Capiscum) is native to Central and South America, and there is archeological evidence from Southern Ecuador that chili peppers were domesticated as far back as 6000 years ago. Spreading throughout the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans in the New World and moving all around the globe since as part of the Columbian exchange, it is natural that a number of different varieties and cultivars of the genus would have developed.
Interestingly there is one variety of the chili pepper species Capiscum frutescens that seems to have spread only to Portuguese-speaking countries. Presumably the variety originated in Brazil, was carried back to Portugal as part of the trade between that country and its largest colony and subsequently carried onwards to Portuguese colonies in Africa, principally Mozambique and Cabo Verde. In Brazil this chili pepper is called pimenta malagueta. Elsewhere is has many names - gindungo, maguita-tuá-tuá, ndongo, nedungo and piri-piri among others. In English it is also known as the malagueta pepper.
The name malagueta itself is derived from an entirely different plant from Africa called melegueta in Portuguese and Grains-of-paradise in English. This relative of ginger has no botanical relationship to chili peppers, and the similarity of names has caused more than one source to suggest an African origin for Brazilian malagueta peppers. This is absolutely not true, malagueta peppers originated in the New World.
Scoville scale which measures the spicy heat of chili peppers, the malagueta clocks in at anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 units. This puts it in the middle range of hot chilis, about the same as the Tabasco pepper and the Thai Bird's-eye chili.
Although the malagueta is cultivated and consumed throughout Brazil, it is most strongly associated with the cooking and food traditions of the state of Bahia. It is used there to liven cooked soups and stews and a bottle of malagueta hot-sauce is to be found on every Bahian table.
In Bahia, as elsewhere in Brazil, most of the malagueta peppers consumed come from commercial farms and small plantings. A wild version of the malagueta plant does grow in Bahia, though, called malagueta-caipira which means back-country malagueta. Chili fanatics go to great lengths to try to find sources of this wild cousin of the domestic malagueta, claiming that it has higher levels of capsaicin, the active component of chili peppers, and low levels of piperine, the active component of black peppers. This means that the wild malagueta carried more of capsaicin's health benefits. Unfortunately, the wild version of the plant is susceptible to a number of blights and diseases, and is not suitable for commercial cultivation.
Tomorrow, Flavors of Brazil will feature a recipe for homemade malagueta hot-sauce.