If the bulk of your Chinese food knowledge comes from the buffets scattered across the USA, then you wouldn’t equate the cuisine with anything terribly hot. You may be able to make the connection if you tend to order Kung Pao chicken or a flash-fried dish complete with Sichuan peppers. But, unless you’ve put one of those peppers in your mouth, you would struggle to find the heat.
There are entire areas of China, however, where spicy food isn’t just a meal; it’s a way of life. It’s just part and parcel of the culture.
And, that’s a little surprising.
Chili Peppers Are the Newbies in Chinese Cuisine
Chili peppers haven’t been around that long in China. As much as you’re tempted to associate them with ancient traditions, they weren’t part of traditional culture. Of course, when we say “not long,” it’s not as if they only arrived in the last couple of years. Chili peppers reached China a little less than 400 years ago.
Before the chili pepper arrived (and no one knows exactly how it did so or who brought it), the Chinese used a herb known as prickly ash. It was used as a spicy (but not terribly hot) seasoning for over 2000 years… until the chili pepper took center stage on the culinary scene.
So, we don’t know how chili peppers made it to China, but we do know they were an almost instant hit. During the Qing Dynasty (which lasted from 1636 to 1912), records show that the people of Guizhou used chili peppers frequently – if not constantly. And that accounts for the spread to the Hunan, Jiangxi, and Sichuan provinces. Incidentally, that’s why Sichuan food is a lot spicier than the options you’ll find on those buffets.
Chinese Chili Peppers Today
According to some reports, China produces nearly half of the world’s supply of chili peppers. At the very least, they produce over 28 million tons of peppers. And yet, they aren’t responsible for developing any of the hottest chili peppers on the planet. The hottest pepper may be the Xiaomi pepper, which falls somewhere in line with the Habanero. (Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t grow the hotter varieties for export when needed.)
But, for as spicy as Sichuan foods can be, chili peppers aren’t universally beloved in China. The food you find in Beijing is likely to be closer to the items on the buffet (except, of course, for the chicken nuggets they include for the kids patronizing those restaurants). It’s really in the north of China (both east and west) where chili peppers are a must. In the south, local opt for the freshest, lightest foods you can find – which, is not what you’ll get on from the Chinese buffet.
Still, it’s exciting to note just how “quickly” the chili pepper took over Chinese cuisine; it gives hope that we’ll see a similar trend in the USA. And, it’s a reason to order that Kung Pao Chicken instead of heading to the buffet next time you’re in the mood for soy, cornstarch, oil… and, well, chili peppers.