“Food is good to think with”

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009)

“Tell me what you eat and I will show you who you are.”

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826), The Physiology of Taste (1825)
By Caroline ReevesEmmanuel College

The visibility of the chili pepper makes it a particularly good product to think—and to teach—with. Students know about chilis, of course, but, like most of us, they have never really thought about them. Decentering the known is one of the most intellectually challenging aspects of teaching world history, and the “peripatetic chili pepper” (Andrews 1999) and its journeys and triumphs around the globe both reset the lens on an “American” product and at the same time make global connections the focus of an easily swallowed—yet seductively spicy—world history lesson.

Hot Stuff

The chili pepper is eaten by more than a quarter of the world’s population each day, making it “the most used spice and condiment in the world” (Kiple and Cremelas 2000, 281). Chilis, a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and the genus Capsicum, are native to the southern Brazilian highlands and were already being consumed by humans almost ten thousand years ago; they were first cultivated between 5,000 and 3,000 bce (Vaughan and Geissler 1997, 138). Chilis come by their popularity like many other exciting New World products: they are chemically addictive.

“When capsaicinoids [one of the alkaloids that give chilis their punch] come into contact with the nerve endings in the tongue and mouth, the brain is tricked into thinking that your tongue and mouth are actually on fire. . . . The brain, perceiving it has been injured, secretes a natural painkiller, endorphin, that acts like morphine. This is the chile high” (Haverluk 2002, 46).

Through time and space, as humans have drooled, sniffled, sweated, and cried over chilis while their hearts pounded, they have also fallen in love with this little fruit.

How the Chili Pepper Got to China

In the United States, much of Chinese food is actually Hunan or Sichuan in origin, often served at restaurants offering inter-regional menus. The prevalence of the chili pepper in these two regions’ dishes leads many North Americans to associate the chili pepper with China at large. In fact, many Chinese people also consider the chili pepper to be a native food. It plays such a vital role in China’s regional cuisine that even locals in Sichuan and Hunan are unaware that it is not indigenous to their areas.

It is now well accepted that capsicums originated in South America and moved to Asia via Spanish and Portuguese traders. But their actual trajectories remain a mystery. “Unfortunately, documentation for the routes that chilli peppers followed from the Americas is not as plentiful as that for other New World economic plants such as maize, tobacco, sweet potatoes, manioc, beans and tomatoes” (Kiple and Cremelas 2000, 282). Almost all food historians concur that the transfer was rapid and radical and it “reduced the usage of white or black pepper in that area . . . constitut[ing] a marked change in [the] food culture” of Asia (Vaughan and Geissler 1997, 138).

Most histories of the chili pepper’s entrance into China are based on Ping-ti Ho’s now-classic 1955 article, “The Introduction of American Food Plants into China.” -Although Ho does not mention chili peppers specifically in his article, it is assumed that chili peppers moved with their frequent companions, the “Mesoamerican food complex” (Jean Andrews’s phrase) of beans, squash, and maize. The teleological argument runs as follows:

“In the Szechuan and Hunan provinces in China, where many New World foods were established within the lifetime of the Spanish conquistadors, . . . American foods were known . . . by the middle of the sixteenth century, having reached these regions via caravan routes from the Ganges River through Burma and across Western China” (Ho 1955).

But if we use Ho’s own methodology and sources, reading China’s ancient and copious local histories, or gazetteers, we discover a different story. Despite the ultimate success of the chili in redefining the cuisines of Sichuan and Hunan, these provinces are not necessarily the original points of entry for this New World fruit.

A thorough examination of China’s local gazetteers from the late fifteenth century on produces a number of provocative data points on the introduction of the chili pepper into China. According to these sources, the first recorded instance of the chili in China’s local histories comes from Zhejiang Province, on China’s southeast coast, corroborating conjecture about the chili’s Chinese debut via the sea. The Shanyin County gazetteer of 1671 notes, “Laqie is red hued . . . and can be substituted for pepper” (Jiang and Wang 2005). References to chilis in this gazetteer and others in Zhejiang continue through the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1735–1796) and diminish after that, suggesting that although chilis arrived early to this region, they did not find a particularly receptive audience there.

The next reference we have is a surprising one, found in the 1682 Gaiping County gazetteer from Liaoning Province, in China’s far northeast. Successive records of chilis from Liaoning continue right through Republican China (1911/12–1949). Liaoning’s proximity to Korea and its increased intercourse with that kingdom during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) suggest that one of the chili’s earliest entrances into China was through Korea, where it would have arrived via Japan and the Portuguese trade.

Equally surprising is how late the chili pepper appears in Sichuan’s gazetteers, given the role it was soon to play in Sichuan’s cuisine. The first mention does not appear until 1749, more than sixty years after nearby Hunan’s first reference (1684), and it is not until the 1800s that the plant clearly takes off throughout this province, finally becoming the hot commodity we know today. Similarly telling is the very late date (1894) of its introduction into Yunnan Province, the area neighboring Burma, which would have been critical if the pepper had indeed come overland from India through Burma. Thus, we can see that a focused investigation into local sources is critical in rounding out the story of transnational foodstuffs. It’s not enough to simply set them afloat on one side of an ocean; global networks should not obscure equally important regional flows and details of local receptions.

History Lessons

The story of how the chili pepper got to China has a moral or two, as many good stories do. The first is that we must not ignore the local story, even as we are telling a global tale. If we ignore what happens when a product reaches its destinations, we lose the agency of the very people world history hopes to re-enfranchise. Students will understand the story better if we let them participate in this, asking them to name dishes unthinkable without the chili, creating a tasting menu (if only visually) of Indian vindaloo curries and Sichuan mapo tofu, Southwestern salsas, and Thai prik king.

Further Reading

Andrews, Jean. (1992). The peripatetic chili pepper: Diffusion of the domesticated capsicums since Columbus. In Nelson Foster & Linda S. Cordell (Eds.), Chilies to chocolates: Foods the Americas gave the world. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Collingham, Lizzie. (2006). Curry: A tale of cooks & conquerors. New York: Oxford University Press.

Good, Jack. (2010). Food and love: A cultural history of East and West. Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

Grew, Raymond. (Ed.). (1999). Food in global history. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Haverluk, Terrence W. (2002). Chile peppers and identity construction in Pueblo, Colorado. Journal for the Study of Food and Society, 6(1), 45–59.

Ho, Ping-ti. (1955, April). The introduction of American food plants into China. American Anthropologist, 57(2), 191–201.

Jiang Mudong & Wang Siming. (2002). Lajiao zai Zhongguo de chuanbo ji qi yinxiang 辣椒在中国的传播及其影响. Zhongguo Nongshi, 17–27.

Kiple, Kenneth, & Cremelas, Krienhild Coneè. (Eds.). (2000). Cambridge world history of food. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1983). The Raw and the cooked (John Weightman & Doreen Weightman, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vaughan, J. G., & Geissler, C. A. (Eds.). (1997). New Oxford book of food plants. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.