The most famous quote about chili peppers in China came from the country’s most notorious chili lover, Chairman Mao: “No chilis, no revolution (不吃辣椒不革命),” he said.
China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of chili, growing between 50 million and 60 million tons of peppers – about 46 percent of the world production.
Many Chinese find it hard to believe that chili peppers are not indigenous to China. But actually the hot spice originated in South America. People have eaten chili for almost 10,000 years, but it was not until the 15th century, when Columbus brought the pepper seed to the Old World, that the plant started its fantastic world tour.
Chili was introduced to China either through the Silk Road, or on water through the Strait of Malacca into southern China. Before chilis were brought into China, people had a limited choice of vegetables in the summer. Things changed with the red plant.
“In the Szechuan (Sichuan) 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 16th century, having reached these regions via caravan routes from the Ganges River through Burma and across Western China,” Ho Ping-ti wrote in his 1955 article, “The Introduction of American Food Plants into China.”
Before arriving in China, chili peppers had already been introduced into Europe and Japan. Although the exact time that the chilis entered the country remains unknown, the earliest Chinese document to mention chilis dates from the Ming Dynasty. Zunshengbajian (1591) describes the plants this way: “The clustered fanjiao (chili peppers) with white flowers and round fruits are red and incredibly beautiful.”
The peppers at the time were not used as culinary seasoning but as ornamental plants. Tang Xianzu, a famous dramatist and writer of the Ming Dynasty, admired the beauty of chili peppers as well as morning glories, wintersweets and daphnes, saying that the chili has “middle-level grace.”
Zhejiang province, along the East China Sea coast, is believed to be where chili peppers first entered China. A possible confirmation comes from a gazetteer in Shanyin, Zhejiang province, who in 1671 wrote: “Laqie (chili peppers) are red … and can substitute Chinese prickly ash.”
The peppers soon expanded to Hunan, Guizhou, Hebei and Liaoning provinces, followed by Shanxi and Shandong provinces during Emperor Yongzheng’s reign. Next were Sichuan, Fujian and Anhui provinces, during Emperor Qianlong rule. Soon the peppers expanded to the rest of the country.
Chinese made chili their own. By 2002, there were a total of 2,119 chili pepper varieties in China.
Among the different Chinese cuisines, Sichuan cuisine is best known for its chili dishes. Before chili peppers were brought to China, Chinese prickly ash was the main ingredient in “spicy and hot” Sichuan dishes. Mustard seed and ginger were also used.
Shizhuyu (食茱萸), also called Yuejiao (越椒), is an Asian plant that grows in forests in southeastern China, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and Japan, south of Honshu. Historical documents show that in Sichuan, shizhuyu used to be served as a paste to eliminate the unpleasant smell of meat in mutton, beef or pork stew. However, by the end of the Ming Dynasty, shizhuyu had been completely wiped out of the kitchen by the chili pepper invasion. Unlike ginger or mustard seed, which are still used nowadays as basic ingredients, many Chinese have only heard of shizhuyu from Tang Dynasty poems. Today, shizhiyu fruit is used in medicine to remove extra body moisture and relieve pain.
The first recipes containing chili peppers appeared during Emperor Guanxu’s reign (1875 to 1908), and they were cooking instructions for spicy broad beans and fermented soy beans. “For pepper lovers, chopped chili pepper flakes are recommended to add a maximized hot savor,” said a fermented bean curd recipe. From then on, the prickly ash and chili mix started capturing Chinese’s hearts.
So why has the chili adapted so well in China? Food lovers and experts have been trying to answer this question for decades. There are several theories: First of all, the plant adapted so well to the local climate and proved its efficiency in driving out the body’s extra moisture and stimulating the appetite. But culture and economics have also had an important role in building up the pepper’s popularity.
A proverb from Hunan province says, “Having chaffs with chili dressing for six months.” This shows that chili was an indispensable ingredient in the meals of poverty-stricken people. Experts say the peppers are more popular in poorer regions. Immigrants during the Qing Dynasty also embraced the chili, bringing it along with them from coastal areas to Sichuan. Chili peppers brought flavor to the immigrants’ simple meals. “Salts are expensive for the poor, so many of them substitute peppers for salts to build up an appetite,” said Jiang Zuxuan, the deputy director of Provincial Party Committee Propaganda Department of Hunan province in his book Chili Peppers in Hunan（《辣椒湖南》）。
Columbus may not have foreseen the gigantic power hidden in the tiny seeds he brought back. Today, chili peppers rekindle people’s passions, add spice to prosaic lives and help strengthen social bonds. When friends enjoy a small gathering beside a Chongqing hot-pot, they may be unaware of the chili’s magic power to keep them bonded together.