I remember the day clearly.
I was in Malaysia, a place where chili peppers have a strong presence. The national dish – Nasi Lemak, chunks of beef slow-cooked for hours in a coconut milk-chili and spice mixture until it is soft, eaten with spicy peanuts and anchovies.
Malaysian food is diverse, and makes ample use of chili peppers and is considered one of the spice-loving countries of the world .
Chilies hold a special place in my families own culture too. Within India, a country famed for its spicy food, my family hails from Andhra Pradesh, in the south-central part of the country where, according to my family, the food is spicier than anywhere else in India. I believed it. I could handle Malaysian cuisine fine, but growing up at home, my mom’s cooking was often too spicy for me. My childhood is filled of memories of burning tongues and teary eyes. Indian cuisine is closely tied to the red chili pepper, prevalent in every dish, part of our identity.
Anyway, that day, I was having breakfast at the guesthouse – roti canai, another popular local dish, Malaysian-Indian flatbread served with a chili-spiced curry dip. It was a bright, sunny day, and the air smelled salty, from the nearby sea.
As I bit into my roti, a young couple came to sit down at the long, wooden table. They were British, and we quickly began talking as backpackers do, the male, with his gruffly beard and tanned skin, the more talkative one. They’d just traveled in India.
“I loved the food there, so spicy,” he said.
“Could you handle it?” I asked.
“Mostly, I’m pretty good,” he said.
“Indian food is the spiciest, much more than Malaysian food,” I said, with a pinch of pride. I also knew they hadn’t been to Andhra Pradesh, no way they could have handled the food there.
“Probably. It’s amazing, then, that chilies aren’t from India,” he said.
My worldview shook. The statement seemed too bizarre to be true. He must have been mistaken. Chilies were as Indian as cheese was French, or seafood was to Japan. How could they not be from India?
“What do you mean?”
“Chilis! They’re not from Asia, they’re from South America. 600 years ago, India had no chilies,” he said.
Chilies from South America? I was so shocked that I couldn’t respond. How could this be true? Yet, I had no evidence, or knowledge, to disprove him, besides my lingering doubts. But chili peppers were such a ingrained, deep part of Indian culture. When the great war of the Mahabharata (external link) was happening, thousands of years ago, were the warriors not eating the same spicy dishes as today? I almost felt my culture was being insulted. India without chilies seemed, well, impossible.
It was true, I found out later. Chilies, in their original form, came from the jungles of South America, and spread around the world along with many other new world fruits and vegetables – potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and squash – in the 16th century. For as long as there has been trade between cultures, there has been the exchange of foods, crops, and seeds. It is part of human nature.
A seed was planted within me. I wanted to know more. What was India, or other chili loving countries, such as Thailand, Indonesia, or Korea, like before the chili arrived? How come it was so readily adopted here and not elsewhere, such as Europe or Japan?
I went online, searching for books that might tell his fascinating story, and found out something even more fascinating.
The story of the chili pepper has never been told.
There is ample research on chilies genome its many varieties, its uses around the world, and the power of capsicums, but little on the cultural stories around the spread and adoption of hot chili into diverse cuisines. It was just assumed that it spread alongside corn, potatoes, and other new world foods.
But chilies, there is something different about chilies. Look at its use – Mexican Salsa, Indonesian Sambal, Indian chili powder, Korean Gochujang, all symbols of distinct cultures. Is there any other crop that has influences so many cultures so far away? That defines culture so powerfully, to provoke the reaction I had that day in Malaysia when I learned the truth of the chilies origin?
I complained to my friend Jaesin, a fellow chili lover, about how there was no book on the spread of the chili pepper.
He answered simply, “why don’t you write it then?”
Why don’t I! Thus this project was born. This is story of the Chili Pepper, a story about humanity and culture in its most basic form – the food we put in our mouth and how that food defines who we are.
Photo Credit: “Sambal cobek” by Midori – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.