A Tale of Chiles, a Servant, and a Travelling Medical Scholar in Early Modern China

By Brian Dott

Fig. 1. A few of the many varieties of chiles available at a market in Kunming, Yunnan, China. (Image Credit: Dott, 2017)


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.

Treating winter ailments – recreating three recipes from al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula

Katarzyna Gromek

Winter in medieval al-Andalus varied from the rainy, foggy, and cool season in Córdoba to snowy freezing weather in regions at higher elevations. The winter dampness seemingly aggravated stomach ailments in the general population and caused excessive weakness among some of the elderly inhabitants.

Image 1. View of Old Town and the Mezquita de Cordoba, Córdoba Spain. Image credit – Julia Kostecka, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The famous physician from eleventh century Córdoba, Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf ibn al-‘Abbās al-Zahrāwī al-Ansari, also known as Al-Zahrawi or Abulcasis, included several recipes for fragrant remedies to treat winter ailments in his work on medicine, Kitāb al-Taṣrīf. The three recipes described below are included in volume nineteen, part one, which is dedicated to perfumery. There was little difference between fragrance and medication well into the early modern period, and pleasant odors were used both to treat diseases and to satisfy and stimulate the desire for luxury products.[1]

First, let us have a look at lakhlakhah, a moist compound paste used for rubbing on the body after bathing.[2] Abulcasis mentioned that this recipe was first recommended by Yuhanna ibn Masawaih (Mesue) for the treatment of patients suffering from a stomachache or from excessive cold in winter.

The ingredients, cloves, Ceylon cinnamon, nut grass, mastic resin, wormwood, Indian spikenard, agarwood, costus, sweet flag, and green cardamom, are crushed, ground to powder and sifted. Next, enough boiling water is poured over the aromatics to form a paste which is left to steep overnight. Then powdered saffron threads and lily ben (moringa) oil are mixed into the paste. The paste is worked into a flattened ball shape and fumigated with high-quality agarwood for several hours.

To scent the lakhlakhah paste, I set up an experimental apparatus for fumigation of compound fragrance ingredients, consisting of a pottery bowl, a pierced cast iron tray, a large ceramic pot that holds the aromatics for censing, and a source of heat. Apartment living requires some creative approach for the use of open fire, and the tea light candles with lead-free wicks are the best substitute for use of charcoal or hot ashes.

Image 2. Fumigation setup for the lakhlakhah paste.

I re-kneaded the paste every time I added fresh agarwood for fumigation. After twenty-four hours of censing, I formed smaller spheres from the paste, and continued fumigation for another twenty-four hours. [See: Video 1. Fumigation with agarwood]


This lakhlakhah is very soft and easy to rub on wet skin. I cannot vouch for its therapeutic properties, but the scent is definitively pleasant, very spicy and musky.

Image 3. Small lakhlakhah spheres after the fumigation process is finished.

Another concoction I attempted to recreate is muthallatheh, which reminds me of modern vapor rub.[3] First, I ground some saffron threads and soaked them overnight in musky rosewater which I distilled beforehand. The muskiness of the rosewater comes from the addition of crushed ambrette seeds (Abelmoschus moschatus), a plant-derived replacement for deer musk grains. Ground Borneo camphor from Dryobalanops aromatica was also added to the saffron soak. The next day, I crushed and ground costus, agarwood, and dark white sandalwood (sandalwood comes in several varieties of colors and odors depending on the tree types). These rare aromatics formed the base for muthallatheh. I mixed the prepared aromatics with the saffron and camphor infused rosewater and worked it into a paste which was spread in a thin layer on a ceramic plate. I dried it under the cover of loosely woven linen.

Image 4. Mixing the base aromatics with the rosewater infused with saffron and camphor, and the drying process.

Once dried, I ground the base again, mixed it with hot cooked honey (cooking honey removes water which prevents spoilage) and worked it into a thick paste. I shaped small spheres which were rolled in a mixture of ground saffron and camphor.

Image 5. Rolling the muthallatheh spheres in powdered saffron threads and Borneo camphor.

These fragrant spheres were used as a medicated incense preparation or smeared directly on the chest to aid breathing in case of congestion. They have a very pungent but pleasant odor, and it is easy to understand why they were used as a treatment for colds.

The third preparation is dharīrah, a scented powder that can be used as incense, sprinkled on the clothes and body, or kept in a sachet. This recipe is known as the recipe of Al-Jafarieh ( a place or personal name). Dharīrah was known to strengthen the body organs like the brain and heart.

I started by powdering, sieving, and mixing dried rose petals, agarwood, cloves, dark white sandalwood, Indian spikenard, nutmeg, and Borneo camphor. I sewed a bag from silk fabric (tightly woven Japanese silk works well for fine powders) and transferred the powder to it.

Image 6. Making the dharīrah powder bag.

The dharīrah needs to mature, and this is done by fumigation. The aromatic for censing in the summer was camphor, and in the winter it was deer musk grains. I splurged on this recipe and used a mixture of ambrette seeds and true deer musk grains (which are harvested from farmed male deer without killing the animals). Since the musk is quite sensitive to heat, it was placed on top of a little bowl placed upside down.

Image 7. Fumigation of the bag containing powdered aromatics.

I gently mixed the bag’s contents every three hours, for a total of twenty-four hours of fumigation. [See: Video 2. Fumigation of the dharīrah powder]

The odor is so intense that even if this silk bag is stored inside a closed plastic bag, it doesn’t prevent the scent from escaping. This scent brings me great joy, so most likely this was the beneficial property of dharīrah.

