How Did Chile Peppers Get to China?

A new book addresses the chile pepper’s journey

Chinese cuisine is almost unimaginable without chile peppers. From Beijing to Chongqing to Shanghai to Hong Kong, you find chiles fresh, dried, and pickled, chile pastes, chile oils. Sometimes they dominate, as in the fiery food of Sichuan province; sometimes they’re condiments designed merely to accent delicate steamed dumplings. But they’re everywhere, so ubiquitous that an 18th-century Dutch botanist named one of the five domesticated varieties of chiles Capsicum chinense because he believed it originated in China.

He was wrong. Chiles are a New World fruit, and until 1494 they had never left the Americas. But once they did, they were all over the place. How did this happen in China? How did they not only make it halfway around the world but become so entrenched a part of the cuisine and the culture that even today, Chinese and non-Chinese alike have a hard time believing they’re an import?

The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography aims to answer these questions. Written by Brian R. Dott, a historian at Whitman College, it’s the first thorough, English-language investigation of the chile’s journey from curious foreign spice to an essential component of Chinese life. In February, at the 2020 New Mexico Chile Conference, in Las Cruces, I caught up with Dott to get all the hot details.

(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

MG: So, basic question: When and how did chiles get to China?

BD: We don’t know exactly which route: One is the Portuguese bringing it into the Indian Ocean basin and it ends up in places like Malacca and Indonesia. Then the Spanish start coming across the Pacific from Acapulco to Manila. And both of those are not intentional introduction. At some point, somebody’s like, “Oh yeah, I’d like to eat chiles while I’m here in Manila, so I’m going to plant them.”

But they’re not moving crates and crates of chiles. It’s not a commodity that they’re selling, and instead, I think it’s there to flavor the food of the crew members. That’s why we don’t have records of it. You have records of what’s in the cargo hold, but not of what’s in the kitchen. Especially when you’re talking about the Spanish galleons from Acapulco; there are a lot of indigenes and mestizos in those crews, and they would have been eating chiles regularly.

What I wasn’t able to trace is: Are they coming to China from the Philippines or from Indonesia? The most likely group of people that are doing it are Chinese merchants because they’re sailing all over that whole Southeast Asia region. The first place it shows up [in China] is in Hangzhou. It’s farther north than I expected — I thought it would come in the Canton area.

‘The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography’ by Brian R. Dott © 2020, Columbia University Press. Photo: Hitoshi Kamizumi

What year is that?

The earliest source is 1591. We do know that other crops from the Americas get to China earlier. Maize, potato, peanut — the earliest written sources are 10, 20, 30 years earlier. My guesstimate is the 1570s for the chile pepper. Part of the issue is the sources; there’s a lot of elite reluctance toward the chile pepper. Most of them aren’t super enthusiastic, whereas they are super excited about the really high-caloric New World crops: peanut, maize, and both types of potatoes. Those are things that really help in terms of famine relief. All of those get planted in places where they couldn’t grow wheat or rice, and so you actually have an increase in arable land, late Ming, early Qing period.

What do the elites say about chiles?

The earliest record mentions they’re spicy, but the emphasis for [author Gao Lian] is as a decorative plant. He says they’re really good to look at. This is a really large work that’s all about how to live a good life. It’s a lot of Taoist approach to living, and in his preface, he talks about the importance of not eating really flavorful food — that’s for really rich guys and gods, essentially. It’s not for us. He calls himself a humble mountain hermit, and I was like, Oh my God, you’re living in this mansion in Hangzhou, and your father’s this superrich merchant!

The first written record of it being used as a flavoring is 1621 — and that’s also the very first record that talks about its use as medicine. The acceptance of the chile pepper in China generally needs both: It needs to be used as a flavoring but it also needs to be placed within the Chinese understanding of their medical system. The two are really inseparable.

Where does the chile fit in that?

There are the five phases, often translated as five elements: The so-called metal phase is associated with the pungent flavor, and the lung gets associated with the pungent flavor. The chile has a drying characteristic — it can expel excess moisture, which is seen as a bad thing, particularly if you live in a really humid climate. In Hunan and Sichuan — super-humid in both summer and winter — the chile pepper is seen as super-good at doing that.

