Hot Sauce History (Part II): A Fiery Journey Through Time & Space
Welcome back to Hot Sauce History! We hope you’re ready for a whirlwind trip through, give or take, 7000 years of chilli history and the countries and cultures that shaped it. We begin many, many years ago in an Aztec village far away…
Aztec cities are the stuff of fantasy, and everything we learn about their lives and habits seems to make them even more mysterious. We do know they cultivated chillies and we know they made the first ever hot sauce: ground-up chillies mixed with water and herbs. Chillies were definitely a lifestyle for the Mesoamerican folk. Dinner time featured the spicy condiment, as did doctor time (it was used for medicine). It was also used for paying the taxman (nope, that’s not a euphemism), giving gifts of tribute, and used as a weapon too! (does spray pepper ring a bell?)
It was around this period that chillies got domesticated. There is extensive research into this, with published scientific papers and everything! Archaeologists have traced it back to Tehuacán Valley in Mexico around 5000 BC. Perhaps the most concrete evidence of this was the discovery of ‘preceramic macro-remains’ of chillies in the Coxcatlán Cave which is situated in this valley. Near this valley lies the likely centre of the Otomanguean homeland. That makes the Otomanguean people the first in the New World to transform wild chillies into the spice and condiment we know and love today.
The 16th Century
The history of chillies lies dormant and quiet for a few thousand years until the 16th century. Suddenly, things start to happen and the next hundred years are busy ones for the humble little spice!
The local mesoamerican populations didn't see it coming: wearing distinctive metal helmets and hailing from Spain, the conquistadores army swooped in and after a brutal siege, the Aztecs were conquered. The Spanish developed an affinity for the hot peppers and carried it forth to share it with the world.
It was around this time that Spanish conquistador and explorer Juan de Grijalva arrives in the port of Tabasco (yeah, you read that right) on the coast of Mexico. There’s a detailed mural commemorating this historic event, depicting the explorer meeting a Mayan chief.
Portuguese explorers reached Japan, bringing corn and chillies to the Asiatic region. While the Japanese did adopt many things from these European travellers, chillies never really stuck (their loss). It was only once they reached Thailand, China, and Korea that chillies really got established in Asia. The plants were easy to cultivate in the climates of these countries and so it’s easy to see why their cuisine incorporated the spice so extensively.
On the back of yet another invasion, chillies arrive in Hungary along with the Ottoman Turks. Hungarian herdsmen seasoned their bacon and savoury stews with the red spice. The fishermen of the Danube quickly followed suit, and then the peasantry, all incorporating this spice into their daily meals. Before long the paprika chilli was firmly grounded in Hungarian cuisine!
Throughout this period we see the hotter chillies spread throughout the world via the spice trade and the Silk Road.
The 19th Century
Now we’ve reached the 1800s and North America. Hot sauce is about to become commercialised! According to newspaper ads in 1807 you could purchase “cayenne sauce” which was bottled and sold in Massachusetts. Folks, was this the first hot sauce in the USA?
In the mid-1800s J McCollik and Company of New York produced a bird pepper sauce (possibly something like our bird's-eye chillies today). Hot sauce recipes started appearing in recipe books, and William Railton Chilly Sauce hit the markets, mainly promoted as medicinal in nature.
The hot sauce craze really hit when Edmund McIlhenny obtained a patent for Tabasco Brand hot pepper sauce. From here, the whole deal truly blew up, opening the market to different varieties of hot sauce, and the 1900s took it and ran!
So much has happened on this journey, but so much more is to come! Check back soon for the next instalment in the history of hot sauce!