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The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography

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Chinese cuisine without chile peppers seems unimaginable. Entranced by the fiery taste, diners worldwide have fallen for Chinese cooking. In China, chiles are everywhere, from dried peppers hanging from eaves to Mao's boast that revolution would be impossible without chiles, from the eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber to contemporary music videos. Indeed, th Chinese cuisine without chile peppers seems unimaginable. Entranced by the fiery taste, diners worldwide have fallen for Chinese cooking. In China, chiles are everywhere, from dried peppers hanging from eaves to Mao's boast that revolution would be impossible without chiles, from the eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber to contemporary music videos. Indeed, they are so common that many Chinese assume they are native. Yet there were no chiles anywhere in China prior to the 1570s, when they were introduced from the Americas. Brian R. Dott explores how the non-native chile went from obscurity to ubiquity in China, influencing not just cuisine but also medicine, language, and cultural identity. He details how its versatility became essential to a variety of regional cuisines and swayed both elite and popular medical and healing practices. Dott tracks the cultural meaning of the chile across a wide swath of literary texts and artworks, revealing how the spread of chiles fundamentally altered the meaning of the term spicy. He emphasizes the intersection between food and gender, tracing the chile as a symbol for both male virility and female passion. Integrating food studies, the history of medicine, and Chinese cultural history, The Chile Pepper in China sheds new light on the piquant cultural impact of a potent plant and raises broader questions regarding notions of authenticity in cuisine.


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Chinese cuisine without chile peppers seems unimaginable. Entranced by the fiery taste, diners worldwide have fallen for Chinese cooking. In China, chiles are everywhere, from dried peppers hanging from eaves to Mao's boast that revolution would be impossible without chiles, from the eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber to contemporary music videos. Indeed, th Chinese cuisine without chile peppers seems unimaginable. Entranced by the fiery taste, diners worldwide have fallen for Chinese cooking. In China, chiles are everywhere, from dried peppers hanging from eaves to Mao's boast that revolution would be impossible without chiles, from the eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber to contemporary music videos. Indeed, they are so common that many Chinese assume they are native. Yet there were no chiles anywhere in China prior to the 1570s, when they were introduced from the Americas. Brian R. Dott explores how the non-native chile went from obscurity to ubiquity in China, influencing not just cuisine but also medicine, language, and cultural identity. He details how its versatility became essential to a variety of regional cuisines and swayed both elite and popular medical and healing practices. Dott tracks the cultural meaning of the chile across a wide swath of literary texts and artworks, revealing how the spread of chiles fundamentally altered the meaning of the term spicy. He emphasizes the intersection between food and gender, tracing the chile as a symbol for both male virility and female passion. Integrating food studies, the history of medicine, and Chinese cultural history, The Chile Pepper in China sheds new light on the piquant cultural impact of a potent plant and raises broader questions regarding notions of authenticity in cuisine.

42 review for The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    MissBecka Gee

    Ever wanted to read a textbook on the chile pepper in China? Me either. This had a wealth of information and some of it was highly interesting. Especially how this became such a huge part of Chinese culture despite being an immigrate to China. The delivery was DRY. One long lecture in book format and I struggled to keep my eyes open. Very cool topic, I wish it had been delivered in a kids book...with lots of pictures. Thanks to NetGalley and Columbia University Press for my DRC.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Annie

