Hot Chili Peppers, War, and Sichuan Cuisine
The first mention of the chili pepper in the Chinese historical record appears in 1591, although historians have yet to arrive at a consensus as to exactly how it arrived in the Middle Kingdom.
Andrew Leonard writes: In 1932, the Soviet Union sent one of its best agents to China, a former schoolteacher and counter-espionage expert from Germany named Otto Braun. His mission was to serve as a military adviser to the Chinese Communists, who were engaged in a desperate battle for survival against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.
“Eating chili peppers is like riding a roller coaster. It delivers a rush of danger and pleasure.”
The full story of Braun’s misadventures in China’s Communist revolution is packed with enough twists and turns for a Hollywood thriller. But in the domain of culinary history, one anecdote from Braun’s autobiography stands out. Braun recalls his first impressions of Mao Zedong, the man who would go on to become China’s paramount leader.
“The Sichuanese are fiery. They fight fast and love fast and they like their food to be like them—hot.”
The shrewd peasant organizer had a mean, even “spiteful” streak. “For example, for a long time I could not accustom myself to the strongly spiced food, such as hot fried peppers, which is traditional to southern China, especially in Hunan, Mao’s birthplace.” The Soviet agent’s tender taste buds invited Mao’s mockery. “The food of the true revolutionary is the red pepper,” declared Mao. “And he who cannot endure red peppers is also unable to fight.’ ”
Maoist revolution is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when your tongue is burning from a mouthful of Kung Pao chicken or Mapo Tofu at your favorite Chinese restaurant. But the unlikely connection underscores the remarkable history of the chili pepper.
For years culinary detectives have been on the chili pepper’s trail, trying to figure out how a New World import became so firmly rooted in Sichuan, a landlocked province on the southwestern frontier of China. “It’s an extraordinary puzzle,” says Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, who has studied the cultural evolution and psychological impact of foods, including the chili pepper.
Food historians have pointed to the province’s hot and humid climate, the principles of Chinese medicine, the constraints of geography, and the exigencies of economics. Most recently neuropsychologists have uncovered a link between the chili pepper and risk-taking. The research is provocative because the Sichuan people have long been notorious for their rebellious spirit; some of the momentous events in modern Chinese political history can be traced back to Sichuan’s hot temper.
As Wu Dan, the manager of a hotpot restaurant in Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital, told a reporter: “The Sichuanese are fiery. They fight fast and love fast and they like their food to be like them—hot.”
The chili pepper, genus capsicum, is indigenous to the tropics, where archaeological records indicate it has been cultivated and consumed perhaps as far back as 5000 B.C. Typically a perennial shrub bearing red or green fruit, it can be grown as an annual in regions where temperatures reach freezing in the winter. There are five domesticated species, but most of the chili peppers consumed in the world belong to just two, Capsicum annuum and Capsicum frutescens.
“The food of the true revolutionary is the red pepper. And he who cannot endure red peppers is also unable to fight.”
— Mao Zedong
The active ingredient in chili peppers is a compound called capsaicin. When ingested, capsaicin triggers pain receptors whose normal evolutionary purpose is to alert the body to dangerous physical heat. The prevailing theory is the chili pepper’s burn is a trick to dissuade mammals from eating it, because the mammalian digestive process normally destroys chili pepper seeds, preventing further propagation. Birds—which do not destroy chili pepper seeds during digestion—have no analogous receptors. When a bird eats a chili pepper, it doesn’t feel a thing, excretes the seeds, and spreads the plant.
The word “chili” comes from the Nahuatl family of languages, spoken, most famously, by the Aztecs. (One early Spanish translation of the word was “el miembro viril”—tantalizing early evidence of the chili pepper’s inherent machismo.) Botanists believe the chili pepper originated in southwest Brazil or south central Bolivia, but by the 15th century, birds and humans had spread it throughout South and Central America.
Enter Christopher Columbus. On Jan. 1, 1493, the great explorer recorded in his diary his discovery, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, that “the pepper which the local Indians used as spice is more abundant and more valuable than either black or melegueta pepper [an African spice from the ginger family].”
In the 15th century, Spain and Portugal were obsessed with finding sea routes to the spice markets of Asia that would allow them to break the monopoly wielded by Arab traders over access to hot commodities like black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger. Although Columbus was utterly wrong in his belief that he had sailed to India, he still succeeded in locating precisely what he had been seeking. Read the rest of this entry »
GLOBAL PANIC OF 2014 REACHES CHINA: Freakishly Large, Bizzare Flying Insect Found in Sichuan Province, Experts SayPosted: July 22, 2014
World’s largest flying aquatic insect, with huge, nightmarish pincers, has been discovered in China’s Sichuan province
Large enough to cover the face of a human adult, this scary-looking insect is also known among entomologists as an indicator of good water quality.
(CNN) – According to the Insect Museum of West China, local villagers in the outskirts of Chengdu handed over “weird insects that resemble giant dragonflies with long teeth” earlier this month.
Several of these odd critters were examined by the museum and found to be unusually large specimens of the giant dobsonfly, which is native to China and Vietnam.
