Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Chillis, or “chile peppers,” the fruits of small shrubs native to South America, are the most widely grown spice in the world. Their active ingredient, the spectacularly pungent chemical capsaicin, protects the seeds of the chilli fruit, and appears to be a chemical repellant aimed specifically at mammals. Birds, which swallow the fruits whole and disperse the seeds widely, are immune to capsaicin; mammals, whose teeth grind up the fruit and destroy the seeds, are pained by it. It’s a wonderfully perverse achievement for our mammal species to have fallen in love with this antimammalian weapon and spread the chillis much further than any bird ever did!