in Europe including the now infamous chilli.

Language is a living organism, of course, and over the following centuries, Spanish-speaking Mexicans changed the spelling of chilli to chile, which is the word used today for the innumerable varieties of fresh and dried pods in Mexican cuisine.

As chiles migrated northward into the U.S. from Mexico, so too did the contemporary spelling of the word. Today all over the Southwest and in California—in fact, all over much of America–we use chile as a generic catchall for spicy capsicums. You’ll see it spelled that way on labels in the grocery store—Hatch chiles, read the sign over the supermarket bin today–on restaurant menus, and in lots of cookbooks, including my own.

Unsurprisingly, New Mexico State University in Las Cruces which operates the well-regarded Chile Pepper Institute, as well as a Chile Breeding and Genetics Program, has given its imprimateur to this spelling for any fiery pod. Its on-line shop sells seeds not only for Mexican and New Mexican chiles but also for the takanotsume, described as the “Hawk Claw chile from Japan” and the lethal Bhut Jolokia, from India, billed as the “HOTTEST CHILE PEPPER IN THE WORLD!”

This is where I get uncomfortable. It feels right to describe Latino capsicums as chiles, but when we use the same Mexican Spanish word for Asian peppers, I start to squirm. It was stunning actually, to find that Niloufer King, writing about Parsi cuisine in My Bombay Kitchen, used chiles as the generic word for Indian peppers rather than chillies, as is common all over India. Early in the book she explains that she has done so “following the University of California Press’s orthographic preference for the Nahuatl word romanized by the Spanish.”

Yes, chile reigns supreme.

But not at The New York Times, where the editors appear to have decided upon the “anglicized” spelling of the word: chili. Now that might go down well in England, but on this side of the pond, chili means something quite different. Chili, for lots of us, and not just those who grew up in the Southwest, means a more or less spicy meat stew—a.k.a. a bowl of red—which of course is flavored with chiles and lots of ground, um, chili powder.

Just ask the International Chili Society which sponsors the annual World Championship Chili Cookoff. They lay it out clearly, right there on the website: “To keep things straight, chile refers to the pepper pod and chili to the concoction.” The 2007 winner, Jerry Buma, won $25,000 for Booma’s Revenge, a wicked stew that includes “1 sm can green chiles diced” as well as multiple spoonfuls of “hot” and “mild” “Mexico” and “California powder.” (This would be chili powder, an essential ingredient which includes spices such as cumin and garlic as well as ground up cayenne.)

So forget chili. At least for the pods.

Are you still with me?

There’s another scholarly group that believes we should go back to the original Nahuatl word, chilli: This includes respected food scientist Harold McGee and the Britsh writer Alan Davidson, who has a long chilli entry in the Oxford Companion to Food. He writes, for example: “Even people who have never tasted chilli will usually agree, when they encounter it for the first time in a mild form, that its flavour is subtle and attractive, and its gentle warmth stimulates not only the taste buds but appetite and digestion, also.”

The author Jean Andrews is also in the chilli club, although In The Pepper Lady’s Pocket Pepper Primer, she says it should be used only for the pungent types, not the sweet bell peppers which are also in the capsicum family. “ [Chilli] is not only the logical English spelling, but also the correct one, especially when writing for a global audience.” Noting that the Oxford English Dictionary gives chilli as the “primary usage” and that “most English-speaking people outside the United states use chilli,” Andrews then proceeds to skirt the issue by using the botanical term capsicum throughout the rest of the book.

On the surface, though, chilli seems to make sense. Wild chillis originated in the New World, where evidence shows that man has been eating and growing them for thousands of years. It was the New World chillis that the Spaniard took back to Europe and that the Portuguese transported to Africa and India where they rapidly supplanted black pepper as the favorite spice.

Still, it feels odd to use chilli as the generic for peppers of Latino origin and not just because contemporary Mexican Spanish has evolved to chile. There’s a whiff of the Raj about the word. It was picked up by the British, who then spread it all over the Empire, in some cases changing it to the now archaic form, chilly. In Curries and Bugles, a culinary memoir of the Indian Raj, Jennifer Brennan conjures up recipes like Lady McFarquar’s Tomato Chutney, which gets its fire from “10 dried red chillies.” Today English-speakers in India use chilli for pungent peppers of all kinds. (There are quite different names for chillies in Hindi and the myriad other languages spoken there.)

Is it all relative? In this case, I think that adapting to local usage may be the path of wisdom. Fact checkers and grammarians insist upon consistency, but when writing about the pungent pod, following the straight and narrow can back you into an uncomfortable corner. We should do what feels right.

Let’s acknowledge that language is a living organism, continuously changing over time and space. Much like the capsicum fruits that have traveled around the world, multiplying and morphing into countless, always enticing regional variations, English takes on the coloration of the places in which it is spoken. Maybe we should allow ourselves to write about the naga jolokia chilli from India, and the poblano chile from Mexico, without apology. (Of course, then there’s the problem of African capsicums like the aptly named fatalii….oh, well.)

As for me, I’ll be using both chile and chilli in these pages. But probably not chili.

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