    Originally published on my blog: Nonstop Reader. The Chile Pepper in China is an academically rigorous and worthwhile cultural examination of the chile pepper's history and use in Chinese cuisine and culture. Written by Dr. Brian Dott, it's part of a series edited by Dr. Albert Sonnenfeld. Due out 12th May from Columbia University Press, it's 296 pages and will be available in hardcover and ebook formats. According to the author, in his introduction, this book has two main focus questions: "Ho Originally published on my blog: Nonstop Reader. The Chile Pepper in China is an academically rigorous and worthwhile cultural examination of the chile pepper's history and use in Chinese cuisine and culture. Written by Dr. Brian Dott, it's part of a series edited by Dr. Albert Sonnenfeld. Due out 12th May from Columbia University Press, it's 296 pages and will be available in hardcover and ebook formats. According to the author, in his introduction, this book has two main focus questions: "How did chile peppers in China evolve from an obscure foreign plant to a ubiquitous and even “authentic” spice, vegetable, medicine, and symbol? And how did Chinese uses of chiles change Chinese culture?" I found the answers interesting and unexpected. The book is full of interesting cultural asides and unexpected quirky history. The author is an academic and this is what I would call a layman accessible academic treatise of the chile pepper in all its incarnations as they intersect with Chinese culture and history. As an academic work, it is *full* of tables and statistics and maps and minutiae (in a good way). The author definitely "shows his work" in full. I loved poring over the notes from pharmacopeia published in the 16th century along with an exhaustive bibliography and full chapter notes and annotations (did I mention that this is an academic work?). The notes and references are likely worth the price of admission for anyone interested in the subject and there's obviously been a faint-inducing amount of time spent on research and resource gathering on the part of the author. There's an exhaustive glossary (including many of the Chinese hanzi) suited for western readers - no Chinese language proficiency is needed to read and enjoy the book. I found the entire book quite interesting and fascinating. It is admittedly a niche book and will appeal to readers interested in cultural anthropology, but might not appeal to readers looking for recipes or an easy read. I found this one so interesting that I'm going back to try to acquire some earlier volumes in the series. Five stars. This is well and deeply researched and interesting. Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    "With a handful of chiles she can speak her mind." How do we define what is authentic cuisine? This ambitious history of the chile in China is a must read for anyone interested in food history or Chinese culture. Imported from the Americas, the chile was incorporated and adopted into Chinese culture until it became an authentic taste and symbol of certain regions, types of women and the revolutionary spirit. You might wonder how much you could learn about China and her people by studying one food "With a handful of chiles she can speak her mind." How do we define what is authentic cuisine? This ambitious history of the chile in China is a must read for anyone interested in food history or Chinese culture. Imported from the Americas, the chile was incorporated and adopted into Chinese culture until it became an authentic taste and symbol of certain regions, types of women and the revolutionary spirit. You might wonder how much you could learn about China and her people by studying one food item. The Chile Pepper in China explores complex topics such as trade routes, traditional Chinese medicine, class, gender, regional culture, climate, social movements, religious rituals and politics in one enjoyable and occasionally humorous read. The book draws on a wide range of sources, including international records of trade, local histories (difangzhi 地方志) and modern media. The chapter on how the chile pepper was introduced to China thankfully includes maps such as how the world looked in the sixteenth century, local provinces, import routes and where chile was mentioned in early texts. It was fascinating to read how chile became a food preservative and a local substitute for highly taxed and imported products such as salt or black pepper. As the chile was integrated into local cuisines, the chile began to be used alongside or in place of the native Sichuan pepper. It is difficult to read this book without becoming hungry. Since the chile could easily be grown from seeds in kitchen gardens, it found popularity with the working classes and was considered a coral-like decorative garden plant among the elites. The vitamins and antifungal properties found in chiles were essential for those living in remote or mountainous areas or those who needed an affordable way to make a monotonous starchy diet more appealing. Chiles can be preserved through the winter and were excellent for stimulating an appetite and cheering up the appearance of a simple meal. The author addresses the popular myth that chiles are used to hide or disguise spoiled meat, which is often trotted out in discussions of Asian cooking. Cooks will enjoy the in depth analysis of the Chinese five flavours and the inclusion of clearly written historical recipes. Although I would not classify this as a cookbook, a few recipes were placed inside the relevant chapters. China has a long, rich history of regional cuisines and there is no shortage of Chinese cookbooks available these days, but this text is essential for understanding how and why these spicy regional differences emerged. It also explains why some regions prefer flavours such as pickled or smoky. This history also examines the chile's role in traditional Chinese medicine and how it was used in the malarial areas of Guangdong and Guangxi. It must have taken the author a huge amount of effort to track down how chiles were being used by the lower classes, as much of the histories were written by elite officials who conformed to a set expectation for upper class behaviour. The culinary reluctance of the elites and their separation from the lower classes in their own community was well illustrated in the division between chile as a decorative garden plant and chile as an essential ingredient. Furthermore, in the late imperial period, the chile was considered to disrupt Buddhist and Daoist notions of having a clear mind. Again, the elites avoided the chile. One particularly fascinating chapter describes how military heroes from Hunan popularised the chile and by the early 1900s, dining at Sichuan restaurants became a mark of status in Shanghai. Migration, wars and revolution further made the chile an 'authentic' part of Chinese cuisine. Artistic representations of the chile were carefully reviewed and illustrations were included in the text. The chile reveals itself in classics such as Dream of the Red Chamber and The Peony Pavilion, as well as woodblock prints, poetry, descriptions of gardens, pop music and government announcements. The journey of the chile across class hierarchies and across professions are well explained, even up to posters representing Xi Jinping's 'China Dream.' This humble kitchen garden plant went from obscurity to ubiquity. As a Mandarin language learner, one of my favourite aspects of this book was that concepts were introduced in English, hanzi and pinyin. This made it incredibly easy to look for more information online, such as when I wanted to look up a Chinese song (辣妹子) about the hot blooded women who eat them. The text also outlines how the name of the chile differs across Chinese regions and why certain Chinese characters or radicals are used. Those interested in representations of gender will enjoy reading how the chile represented fierce female passion in classic novels and learning about the archetype of the assertive, feisty and sexy "spicy girl." The chile pepper itself could represent male virility, numerous offspring or the fiery spirit of the revolutionary. Quotes from Mao Zedong include the phrase "without the chile peppers there would be no revolution." I expected to read about the culinary and medical uses of the chile, but the thorough analysis of symbolism and aesthetics really set this book apart from other food histories. This book is packed with surprises about how the chile became part Chinese culture, history and identity. An advance copy of this book was supplied by Columbia University Press for review.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jason Flatt

