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    How the Chili Pepper Conquered China

    From a salt substitute in China’s impoverished southwest to a fixture on tables nationwide, chili peppers have come a long way over the past 400 years.

    Frequent patrons of McDonald’s restaurants on the Chinese mainland are no strangers to spicy fare. There are few dishes the chain hasn’t tried spicing up over the years; the spicy chicken burger and Spicy McWings are among its most popular menu items. Still, even by those standards, the launch this January of a chili oil sundae raised eyebrows both in China and internationally.

    In its early years operating on the Chinese mainland, McDonald’s product line closely matched that of its restaurants back in the United States. As an elementary school student in Guangzhou in the early 1990s, I liked the chain because of its air conditioning; its clean, bright plastic chairs; the wind-up Hamburglar toys you could get in Happy Meals; and Grimace, the mascot they had walking around the restaurant. But I did not like the food. The cheese smelt weird, the beef patties were dry and left a strange taste in my mouth, the French fries were thin and tasteless, and the prices were out of reach for most families.

    Over time, McDonald’s gradually adapted its menu to the tastes and purchasing power of Chinese consumers, often with mixed results: the milkshakes I used to love disappeared from the menu, and they introduced cheaper lunch options. But few offerings had the impact of the Spicy McWings, which, measuring in at as many as 1,000 Scoville heat units, are stronger than some Sichuanese hot pots.

    Eventually, McDonald’s began building its localization strategy in China around upping the spice content of its food. It is not just the Golden Arches: Other international chains have kicked their offerings up a notch for Chinese palates. In the southwestern Sichuan province, KFC makes a point of offering extra chili powder packs, for example.

    This was not as intuitive a strategy as it may seem. China is home to an immense range of cuisines and culinary cultures and, prior to the past few decades, spicy food was limited to a relatively narrow geographic range.

    Chili peppers first arrived in China in the late 16th century, when Portuguese and Dutch navigators brought peppers from the Americas to their coastal trading strongholds in Southeast Asia. From there, they were brought back to China by Chinese seamen who valued them not for their taste, but for their beauty.

    It would be another half-century before the peppers began to be incorporated into local cuisine. Interestingly, this occurred not along the coast, where peppers were first imported, but inland, in the remote, impoverished province of Guizhou. There, ethnic minority communities began to use chili peppers as a way of adding flavor to their food. Guizhou didn’t have a single salt well, and the imperial government’s salt tax was staggeringly high. As a result, chili peppers became one of the few affordable condiments in the region. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the popularity of chili peppers gradually grew, until virtually all of the poor peasants in southwestern China became spice-eaters.

    This endowed chili pepper consumption with distinct class connotations. The traditional gentry and imperial officials long resisted the popularity of chili peppers, believing that they were a coarse and unhealthy food. The negative image of chili peppers among China’s upper classes persisted even after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China.

    Later, during the Communist revolution, chili peppers’ association with the common people made them the subject of praise and political symbolism. Mao Zedong — who hailed from one of the poor inland regions that had embraced the pepper — was famous for his love of spice. Several early Communist bases were located in the inland mountainous areas of the south and manned by the poor peasants whose ancestors had embraced chili peppers all those years ago. To an extent, the pepper became a symbol of the spirit of the Communist Party of China itself: red, fiery, rebellious.

    After the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, chili peppers went from the sustenance of low-class commoners to the fuel of revolution. Still, their popularity remained largely regional. During the early socialist period, population mobility was limited and local cuisines remained entrenched. In the three most densely populated areas of the Chinese mainland today — Beijing, the Yangtze River Delta, and the Pearl River Delta — peppers were not a part of the local culinary tradition and spicy fare remained rare until the 1990s, when a wave of mass migration from the interior shook up dining habits nationwide.

    Beginning in the 1980s, the systems that prevented the free movement of people from place to place were gradually loosened. China urbanized rapidly. In the three decades from 1990 to 2020, the percentage of Chinese living in urban areas more than doubled, from roughly 26% to almost 64%. Once settled, they created a new urban migrant culinary culture.

    This process is by no means unique to China. In 19th century America, immigrants from all over Europe established culturally distinct enclaves in cities along the country’s eastern seaboard. Over time, as these enclaves mixed and mingled, a distinct “American food” emerged, different from any one culinary culture in Europe, yet a little related to all of them.

    The defining quality of China’s urban migrant cuisine is spice. For more than three decades, the provinces of Hunan, Sichuan, and Guizhou, all traditional bastions of pepper consumption, provided a significant proportion of the country’s migrant workforce. For them, spicy food not only evokes shared memories of their hometowns, but also reaffirms their working-class identities. Migrants from other regions, even those where spicy food is uncommon, have also embraced the practice of adding peppers to their meals, sometimes for quite practical reasons: Chilis can compensate for the unpleasant taste that comes from keeping food in the refrigerator, allowing poorer workers to enjoy decent culinary experiences at a low price.

    Spicy food is also a way to relieve the boredom of urban life. Eating spicy dishes together with other migrants can act as a kind of shared cathartic experience — a way to establish and maintain interpersonal relationships. In a country where bar culture is underdeveloped in many areas, hot pot dinners have become an important form of socialization for otherwise atomized migrants.

    As a result, chilis have become one of the focal ingredients in mainstream urban dining culture, not only in the ubiquitous hot pot restaurants and mala tang stands, but also in fast food joints, supermarkets, convenience stores, and even in international chains such as KFC, McDonald’s, and Pizza Hut. In cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, this is happening despite the objections of locals. Now minorities in their own cities, longtime residents complain of local delicacies being squeezed out by “coarse” spicy fare from inland.

    Will this trend continue? It’s hard to say. As urbanization slows and ageing accelerates, the decline in the number of young migrants could still dampen the momentum of the chili-red revolution. The expansion of the middle class — which is pulling those Chinese accustomed to eating spicy food up the societal ladder — may entrench the pepper’s dominance, or it may result in a gradual mellowing of taste. Either way, we shouldn’t overlook the symbolism of the humble pepper’s rise; it encompasses the mobility, ambition, and fiery currents of the past forty years.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image: A close-up view of hotpot in Chongqing, 2011. Wu Peng/E+/People Visual)