Max Eliot ’21: Book VII, Chapter VII (On the Axi or Chili Pepper)

Book VII, Chapter VII

On the axi [ají or chili pepper], a plant that the Indians use instead of black pepper, and which even the Christians take to be a very good spice.

 Translated by Max Eliot ’21

Axi is a well-known and much used plant all throughout these Indies, islands and Mainland. It is quite useful and necessary because its spicy quality gives a very good and appealing flavor to other foods, like fish and meat. It is the Indians’ pepper, and though it is quite abundant, they grow it diligently and carefully in their gardens and farms because they eat it constantly with fish and with most of their foods. It is just as agreeable to the Christians, who think no less of it, for in addition to being a good spice, it has a pleasant warming quality in the stomach; and it is healthy, but really quite hot. The plant tends to grow to be about waist high, but some varieties can grow higher than a very tall man. The height has a lot to do with the fertility and irrigation of the soil, but most often the axi is five or six spans high, maybe a little more or less, with many branches sprouting from the stem; the flower is small, white, and odorless. While the fruits can vary in appearance and color, almost all are quite hot, much like peppercorns, and some even more. The plant bears seeds (or rather fruit pods) that are hollow and of a very fine red color; some grow to the length and thickness of a finger. Other varieties grow pods that are about as round and fat as a cherry, more or less. Another variety bears green pods, but smaller than the red ones; and in that way, according to the variety and the soil in which it is planted, they can grow smaller or larger, red or green, since they don’t wait for them to ripen. Some bear tiny green pods, and others have black-spotted pods that tend toward a dark blue (not the whole pod, just some parts of it). There is one variety that is not hot and can even be eaten raw. The leaves can be made into a sauce that is just as good if not better than a sauce made from parsley (and it marries very well with a meat stock), although one sauce is hot and the other is not. The truth is that axi goes better with meat or fish than very fine black pepper.

It is brought to Spain, Italy, and other places, as it is a very good spice and a healthy food, and whenever men come across it, they like it very much. Merchants send for it from Europe and seek it out diligently for their own appetites and enjoyments, for they have seen that it is a very healthy food, especially in winter and cold weather, and although some may claim it is mild, it seems to me that the axi is quite hot.

Image: Engraving of a chili plant by Elizabeth Blackwell in A Curious Herbal Antique Botanical Illustration, published in 1737 in London.