By Brian Dott
Fascinated by early modern Chinese cultural history, I research popular religion, especially pilgrimage, and the culinary and medical uses of chile peppers. Eating Sichuan food, I wondered “how did the Chinese begin to consume such a spicy, introduced plant?” All the myriad varieties of the chile pepper originated in the Americas. They probably reached China in the 1570s. The earliest known Chinese source dates to 1591 (Gao Lian, Zunsheng bajian [Eight discourses on nurturing life]). While past and present Chinese use chiles most for culinary flavoring, Chinese adoption and adaption of this American pod did not take off until the chile was classified medically and some of its empirical effects within the human body observed. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there is no clear distinction between things taken into the body as sustenance and as medicine – everything taken in affects health. Indeed, one medical text talking about chiles informs the reader: “To make medicine, chop finely, mix with pork fat and fry to make a dish” (Xu Wenbi, Xinbian shoushi chuanzhen [New compilation of the transmitted truths on longevity], 1771). Furthermore, the earliest text to explicitly mention using chiles to flavor food is best described as a medical text (Shiwu bencao [Pharmacopeia of edible items], 1621).
As Carla Nappi has explored in her series of posts, Translating Recipes, some recipes read as stories or conversations. Sharing medical recipes allows modern readers to listen in on narratives from the past. A key author for my exploration is Zhao Xuemin (1719-1805). Zhao was a medical practitioner and author who worked to update Chinese medical knowledge by including newly introduced ingredients (such as the chile pepper) and knowledge from less well-known practitioners. He traveled extensively to consult with local experts, and incorporated materials from their manuscripts into his own work. Indeed, less than a hundred years after his most famous work was completed, more than half of the works he cited were no longer extant (Bencao gangmu shiyi [Correction of omissions in the Systematic pharmacopeia]).
Chiles as Treatment for Malaria
Chiles were used as both a treatment for people who had contracted malaria and as a prophylactic to prevent infection. A local history from Guangdong stated that “All [varieties of chiles] can remove water-borne malaria and disperse rheumatism. . . . In Guangxi malaria is even more prevalent. One cannot go a single day without [them]” (Enping county gazetteer, 1766). Zhao Xuemin recounts the following story about chiles and malaria:
Because [the chile’s] property is hot [it can act as a] dispersant by entering the heart and spleen meridians. It can also disperse water damp. In guihai (1743), I was in Lin’an [near Hangzhou], in the 6th month a young servant drank cold water and slept on the cold, damp ground, by autumn they had developed malaria. [They took] myriad medicines without result. In early winter, by chance [they] ate some chile paste. They found this very palatable, and needed it with every meal. In addition they also used [chiles] in a medicinal broth with meals. Before long the malaria was cured. (Zhao Xuemin, Bencao gangmu shiyi, j. 8, 73b)
Zhao gives a scene setting – place and time. He introduces the patient, including an emphasis on class, which indirectly provides an explanation for the poor choice of sleeping place. Zhao also provides us with his explanation for how the infection occurred – conditions involving cold and water. The heating and damp expelling characteristics of the chile are the traits Zhao sees as important for effecting this cure. That the servant ate chile paste by chance means that it was probably commonly used, even in a region where the elite culinary traditions rejected strong flavors. Here, we may be seeing class differences, as the lower classes in China tended to adopt the chile long before the elites. Chiles could be homegrown, did not have to be purchased in a market, and helped make a starch-based diet tastier.
The fact that the servant found the chile paste to be “palatable” reflects an understanding in TCM that an individual’s body can instill a craving for things it needs. Furthermore, while that need and craving exist, strong or even unpleasant tastes and smells become bland or “palatable.” Zhao is refreshingly candid that older cures (presumably including some of his own) had no effect. We can also see the importance he placed on empirical knowledge – not just relying on systems and traditional classifications. It appears that once he noticed an improvement in the patient’s condition, after the chance introduction of chile paste into their diet, Zhao introduced another form of chiles—medicinal broth – into the treatment regimen. To modern readers, Zhao is frustratingly vague about the recipes for these treatments. At one level, such details were probably not necessary for his intended audience – exact ingredients in the paste probably did not matter, as long as chiles were present, and everyone knew how to brew a medicinal broth. More importantly, the anecdotal aspect of the description created an informal tone that may have made this treatment more believable to past readers than any mere list of ingredients.
For further reading (and recipes), see Brian Dott, The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography, Columbia University Press, 2020.