    The Chile Pepper in China by Brian R. Dott is a non-fiction history of how chile peppers, a plant native to the Americas, became ubiquitous in China. Dott, an associate professor at Whitman College leads readers through the complicated and sometimes unclear history of how this spicy fruit came to hold such significance in Chinese cuisine, medicine, culture, and politics. It is important to note that The Chile Pepper in China is an academic, non-fiction book. The book therefore spends as much time The Chile Pepper in China by Brian R. Dott is a non-fiction history of how chile peppers, a plant native to the Americas, became ubiquitous in China. Dott, an associate professor at Whitman College leads readers through the complicated and sometimes unclear history of how this spicy fruit came to hold such significance in Chinese cuisine, medicine, culture, and politics. It is important to note that The Chile Pepper in China is an academic, non-fiction book. The book therefore spends as much time walking the reader through its methodology and sources as it does telling the chile pepper’s actual history. While much of those parts of the book are equally interesting, not all of it will feel germane to the casual reader. This is by no means a negative attribute of the book, especially since these walkthroughs are well-researched and well-explained. In fact, The Chile Pepper in China is a book that can be easily understood and enjoyed by casual readers, something not all academic non-fiction books can say. For anybody with interests in learning about non-America cooking, medicine, or even language, The Chile Pepper in China is an excellent resource for learning about an array of Chinese practices. Dott explains how Chinese systems for classifying foods and medicines were intertwined with language in ways that are easily understood in the English language for an American not well acquainted with the concepts. I do wish that some of the explanations of chile peppers’ use as medicine were discussed in a modern context. There was ample discussion of how capsaicin, the chemical that makes chilis spicey, was used as preventatives and treatments for many types of illness. I was just left so curious about the ways Dott explained food and medicine as virtually one and the same that I found myself wanting to understand if its uses have evolved since the 1600s. The way the book breaks down Chinese words and phrases is also really compelling. The book is very careful to make clear that China is not a singular culture and that in different groups and regions across time periods people have held different and sometimes contradictory beliefs. I enjoyed seeing how the word for and words used to describe chile peppers evolved and eventually landed on “the foreign pepper.” Beyond being a well-researched history, The Chile Pepper in China does an excellent job demonstrating how cultural symbols, even when recognizable by an entire population like the chile pepper is, do not always hold the same symbolic meanings for everybody. The book’s latter chapters demonstrate this in both classic Chinese literature and in contemporary politics. For example, the chile represents the trope of the “spicy girl,” a somewhat aspirational and attractive quality of being bold, passionate, and firey. Meanwhile, the pepper has been used as a warning against that very inversion of traditional gender roles.In more recent times, chile peppers in China have come to be associated with revolution and even Mao himself. I particularly appreciate The Chile Pepper in China as a reminder that culture is constantly evolving, its symbols are not uniformly interpreted, and its origins are rarely what our society wants us to believe. The positive, harmless foray into developing culturally can be applied to American cultural symbols just the same. Whether we are talking about popular films or controversial political symbols, The Chile Pepper in China is an excellent and interesting reminder that just because something is ubiquitous does not mean it’s universal. Culture is neither created in a vacuum nor suspended in the time of its inception. The chile pepper was not native to China until one day, it was, and as Dott shows in The Chile Pepper in China, the fruit has meant different things to different people over the centuries and probably will continue to mean new things as time goes on. While I wish The Chile Pepper in China had even more examples of the spicy plant’s cultural importance in China rather than repeating the same information often, it is an excellent history and an even greater reminder of how culture is ever-changing and not everybody experiences culture the same as one another. The Chile Pepper in China is available for pre-order and is available March 13th. Rating: 8.5/10

