Red hot chilli peppers · around the world
This week’s column is about how the chilli has travelled around the world over the past few centuries.
Some of the chillies, so beloved of Thai cooks, have evocative names. The bird’s eye chilli gets its name from the role that birds play in its dispersal. The mouse shit chilli looks like the droppings of a rat.
The idea of giving unusual and sometimes graphic names to the chilli is a peculiarly Asian one. Even in India we have the Northern Eastern bhoot jolokia, one of the world’s hottest chillies where the word bhoot means what you think it does.
The West sticks to more boring names: pimento, padron, piquillo and of course, paprika for what was originally an Indian chilli that Turkish traders transported to Eastern Europe. But frankly, the West doesn’t really need too many names because nobody in Europe eats too many chillies. While there are chillies in South America and some in Africa, all the cuisines that depend most on chillies tend to be Asian.
This has always puzzled me because it doesn’t fit in with the generally accepted version of how the chilli travelled around the world.
History tends to be written by Europeans so, for years, we have all been fed the European/official version.
According to this, the chilli has been cultivated for centuries in South America. But white people only discovered the chilli after Christopher Columbus and his merry men reached the New World.
Because they did not know what a chilli was, the Spanish/Italians referred to it as a pepper on the grounds that the pungency of its taste reminded them of Indian pepper. (This is true. They thought they had landed in India.)
It is after that misnaming that the story of the chilli’s travels around the world gets more complicated. We know that most of the West either rejected the chilli or only cultivated the no-so-hot varieties. There are no chillies in English or French cooking. The Italians make minimal use of the chilli and the Spanish do cook some dishes with it but they use pheeka varieties.
The people who really took to the chilli were the Portuguese who made the pimento one of the signature flavours of chorizo and took chilli seeds to Africa. They planted chillies in their colonies in Angola and Mozambique and the best known variety came to be called the peri peri chilli. They brought the same chilli to Goa, giving its name to one of the great Goan masalas.
So far as good. European historians accurately record that the Portuguese planted chillies all over their Indian empire and that once chilli cultivation was established in Western and Southern India, our cooks, who had till then relied on black pepper for heat, incorporated the chilli into their recipes.
Why did Indians love the chilli so much? Well, say some food scientists, because many compounds in the chilli are suited to people living in hot climates. (Oh yeah? Then why isn’t all of African cuisine as chilli-hot as ours?)
The problem with all these origin stories is that they only explain how the chilli reached Africa and India. (Indians took to the chilli so well that in no time at all we began exporting it. The Hungarians grew their paprika plants from Indian seeds.)
They don’t explain the Thai obsession with chillies. The Thai were never colonised. Not by Europeans or anyone else. The Portuguese had no real influence in Thailand. So why is Thai cuisine so dependent on chilli?
Well, say European historians, there was a Portuguese presence in Malacca, not far from Thailand and perhaps a Portuguese delegation from there brought some chillies to Thailand.
Okay. This is an enormous stretch but it may just be possible. But here’s my problem: whenever European colonists travelled with their South American chilli plants, they did not just stop at chillies. The colonists brought many New World foods to India. The potato for instance or the tomato. Or the kidney bean (rajma).They even brought tobacco.
When you look at the cuisine of the countries that were influenced by South American foods, all of these ingredients turn up. Everyone in Europe eats potatoes. Italians love tomatoes. The French even adopted the South American kidney bean (there is only one basic bean: lima, haricot, navy, cannellini, etc, descended from it) for use in their famous cassoulet.
So why don’t the Thais eat much potato? Why are tomatoes not part of traditional Thai cuisine? Why are there no kidney beans? Hell, the Thais don’t even have a milk tradition though so much of European cuisine is based on milk and milk products. So where is the evidence of European influence?
European historians expect us to believe that a) the Portuguese made a flying visit to Thailand with New World foods and b) that they decided to only give the Thais the chilli but held everything else back.
Is this at all credible?
Then there is the China problem. Apart from the same objection (why no potatoes, tomatoes, rajma etc?) there is also very little evidence of European trade with anywhere other than the coastal cities. So how did chillies become the signature of Sichuan cuisine? How did they reach Hunan? Why is there so little chilli in the cuisine of the coastal areas which were centres of European trade? If the chilli was brought to China by traders, then surely it should have first established itself in the sea ports and then moved inwards?
But why look so far? Nobody has been able to explain to me how the bhoot jolokia and the other chillies that the North East of India is famous for reached say, Nagaland.
The theory that the Portuguese gave these chillies to the Nagas is clearly not tenable. The Naga hills were cut off from the trading routes. The only white people who got there were some intrepid 20th century missionaries and I find it hard to believe that they carried a Bible in one hand and a red chilli in the other.
You can see where this is leading. I do not dispute that Europeans found the chilli in the New World and took to South Asia and Africa.
But I am not convinced that this is how the chilli reached North Eastern India, Thailand or China.
It simply does not make sense to advance that argument.
Which leaves us with only one real possibility. The chilli developed independently in the area around Thailand and our North East. It either went from there to China or the Chinese had their own native varieties.
The problem is that I have never read any book that suggests a local origin for the chillies of East Asia, The great historians of Indian food have known nothing about the North East and sadly enough, have had no interest in the cuisine of that region. Perhaps the Chinese have done some research into the origins of the Sichuan chilli but I haven’t come across it.
So I am happy enough to give the Portuguese the credit for taking the chilli halfway around the world. But let’s not give them too much credit.
I am all praise for the South America chilli. But I do think that there may also have been an Asia chilli.