CHILLI, or pepper, is a big part of some cuisines around Africa, but for others, even the mildest spice sends people scampering for water.
There are more than 200 varieties, coloured anything from yellow to green to red to black, and varying in heat from mildly warm to mouth-blisteringly hot. The smallest are usually the hottest, such as the habanero orange, African bird’s eye and Scotch bonnet.
But it’s no coincidence that it’s most popular in the warmest parts of the world—South Asia, central America, the Caribbean and Africa, because eating chilli actually helps cool you down.
On a hot day, drinking cold water, iced tea or ice cream cools you down so fast that in compensation, your body quickly raises its temperature again, making the cooling effect very short-lived.
But chillies raise your body temperature to match the environmental heat, you sweat, and the moisture cools your body from the “inside out”.
Peppery foods have another benefit in hot climates—they stimulate appetite by setting off the flow of saliva and digestive juices, important because oppressive heat acts as an appetite suppressant.
And chillies are one of nature’s richest sources of Vitamin C, containing four to seven times the Vitamin C of oranges, and the endorphin “high” one experiences after eating chillies is the evolutionary “reward” for bearing the heat.
Chilli was first cultivated in central and south America as far back as 7500BC; the ancient Greeks and Romans used peppercorns as currency, used to pay rents, fines, buy and sell slaves.
Spices were the motivation for Christopher Columbus’ voyage in the 15th century, when he set out to in search of precious peppercorns from India. When he landed in the Caribbean, he found the people there eating chilli—so he assumed he must have found India, calling the chilli “pepper” and the people “Indians”.
So who eats the most chilli in Africa? We put together this map showing love for chilli across the continent. Heat-resistant taste buds are most likely found in West Africa—Nigerians famously love their pepe—followed by North Africa, with its Middle Eastern influences.
Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine is similarly incomplete without their berbere spice—an aromatic blend of chilli and spices that can really give a kick—and spicy food lovers are also found in along the east African coast and parts of southern Africa.
Rwanda and eastern DRC also have a chilli tradition. The Arab traders from the coast having introduced it along their trade routes in the 18th and 19th century.
Chilli-phobes are most likely to be found in inland east and southern Africa: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia.
Do you agree with our rankings? Tell us what you think about your country’s chilli tolerance.