  5. 4 out of 5

    Janet

    When it is snowy and cold outside, superspeed readers like me can read 150 - 200+ pages/hour, so yes, I have read the book … and many more today. LOL I received a temporary digital Advance Reader Copy of this book from #NetGalley, the publisher and the author in exchange for an honest review. From the publisher, as I do not repeat the contents or story of books in reviews, I let them do it as they do it better than I do 😸. Chinese cuisine without chile peppers seems unimaginable. Entranced by the When it is snowy and cold outside, superspeed readers like me can read 150 - 200+ pages/hour, so yes, I have read the book … and many more today. LOL I received a temporary digital Advance Reader Copy of this book from #NetGalley, the publisher and the author in exchange for an honest review. From the publisher, as I do not repeat the contents or story of books in reviews, I let them do it as they do it better than I do 😸. Chinese cuisine without chile peppers seems unimaginable. Entranced by the fiery taste, diners worldwide have fallen for Chinese cooking. In China, chiles are everywhere, from dried peppers hanging from eaves to Mao’s boast that revolution would be impossible without chiles, from the eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber to contemporary music videos. Indeed, they are so common that many Chinese assume they are native. Yet there were no chiles anywhere in China prior to the 1570s, when they were introduced from the Americas. Brian R. Dott explores how the non-native chile went from obscurity to ubiquity in China, influencing not just cuisine but also medicine, language, and cultural identity. He details how its versatility became essential to a variety of regional cuisines and swayed both elite and popular medical and healing practices. Dott tracks the cultural meaning of the chile across a wide swath of literary texts and artworks, revealing how the spread of chiles fundamentally altered the meaning of the term spicy. He emphasizes the intersection between food and gender, tracing the chile as a symbol for both male virility and female passion. Integrating food studies, the history of medicine, and Chinese cultural history, The Chile Pepper in China sheds new light on the piquant cultural impact of a potent plant and raises broader questions regarding notions of authenticity in cuisine. Brian R. Dott is an associate professor of history at Whitman College. He is the author of Identity Reflections: Pilgrimages to Mount Tai in Late Imperial China (2004). I love chile peppers .. at least my head does- my stomach not so much. 😂🌪️😂 I had really no idea if this book was going to be too dry and dusty/hell-bent on educating me via a thesis but the book is very readable to anyone who is interested in food and its social history. I had zero ideas that the chile pepper was so prevalent in everything Chinese from medicine to artwork and I enjoyed learning that via this book. I did know that authentic Chinese cuisine is available in the university city where I live, but that my husband will not eat it as he thinks sweet and sour chicken balls are the height of Chinese cuisines. Now, on a side note: chile and chiles are one way to spell it, as are chili or chilli pepper (for the singular) and chilis or chillis for the plural. It is divergent and dependent as to where you live. There now I educated you. As always, I try to find a reason to not rate with stars as I love emojis (outside of their incessant use by "🙏-ed Social Influencer Millennials/#BachelorNation survivors/etc. " on Instagram and Twitter... Get a real job, people!) so let's give it 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️ (finally, the perfect use of that emoji!)

