Chili peppers are beloved around China and an important ingredient in many provinces. In fact, China produces over half of all the chili peppers in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations!
They are used in almost every cuisine in China with the stand outs being Sichuan, Hunan, Beijing, Hubei and Shaanxi. With the most common preparations being fresh, dried and pickled. Chili peppers are especially popular in China because it is believed that their spiciness is very effective at dissipating dampness in the body.
Chilis however were unknown to China just 350 years ago! The reason is because chili peppers (like eggplants, gourds, tomatoes, corn, cocoa, vanilla, tobacco and many more plants) were originally from the Americas. Current research seems to show that they originated in the highlands of Brazil and were later one of the first crops to be cultivated in the Americas about 7,000 years ago.
Chilis did not become introduced to the greater world until Europeans started sailing to the Americas more regularly after 1492. As Europeans increased voyages and exploration to the Americas, they started trading more and more products from the New World.
It has long been thought that the chili pepper was most likely introduced to China through land trade routes from the middle east or India but now we think it is most likely that it was the Portuguese who introduced chili peppers to China and the rest of Asia through their extensive trade networks. Evidence to support this claim include the fact that the first mention of chili peppers is recorded in 1671 in Zhejiang — a coastal province that would have had contact with foreign traders around that time.
Liaoning is the next province to have a contemporary gazette mention the “fanjiao” which hints that they could have also come to China through Korea — another place that had contact with the Portuguese. Sichuan province, which is probably most famous for its liberal use of chilis, doesn’t have a recorded mention of until 1749! (You can find an excellent diagram showing the first mentions of hot peppers in China on China Scenic’s website.)
Love for chilis has since spread far beyond the borders of Sichuan and Hunan. One common explanation is that the chili originally allowed for cheaper ingredients to be made delicious with its flavors. Another is that because Chongqing was made the temporary capital of China during the Japanese invasion of World War II, many people were introduced to the seductive Sichuanese cuisine and brought their love for its spicy flavors back with them when they returned home after the war.
However it happened, the chili is a hugely important part of Chinese cuisine today. Famous dishes such as Chongqing hot pot, laziji and double-colored fish head all make liberal use of chilis and they are just three examples amongst hundreds.
What’s your favorite chili dish? Has China turned you on the the fire and heat of the chili pepper? Let us know on our Facebook page!