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…