  6. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

    Although the book is repetitive and not well structured in my opinion, the topic is absolutely fascinating. Brian Dott starts out by suggesting that unlike many spices or foods that entered into global trade, chile peppers were likely to have been brought over from the Americas only because multiethnic crews aboard ships has packed dried chiles to season their food as they travelled aboard ships. Just a few leftover seeds were all that were needed to bring the plants to new lands. Unlike many it Although the book is repetitive and not well structured in my opinion, the topic is absolutely fascinating. Brian Dott starts out by suggesting that unlike many spices or foods that entered into global trade, chile peppers were likely to have been brought over from the Americas only because multiethnic crews aboard ships has packed dried chiles to season their food as they travelled aboard ships. Just a few leftover seeds were all that were needed to bring the plants to new lands. Unlike many items of trade, the chile pepper grew easily in a great variety of soils and temperature zones. And unlike even such foods as the native Szechuan pepper, the chile plants were small and easy to grown in individual gardens. This fact had the consequence that it could not be a money maker for anyone—so it was not embraced at the beginning by elites who sought to engage in financial pursuits. But it did spread widely within non-elite communities, both as a spice and as a vegetable. Although chili did not automatically fit perfectly into the preexisting Chinese system of flavors, and of elements, it was inserted in a compelling way—and that allowed rapid integration of the chili into culture more broadly. Dott explains how it was embraced by some and not by others, and how it became such an essential part of many Chinese culinary traditions. But some of the most interesting parts of Dott’s book discuss not the culinary use of chiles but the degree to which hot peppers became integral to Chinese medicine, to common language, to artistic representations (including important literature), and to symbols of revolution—whether a revolution in gender ideology or a political/military revolution. In short, the author of this book wants to know how the chile become so central to Chinese culture at large. One of the author’s main questions is how this foreign plant became not only ubiquitous in many regions of China but how it became seen as, or believed to be, indigenous, or at least authentic. Dott has a pretty fancy way of saying the same thing: “constructed authenticity does not necessarily correlate with [true] indigeneity.” Despite its limitations, this book is a fascinating look at how global trade and a sense of local or national culture can coexist. The author makes no claims for broader applicability of his work, but I think his analysis of the process of constructing authenticity might be useful in many other works of cultural history, or other cultural analysis.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Maya

    I don't normally read nonfiction but I do enjoy learning about different types of cuisines and cooking techniques and styles from around the world. As a history/anthropology nerd this book also appealed to me as I was interested in learning more about the history of the chili pepper in Chinese cuisine! This book is definitely an academic book and I didn't feel as thought it was written for a more casual reader as it did take me some time to get through. Some of this was due to the structure and l I don't normally read nonfiction but I do enjoy learning about different types of cuisines and cooking techniques and styles from around the world. As a history/anthropology nerd this book also appealed to me as I was interested in learning more about the history of the chili pepper in Chinese cuisine! This book is definitely an academic book and I didn't feel as thought it was written for a more casual reader as it did take me some time to get through. Some of this was due to the structure and layout of the book and some of it really due to the delivery. This is a very niche book and most likely won't appeal to a broad audience. I'd say skip if you are looking for a light read or recipes. If you like academic works and are interested in history/anthropology this is worth the time it takes to get through!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Anne Morgan

