The Portuguese and Montezuma’s Fiery Gift, with A Kimchi Recipe (AS 258)
Updated: Feb 25
Last time, I ended with the case against Asian Doughnut Theory No. 1. No, the Portuguese did *not* bring churros from China. Churros are *not* from China. Those sugar-laced delights had been around on the Iberian Peninsula for centuries.
Having dispelled one food myth propagated by the media, it’s time to focus on the real Portuguese legacy. The biggest impact the Portuguese had on Asia? It’s not their delectable ports, their heavenly sardine pâté, or even egg custard tarts. It’s something even more implausible: The Portuguese helped make Asian food a lot more fiery.
Next time you look at your kimchi, remember those sardine lovers.
To see the connection between the Portuguese and kimchi, we will have to take a long and circuitous route through food history — not unlike the route navigated by sixteenth-century sailors.
We begin our journey not in Asia, but in Southern Spain. In 1492, the Spanish crown had expelled the last of the Moorish rulers from the Iberian Peninsula. Embolden by this victory, the Spanish and their Portuguese neighbors began an aggressive phase of overseas expansion. As historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam explains in an important article, the Portuguese and Spanish worked well as a tag team. And from 1580-1640, they were formally one happy family.
To see what effect the Iberian Union had on Asian food, just look at the map of their sixteenth- and seventeenth-century empire. Initially, the Portuguese focused on wrestling the spice trade away from the Muslims. They were also a main force behind the Atlantic slave trade. In Asia, they colonized Goa in Southern India, took over Malacca in Southeast Asia, and set up shop in Macau, off the coast of China. They also maintained a friendly trading and missionary presence in Japan until 1639, when they got the boot (more on that next week).
While the Portuguese were busy making trouble in the Indian Ocean and building an empire in Brazil, their Spanish brothers were spreading death and devastation in the Americas. By 1521, Cortes and his squad had vanquished the mighty Aztec empire and murdered the last Aztec ruler, Montezuma. In the process, the Europeans decimated the native population, mostly with smallpox (which proved to be far deadlier than European weapons). Not content with leaving their stamp in the Americas, the Spanish worked on getting their own foothold in Asia. So they conquered the Philippines in the 1560s.
The Philippines proved to be particularly important to the Iberian takeover. The Spanish realized that they could ship silver, people, and plants from their colonies in the Americas to their colonies in Asia. That route became the Acapulco-Manila galleon.
Chili peppers were on those galleons. The Spanish learned about chili peppers -- which lends dishes a touch of heat -- from the Aztecs.
The chili pepper was one of a long list of new crops and foods that the Spanish and Portuguese encountered in the Americas (see Alfred Crosby’s table in your reading). This transfer of plants, animals, and disease, is known as the Columbian Exchange.
Because of Iberian global expansion, the Columbian Exchange also affected how everyday meals in Asia tasted. By the end of the sixteenth century, Aztec chili peppers began displacing the native black pepper in piquant dishes in the Indian Subcontinent. Southeast Asian cooking also felt the difference. So did coastal China and ultimately southern Japan.
This, however, leaves Korea.
Invasions are key once more, or so Professor Ahn tells me. But here, we are dealing with something other than the usual suspects. Unlike other parts of Asia, Korea did not face an active threat from the Spanish or Portuguese navy. Instead, they found themselves fending off another invader: Japan. In 1592, Japanese strong man Toyotomi Hideoyshi (1537-1598) got it in his head to conquer Korea and launched a series of expeditions. Long story short: the invasion fell through. Six years into the expedition, Hideoyshi kicked the bucket, and the Japanese retreated. But before that happened, the Japanese had introduced the Koreans to a few American crops from their European imperialist pals: corn, sweet potato, and chili.
This is where kimchi entered the story. At first, Korean cooks did not know quite what to make of the chili. They certainly were in no hurry to add it to their veggies. One of earliest Korean sources that mention the pepper, dating to 1614, expressed suspicion. It referred to the new chili peppers as a “Southern barbarian pepper.“ It also accused the colorful Capsicum of being poisonous.
It would take some time before cooks got adventurous in Korea. As late as 1670, rich home cooks stuck to preparing their pickled vegetables in the old manner. This meant pickling vegetables in brine. Think water or white kimchi.
By the eighteenth century, the status of the Mexican chili pepper had changed in Korea. Books like Farming Management (Sallim gyeongje; 山林經濟) reveals that peasants used chili pepper to make a sauce akin to gojuchang. It’s name? Barbarian pepper sauce. The chili also found its way into pickled vegetables: seaweed, pumpkins, cucumbers. Oddly not cabbage — that would come later.
The chili peppers were also not alone in securing a spot at the Korean table. Farming Management also featured two American crops: corn and sweet potatoes. The latter is now responsible for two other crowning achievements of Korean cuisine. Sweet-potato vermicelli (japchae) and soju (distilled liquor).
So why did people in Asia accept these unfamiliar foodstuffs? In the case of kimchi, it was not because the Koreans thought highly of Iberians. The archaic name for chili pepper, Southern Barbarian pepper (南蛮椒), should be a tip off.