Is that why the chile took off there?

I think so. It’s sometimes easier to explain why it took off somewhere than why it didn’t take off somewhere else. The central coast area, there’s a disproportionate number of the super-elite, and they’re very connected with Confucianism, and there is definitely a pushback against super-strong flavors. So that makes sense. It’s harder to explain, “OK, we’re in Guangdong, super-humid place. Why don’t you also need that moisture expelled?”

Was there a tipping point when chiles became Chinese?

It’s sometime in the early to mid-19th century. The first recipe collection to include chiles isn’t until around 1790. So it’s pretty late, but then it’s there. And as we move into the 19th century, there are very few sources anymore that talk about the chile as a substitute for some other flavoring [like Sichuan peppercorns or salt], and they’re just talking about it being used because of its own flavor. We also start getting a more consistent use of the dominant modern name for chile pepper, 辣椒 (là jiāo), so “spicy pepper,” and fewer and fewer names containing some sort of character or reference to it coming from abroad.

What does the chile mean to China today?

It’s stretching a little bit to consider it a national identity crop, but it’s not super-far from that. It definitely is a key element for some regional identities like Hunan and Guizhou and Sichuan, but it does carry salience in cultural symbols and practices.

There is this connection of it with the [communist] revolution, this somewhat misquoted quote from Mao that if there hadn’t been chile peppers, there wouldn’t have been a revolution. The best I can get back to him actually saying this, he was literally talking about himself: “I can’t live without eating chiles, and if I can’t live then I can’t move the revolution forward.” But it’s generally now interpreted as him saying, just in general, we needed everybody eating chile peppers to get that fighting revolutionary spirit to move China forward. And there are a number of references to how many important military leaders in China’s recent history are from Hunan or Sichuan — mostly Hunan, like Mao himself, but also Deng Xiaoping from Sichuan.

One of the things that I find really interesting as a broad trend across the whole country — the majority Han Chinese use chile peppers as a decoration for New Year’s. You can get very elaborate embroidered cloth strings of chile peppers, which you hang on either side of the doorway for a New Year’s declaration. One of the parallels is a long string of small chile peppers looks a whole lot like a long string of firecrackers and lighting a long string of firecrackers used to be a really, really important part of New Year’s to chase away the evil spirits. I think the chile peppers are doing that stand-in as a way of keeping out evil spirits and bringing in good blessings.

What’s the future of the chile in China?

We’re getting a broader, more national culinary use of chile, and maybe it’s still going to be associated with a particular region, but Sichuan restaurants and hot-pot chain restaurants are becoming popular everywhere. The availability of different varieties of peppers just seems to be increasing, even in places where they typically are seen as being afraid of spiciness.

As we’ve gotten this increase in domestic tourism, too, chile tourism is a thing. If you’re going to Guizhou, or Sichuan, or Hunan, and you’re not from a chile-eating place, you’re gonna expect to get taken somewhere to eat a lot of chiles — and probably hotter than you can stand. You’re going to go somewhere where they make chile paste, and you can see in brochures there’s often pictures of people stringing chiles or harvesting chiles. This is becoming a part of that expectation — to get that authentic trip to Guizhou, you’ve gotta have an intense flavor.

What do you make of these American-style chile festivals that have sprung up in the last couple of years?

They seem to be wholeheartedly adopting it. There are ones where you sit in a vat full of chile peppers and eat really spicy chile peppers, and you try to be the one that can eat the most. It seems like it tends to be mostly younger people doing it. There’s this desire, at least for some people, to be part of that super-hot-chile-eating culture. It’s become a worldwide phenomenon.

When you’re in China and someone asks, “Do you eat spicy?”, what do you say?

The spiciest thing I’ve had in China is actually a Guizhou dish. I could not — I mean, I ate some of it, but I could not keep eating. It was just too hot for me. At that point, it was somewhat early on in my research, and [my host] quite intentionally ordered that dish. He was OK with it. It was one of those ones where there’s like 400 chiles in the bowl and a tiny bit of other stuff underneath it. But I don’t have the tolerance of someone from Hunan or Sichuan that’s just been eating it every day for a long time.

Restless & hungry. Writing about travel, food, parenting, and culture all over the place.

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