Chillies: The ingredient that unites India and China

In the indie hit film Masaan (2015), set in Varanasi, there is a scene where a boy takes a girl to a café. Daringly, they order a pizza. The boy tells the waiter: “Sauce laaiye… Schezwan milega?” He figures this chatpata concoction, usually made from chillies cooked with ginger, garlic, vinegar and sugar is unusual enough to sound impressive, but Indian enough to appeal to her taste buds.

When a Union minister called on people to stop eating Chinese food after the Galwan Valley aggression, it was quickly pointed out that what we eat here is more Indian than Chinese. No one in China would think the Schezwan sauce served in India belongs to them, leave alone Schezwan dosas, Schezwan upma and Schezwan aloo parathas. Indian-Chinese is just a way to give desi dishes innovative appeal, for example, by marrying pakoda curry with a gravy made using vinegar and soy sauce, and calling it “veg Manchurian”. But one thing unites Indian and Chinese food and that is chillies.

We cannot imagine most of the cuisines of both countries without their pungent power, and yet this is a relative recent development in their long histories.

Chillies came from the Americas in the 16th century and, without being promoted in any particular way, rapidly became essential ingredients in China and India. More than anything else, chillies make nonsense of claims to any pure national style of cooking.

KT Achaya, India’s pioneering food historian, suggested that chillies became popular in India not by offering something new, but something familiar in a more efficient way. Their pungency was earlier supplied by pepper (Piper nigrum), and possibly long pepper (Piper longum) or pipali. This is a small spikeshaped fruit with a numbing pungency that was widely traded in the past. It fell from common use around the time chillies came in and Achaya suggested this was because the latter offered more reliable heat. Long pepper grows in humid, hilly locations, whereas chillies grow in a far wider range of conditions. Instead of having to buy pepper or pipali, people could grow their own chilli plants for free.

Achaya’s theory has now got validation of sorts from American historian Brian R Dott’s book The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography. Dott shows how the same process worked in China, detailing it by analysing the 57 names for chillies he finds across China’s regions. The three main names used from early times translate as “foreign pepper” (in southeast China), “foreign ginger” (in Formosa/ Taiwan) and “Qin pepper” (used in northeast China). These suggest the three routes chillies took into China.

The south-eastern route was probably via India. Black pepper went from India to China, just as it did to the West. When the Portuguese arrived on the west coast of India to try and control this trade, they also brought plants from their American possessions, including chillies. The plants probably spread across India from there, but also continued their journey to the rest of Asia. Dott notes that the earliest record of chillies in China is from 1591 in Hangzhou, a coastal city which had links with Arab traders from the 13th century.

The Taiwanese link probably involved Chinese traders with the Philippines, which was a Spanish colony. This received the Manila galleons, ships that crossed the Pacific from Mexico.

Dott suggests chillies may have come as accompaniments to chocolate, since Mexicans combined the two in a potent drink. And finally, the northeastern route was possibly through Korea, where chillies may again have been introduced by Chinese traders.

Dott notes that some American plants were promoted by rulers and merchants, either as cash crops (tobacco, peanuts) or easy sources of food (maize, sweet potatoes) that would grow on marginal lands. This also has a parallel in India with tapioca, introduced by Visakham Thirunal, Maharaja of Travancore, after a famine in the 1880s. Chillies received no such promotion, yet spread purely by popular demand as a cheap source of flavour.

As in India, chillies replaced older sources of pungent flavouring. In China this included pepper, which was expensive since it came from India, but also the berries called Sichuan peppercorns, which only grew in a limited area and on trees that took time to grow. Chilli plants grew widely and from annual plants that could be rapidly grown and hybridised into new, even better adapted varieties.

Unlike long pepper, whose use is now mainly limited to Ayurveda, Sichuan pepper continued to be used, but in a regional cuisine so well known for pungency that, ironically, its name was borrowed for Schezwan sauce, which uses only chillies.

Red to the Rescue

Dott notes three factors that further helped chillies in China. The bright red of the ripe fruits helped in a culture where red is seen as auspicious. Traditional Chinese medicine quickly co-opted chillies, unlike Ayurveda, which tends to be wary of them. But perhaps the biggest boost came from the fact that Hunnan, one of the regions which uses them the most, was the birthplace of Mao Zedong, who created the modern People’s Republic of China, and was a devoted lover of chillies.

Mao once jokingly tried to suggest a link between countries that saw revolutions and chilli consumption, like Mexico and China, but he had to concede this didn’t apply to France and Russia. Perhaps a bigger appeal was that excessive chilli use was seen as crude by some aristocratic Chinese gastronomes- which simply cemented their proletarian appeal.

Dott notes how propaganda posters promoting simple patriotic living show strings of chillies drying outside peasant homes. And glass chillies made to look like firecrackers, another traditional Chinese product, are still a popular home decoration.

It all adds up to a compelling case for how a foreign plant became a national spice, just as how our desi mirchi- whose name is rooted in the older mirri, or pepper- became a symbol of Indian food. For all that China and India are divided on so much, chillies bring us together in pungent patriotism.





[Source – Economic Times]

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