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  • Brian Dott

A Battle of Peppers

The interloper chile pepper, arriving in China around 1570, ultimately surpassed the native Sichuan pepper in popularity. Why did the Chinese so enthusiastically embrace this introduced plant, even to the extent of displacing a long-treasured native spice?

Our Two Protagonists

Sichuan Pepper

in the prickly ash family

Rutaceae family, Zanthoxylum bungeanum

(Chinese, often huajiao花椒or Chuanjiao川椒)

Sichuan pepper (also known as fagara) is the seed pod from a short tree indigenous to China. It has a distinctive, pungent flavor. In addition, it has a numbing or anesthetic property. It has been used in Chinese cuisine and medicine since ancient times.

Chile Pepper

Solanaceae family, Capsicum annuum

The chile pepper is native to Central America and northern South America. While there are several species currently cultivated around the world, until the 20th century, varieties grown in China almost certainly came just from the species Capsicum annuum. The capsaicin compound in the chile seed pods gives them their spiciness. The Chinese use both fresh and dried chiles.

Initial naming and use of chiles imply a similar culinary use to the native Sichuan pepper as a pungent flavoring. Chinese authors from the 17th century write about the chile as a substitute for Sichuan pepper. Over the course of the 18th century, Chinese increased their use of chiles well beyond merely substituting it for the native spice. They endorsed and capitalized upon the versatility of the chile pepper, developing a taste for its own unique flavors, employing its antiseptic characteristics for food preservation, recognizing health and medicinal impacts of capsaicin, and integrating the chile into cultural symbols.

While Sichuan pepper is popular and widely available in China today, it is not as prevalent in most regional cuisines as it was before the arrival of chiles. Important exceptions are Sichuan and Yunnan, where the native flavoring is still used regularly, however, most often in combination with the introduced chile, thus also demonstrating culinary shifts since the arrival of chiles. Popular dishes like mapo doufu and gongbao jiding include both. The overall decline in Sichuan pepper use occurred in a direct relationship with the increase in chile pepper use, from the 18th into the 19th centuries. This shift is reflected in increasing numbers and types of Chinese sources discussing chiles, such as local histories, culinary texts, and medical handbooks. Indeed, Sichuan culinary scholar Lan Yong, building on the expansive collection of recipes from ancient times into the early twentieth century compiled by Liu Daqi, demonstrates this shift quite concretely:

Recipes in the collection that include Sichuan pepper as an ingredient

Ming (1368-1644) Qing (1644-1911)

29.7% 18.9%

This marked decline in the use of Sichuan pepper is paralleled by greater and greater integration of chiles into Chinese culinary practices:

  • In a mid-18th century local history, the authors exclaimed that chiles were: “as indispensable in daily cuisine as onion and garlic.”

  • A mid-19th century gazetteer underscored the chile’s essential role as a domestic crop, emphasizing that: “It is the most important vegetable in the garden. It is used as a daily flavoring, not unlike salt.”

  • In his 1848 work on plants, Wu Qijun observed that chilies are “Grown in Jiangxi, Hunan, Guizhou and Sichuan as a vegetable,” not just as a flavoring.

  • medical uses of chiles:

+ stimulate appetite and digestion

+ warming the body

+ treatment for diarrhea

+ treatment for hemorrhoids

+ treatment and prophylactic for malaria

+ treatment for food poisoning

+ expelling damp, particularly in Hunan, Sichuan and Guizhou

Unlike Sichuan pepper, the Chinese have made chiles into cultural symbols. Chiles have become important in some gender tropes, including masculine fighting spirit and feminine independence and passion. In terms of fighting spirit, Mao is often quoted as saying that there would not have been a revolution without chiles. Similarly, Hunanese, as avid consumers of chiles, are often viewed as strong military leaders. The term “la meizi” or “spicy girls,” describes women who eat many chiles and are independent, assertive and passionate.

In a further example, strings of real and artificial chiles are now a common Chinese New Year’s decoration. Hanging these strings evokes the phrase “honghong huohuo” literally “red, red, fire, fire,” referring to the color and spiciness of chiles. The symbolic meaning of the strings of chiles can be translated as a wish or prayer for an “exuberant and affluent life.” The impact of chiles on Chinese culture also directly influenced the language. The definitions for la or “spicy” in contemporary dictionaries now include the chile as the first example to explain this flavor.

The thoroughness of Chinese integration of the chile sprang from the plant’s versatility. It provides flavor, spice, medicine, nutrition, and stimulation and induces passion. Chinese from different regions, classes, and genders could all find something compelling and edgy in the chile.

For more on the history of chiles in China see my The Chile Pepper in China

What’s in a Name?

There is a parallel in Chinese and English for borrowing names for spicy or pungent plants. In English, “pepper” comes from the Latin piper, which in turn comes from the Sanskrit pippali. The Sanskrit name originally referred to long pepper, a relative of black pepper, but in Europe, it referred primarily to black pepper (Piperaceae family, Piper nigrum). The name pepper was borrowed to refer to the chile once it arrived in Europe from the Americas. Much later, the label of pepper was applied to the native Chinese spice, Sichuan pepper. In China, a similar pattern emerged, but it centered on the name of an indigenous spice. The original name for Sichuan pepper in Chinese is the single character jiao 椒. When black pepper was introduced to China from South Asia around the second century, the Chinese borrowed this character from their native pungent plant to name this new import, hujiao 胡椒or “pepper from Hu.” Hu was an ancient term referring to a broad region of Western and Southern Asia, including India. When chiles arrived in China in the late 16th century, the Chinese again borrowed the character jiao for many of the early names for chiles, including fanjiao 番椒or “foreign pepper” and lajiao 辣椒 or “spicy pepper.” The parallel in naming these plants from three distinct families reflects cultural recognition of similar flavors, physiological effects and convergent uses.