    Following the trend for history/biographies of specific foods and how they influence their region (or the world) “The Chile Pepper in China” aims to show readers the influence of this nonnative plant in all realms of Chinese life- from food and medicine to revolutionary culture. As a fan of many food ‘biographies’ I was looking forward to learning more about the chile pepper and its impact on Chinese culture. However, I found this book to be written more like a very scholarly college textbook th Following the trend for history/biographies of specific foods and how they influence their region (or the world) “The Chile Pepper in China” aims to show readers the influence of this nonnative plant in all realms of Chinese life- from food and medicine to revolutionary culture. As a fan of many food ‘biographies’ I was looking forward to learning more about the chile pepper and its impact on Chinese culture. However, I found this book to be written more like a very scholarly college textbook than one aimed at a popular audience, and not necessarily a well done one at that. Heavy repetition and lots of scholarly talk about the author’s research meant that this book felt a lot longer than it was, and in my personal opinion, managed to use a lot of words to say very little. Not a book for the casual reader. I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review

  9. 5 out of 5

    Walt

    I received a digital copy of the book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. This book is written like a graduate-level research project that was published. It discusses the history of the chili pepper in China not only in food, but in medicine, culture, and other areas as well. I found parts of interesting and I learned a few things. I thought other parts dragged and I ended up skimming through them. That said, I can still think of many people I know who would download this book, beca I received a digital copy of the book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. This book is written like a graduate-level research project that was published. It discusses the history of the chili pepper in China not only in food, but in medicine, culture, and other areas as well. I found parts of interesting and I learned a few things. I thought other parts dragged and I ended up skimming through them. That said, I can still think of many people I know who would download this book, because they would, like me, find one or two chapters useful for research for their own projects, or in-depth analysis related to a specific hobby. Because of this aspect, I posted about this book to one of my Facebook groups where I know there will be a number of interested readers.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Bethany

    If you have ever been interested in how peppers came to be in China and Chinese cooking, this book is for you. I am not a huge fan of chili peppers but I have an interest in Chinese cooking and this book blew my mind. It's a combination of history and recipes. It is heavy on information, but in an easy to digest format. Foodies will really enjoy this and I can see this being a great christmas/birthday present for some foodies in my life. If you have ever been interested in how peppers came to be in China and Chinese cooking, this book is for you. I am not a huge fan of chili peppers but I have an interest in Chinese cooking and this book blew my mind. It's a combination of history and recipes. It is heavy on information, but in an easy to digest format. Foodies will really enjoy this and I can see this being a great christmas/birthday present for some foodies in my life.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Bertha Alicia

    A very interesting book! The author made a very complete investigation to give us a work that at the same time that educates, also entertains. Who was going to say that the humble chile would have so much history, that even one of the most famous revolutionary leaders in the world would praise him so much and that songs and poems were composed in his name!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Martin Lukanov

  13. 4 out of 5

    Casey

  14. 4 out of 5

    michaelben

  15. 5 out of 5

    Caralynne

  16. 5 out of 5

    Fanjiao

  17. 4 out of 5

    Simon Gjeroe

  18. 5 out of 5

    Forestofglory

  19. 4 out of 5

    Mauricio Santoro

  20. 5 out of 5

    Tom Carter

  21. 4 out of 5

    shatine

  22. 4 out of 5

    Tia

  23. 5 out of 5

    roxi Net

  24. 4 out of 5

    Juwon

  25. 5 out of 5

    Navi

  26. 5 out of 5

    Emi

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kelly Toups

  28. 5 out of 5

    Maria

  29. 4 out of 5

    Wen Zeng

  30. 5 out of 5

    Divya Shanmugam

  31. 5 out of 5

    A

  32. 4 out of 5

    Adrienne

  33. 4 out of 5

    Dеnnis

  34. 5 out of 5

    Theresa B.

  35. 5 out of 5

    Keisha Oleaga

  36. 4 out of 5

    Summer

  37. 5 out of 5

    jennet wheatstonelllsl

  38. 4 out of 5

    Yilin

  39. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

  40. 4 out of 5

    Tom

  41. 5 out of 5

    JJ Harder

  42. 4 out of 5

    Ekaterina

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