At the end of the day, the embrace of American foodstuffs came down to matters of survival and starvation. Chili peppers and sweet potatoes are high-yield crops. They grow easily on marginal lands and offer their consumers vital nutrients.
Think of all the Vitamin C packed into a chili pepper. The nutrient probably prevented scurvy in mestizo and indigenous American crew members, stuck on the long ocean journeys that connected Acapulco to Manila. Unlike black peppers, which were traded as luxury products in the premodern world, chilis were also cheap sources of vitamins. Chilis also work wonders for the fermentation process. Not only can you make kimchi with chilis, but also yogurt ("curd"). Not surprisingly, people in early modern India referred to chili peppers as the “savior of the poor.”
Packed with carbohydrates and nutrients, sweet potatoes are also a sensible food, particularly for poor Chinese and Koreans. Sweet potato vines grow well on hills, where the soil tends to be too rocky and thin to produce rice, wheat, or millet. In the premodern world, poor people often found themselves pushed into the highlands (hence the colloquial term ‘hill billies’). For poor people, these American plants thus represented the difference between life and death.
At the end of the day, the story of kimchi, from the Americas to Nagasaki to Korea, brings to mind an old and outmoded adage, “No man is an island.” To this, I would probably add the following mantra: “No cuisine is an island.” All of us have been affected by the historic flows of ingredients and the circulation of cooking styles across continents.
Our meals are time capsules of those flows. And kimchi is no exception: a lot of human history (and flavor) is loaded into your cabbage and daikon. As you unscrew your jars of kimchi and inhale the scent, think about the first Korean cultivators, who gambled on a frightening foreign chili vine. Then take a bite of the daikon and imagine the Japanese navy. Chomp a bit more on the cabbage leaves and picture those ships crossing the Pacific and the native crew members who mixed chili peppers into their corn meal, or masa. As the spices tickle your tongue, remember the Portuguese and Spaniards, who left the Iberian peninsula in search of Indian pepper and incredible power. As the spices overwhelm your palate, don’t forget poor Emperor Montezuma. Before the Spanish took away his empire, he once enjoyed his chili with cocoa.
Kimchi lover? Chili pepper fanatic? Have a hot recipe you would like to share?
See ya on Yellow Dig!
Sources (not hyperlinked)
Anderson, EN (2014). Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), Chapter 3: “Vindaloo: The Portuguese and the Chilli Pepper,” 47-80.
Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1972), “Chapter 5, “New World Foods and Old Word Demography,” 165-202.
Brian R. Dott.The Chili Pepper in China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).
Sanjay Subrahmanyam, "Holding the World in Balance: The Connected Histories of the Iberian Overseas Empires, 1500-1640." The American Historical Review 112. 5 (2007): 1359-1385.
Rachel Laudan and Jeffrey Pilcher, "Chili, Chocolate, and Race in New Spain: Glancing Backward to Spain or Looking Forward to Mexico." In Eighteenth-Century Life: The Cultural Topography of Food 23.2 (1999): 59-70.
Kimchi Recipe by Evan Straub.
In Winter 2018, my students made kimchi with Dr. Evan Straub, a fermentation expert. I also joined along for the fun and the glamor shots with a hair net. Here is the recipe that we used. If you are vegan and unable to eat fish, there are vegan versions, too.
1 napa cabbage
1/2 cup salt
1/2 - 1/3 cup gochugaru-Korean red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2/3 daikon radish
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1/3 cup chopped green onion
1/4 cup fish sauce
1. Wash cabbage and cut into quarters. Place in a very large bowl (you'll need this for the rest of the process). If you need your kimchi to pickle faster, cut in smaller pieces. The smaller the pieces, the faster the process.
2. Evenly apply salt to cabbages. This will draw the moisture out and prepare it for pickling. Add water just to cover. Let sit at room temperature for 5 hours.
3. Cut off the ends of the cabbage quarters and throw them away. Then, cut cabbage quarters into bite-sized sections. Place sections in the large bowl.
4. Mash garlic, ginger and sugar into a fine paste (you can use a food processor). Add pepper and fish sauce and make a thick paste. You can adjust the amount of garlic, ginger and pepper based on your taste preferences.
5. Put gloves on and mix with your hands. The easiest and best way to mix kimchi is to push your hand all the way to the bottom of the bowl and fold the kimchi over on itself. Then, rub the top layer to better distribute the spices. Do this until the kimchi is sufficiently mixed.
6. Take handfuls of kimchi and place in an airtight container. After each handful, press down firmly to pack it into the jar. Liquid should start to cover the kimchi.
7. Once you've removed all of the kimchi from the large bowl, add a splash of water to wash all of the excess spices from the sides. Add the water to the container. This is so you don't waste any spices. If you've used multiple containers, distribute it evenly between containers.
8. Pack your kimchi down one final time and seal tightly. Let sit at room temperature for 1-2 days before moving to a fridge. The kimchi will last several months. Fermentation (bubbly) is good! Mold is furry and not good!