The largest one measured 21 centimeters (8.27 inches) when its wings were open, according to the museum, busting the original record for largest aquatic insect held by a South American helicopter damselfly, which had a wingspan of 19.1 centimeters (7.5 inches). Read the rest of this entry »
Former Beijing multimillionaire Xia Keming and his three companions were executed on Tuesday for killing eight people between 1999 and 2007, the Beijing Times observed on Wednesday.
Xia once served as a civil servant in Beijing. He was sentenced in 1988 to three years in prison for the illegaldealingof train tickets. After being released, Xia started a business in Shenzhen, and also owned 19 percent of shares in a Beijing-based company valued at more than 100 million yuan ($16 million).
The murder spree began when Xia asked his brother Xia Kezhi and two of his ex-cellmates to kill a business partner surnamed Liu.
In the following eight years, the four killed seven other people, including Xia Keming’s business partners, mistress and acquaintances.
To cover up their crimes, the gang bribed officials with cash, cars, luxury watches and expensive rosewood furniture. Read the rest of this entry »
For South China Morning Post, Verna Yu reports: Activist Tan Zuoren, who was jailed for five years after investigating the deaths of thousands of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, was released yesterday, said two fellow rights campaigners, although his whereabouts remained unknown.
“He firmly believes that he was put in jail because he was framed. After his release, he will carry on his rights activism. There’s no doubt about that.”
— Close friend of Tan
Tan was released from a jail in Yaan, Sichuan, at about 6 a.m. and has been reunited with his wife, veteran activist Huang Qi said. Neither Tan nor his wife could be reached by phone yesterday. Huang said it was likely they had not been taken home by the authorities but somewhere else, although he declined to elaborate.
Fellow activist Ran Yunfei said he had met Tan after his release, but declined to elaborate.
Huang, a close friend of Tan, said the activist still firmly believed in his mission and had written a lengthy appeal letter in prison, maintaining that he was wrongly accused. Read the rest of this entry »
On February 16, horrified onlookers watched as a Chinese man jumped into a bengal tiger enclosure at Chengdu Zoo in Sichuan province, south-west China. The man taunted the two tigers for twenty minutes, offering his flesh to them and asking to be eaten.
Despite desperate attempts to enrage the animals, 27-year-old Yang Jinhai escaped with only minor cuts and scratches after one of the tigers dragged him by the back of his clothes. According to onlookers, the other tiger ran away from the commotion as soon as Jinhai jumped into the pen.
Zoo keepers were able to rescue Jinhai after tranquillising the tiger that dragged him. Once questioned by staff, the man said he felt sad for the caged beasts as they were unable to hunt naturally for food. He wanted to improve their conditions by offering himself to them as game.
According to family members, Jinhai had…
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China will launch its first ever moon rover mission on Monday, state media said, as Beijing embarks on the latest stage in its ambitious space programme.
A rocket carrying the vehicle, named “Jade Rabbit” in a nod to Chinese folklore, will blast off at 1:30 am local time (Sunday 1730 GMT).
Official news agency Xinhua also confirmed the launch date, citing officials at the satellite launch centre in Sichuan province.
Richard Silk reports: Shamed by a chorus of outrage and ridicule on social media, local officials in central China have apologized for a very shoddy piece of Photoshop work.
A picture posted online by the government of Ningguo, a small city in Anhui province, showed the deputy mayor and his colleagues towering above the city’s oldest resident while paying their respects to her at a festival earlier this month.
One-hundred-and-three-year-old Cheng Yanchun, looking smaller than a Hobbit, is squeezed into the bottom right hand corner of the image; next to her, a botched fade-out effect makes it look a little like the oversized local leaders have risen from the dead.
The picture has since been removed from the government’s website, but continues to float about on social media.
From Malcolm Moore, The Telegraph: It is the biggest building in the world; 16 Wembley stadiums could fit underneath its vast roof. (See The Telegraph’s feature article and spectacular photo essay here)
But the New Century Global Centre, a behemoth in the central city of Chengdu which formally opened at the end of last month, has instantly become China’s largest and most embarrassing monument to the allegations of corruption that have wormed through the Communist Party.
The 50-year-old billionaire behind the project, Deng Hong, once one of China’s richest men, has vanished and is thought to be in police custody. “We don’t know where he is,”a spokesman for his company, Entertainment and Travel Group (ETG) said. Read the rest of this entry »
If you think a Cyclops is just a fictional character, think again! On August 30, a cat in Neijiang City, Sichuan Province, gave birth to a freaky-looking Cyclops kitten. The ultra-weird looking animal had one giant eye in the middle of its forehead and, get this, no nose!
However, according to the cat’s owner Mr. Wang, the kitten died shortly after birth. Not long after its passing, Mr. Wang placed the dead kitten at the entrance of his supermarket for all to see, which is how this story made it to the news.
On September 1, a vet in Neijiang got wind of the story and shared her wisdom on the matter: “I’ve never seen a Cyclops kitten before. In my professional opinion, I think this is a congenital deformity. If it didn’t have a nose then it couldn’t breathe which is probably the main cause of death.”Source: eChinacities.com – “Weird One-Eyed Cyclops Kitten Born in Sichuan” via stnn.cc