These fragrances were made as part of my ongoing project in experimental archaeology of fragrances, and as such, they have no known therapeutic properties. All effects as experienced by me and a group of my volunteer testers were subjective.

Katarzyna Gromek is a molecular biologist who studies bacterial proteins involved in regulation of cell cycle.

Her passion is experimental archaeology of beauty products. She is interested in how beauty products were made and used across time and cultures.  She recreates fragrances and cosmetics from Europe and Asia, from the Bronze Age to early seventeenth century. She sources her recipes from extant texts, ranging from materia medica works and cookbooks to “books of secrets” and analysis of bioorganic material from excavations.

[1] Hamerneh, Sami K. “The first known independent treatise on cosmetology in Spain.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 39(4) (1965):309-325.

[2] King, Anya. Scent from the Garden of Paradise: Musk and the Medieval Islamic World. Leiden Boston: Brill, 2017, 272-283.

[3] Khatib, Chadi. “Aromatherapy rules as mentioned in the ancient Arabic manuscripts (Albucasis as example).”  Journal of Pharmaceutical Toxicology 1(1) (2018):1.







Cha (ឆា):The Remarkable Role of Stir-Fries in Khmer Gastronomy and Healing

By Ashley Thuthao Keng Dam

Within the grand, yet nebulous universe of what food and culture writers deem as “Asian” cooking and gastronomy, there is a deep love and affinity for the stir-fry. In a hot oily pan, various combinations of vegetables and proteins are tossed and transformed into something wonderful. The simple act of tossing becomes momentous – a way to incorporate flavours and aspects of a cuisine’s eccentricities with chosen ingredients in an endless number of ways. To say that the stir-fry “belongs” to as specific culinary tradition is contentious at times. While the origins of stir-fry, as a cooking technique and dish, originated in China, many cultures across the Asian continent and beyond have embraced it within their own cooking traditions.[1]

Growing up in the Khmer diaspora of the United States, my family and friends have had many conversations about what truly constitutes “Khmer” food and cuisine. More often than not, a joke about Cha (ឆា) would be made. Typically referencing how our moms would throw together whatever vegetables were floating around in our fridges with slices of random meats to feed us on small budgets of both time and money. To spruce up one’s cha,  additional clumps of garlic, onion, chili peppers, and or ginger were fried and immediately dashed with soy sauce, fish sauce, and oyster sauce.

A plate of cha trakhoun (morning glorywith chicken and rice

These core ingredients, with their strong and savoury aromas, constantly perfumed our kitchens. We ate cha for lunch, for dinner, at family potlucks, and when we were sick — to the surprise of many. Stir-fries as being curative cuisines, or the foods you consume (and lean on) when you’re unwell, is not a common association. In what reality could an oily and heavily spiced dish facilitate healing?

These were just some of my initial thoughts when I began my doctoral research in Siem Reap, Cambodia on Khmer traditional and folk food-medicines used in response to changes brought forth by seasonality, maternity, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the interviews and conversations that took place, the consistent mentioning of a number of Khmer dishes which defined my childhood arose, with several types of cha being the most common. As I listened to each study participant’s reflections on food-medicines and/or curative cuisines, the actions and rationalities of my mother began to clarify intensely.

Whenever my sister or I were sick, she’d encourage us to eat chili peppers, limes, black pepper, ginger, and garlic in excess. Her rationality was that I needed to “warm my body” and that these ingredients would do that for me. Alongside bowls of borbor (rice porridge) and snau (soup), she’d prepare us some cha kgneuy (ginger stir-fry). This orientation of rice, soup, and stir-fry embodied the characteristic spread of Khmer cuisine — a little bit of everything: rice, soup, a fresh vegetables and herbs plate, and cha to bring it all together.[1]

A typical Khmer meal spread with rice, cha, vegetable/herb plate, snau (soup), and grilled fish

In both traditional and folk Khmer medicine, health and wellness are partially reliant on the balancing of bodily humors. Under the humoral theory of medicine, the body is made up of four distinctive humors (blood, phlegm, black/yellow bile) which correspond to specific organs and well as conditions (hotness, coldness, wetness, dryness). When these humors are pushed out of balance for one reason or another, illness ensues. To address this, both traditional and folk Khmer medicine approaches feature consumable remedies that shift one’s humoral orientation back into alignment.

In traditional and folk Khmer food-medicines, cha is a ubiquitous remedy because of its versatility. The ingredients of the cha determine its humoral qualities and impact. You can humorally “cool” or “warm” your body by eating a specific kind of cha. During pregnancy, cha trakhoun with oyster sauce (stir-fried morning glory) or cha mereh (stir-fried bitter melon) is eaten to cool and soothe the humors. In contrast, during postpartum as well as for COVID-19 prevention, cha kgneuy (stir-fried ginger with slices of meat) is used to warm the body and increase immunity.

A plate of chicken and chili pepper cha and sour snau soup

 In combination with other nourishing Khmer dishes, as well as the occasional medicinal decoction, cha dishes act as core components of the traditional and folk Khmer food-medicine healing regiments. In this way, cha blends together processes of eating and healing within certain contexts. The importance of cha to Khmer culture is exceptional, no matter how you frame it. Walk into any restaurant in Cambodia, and you’ll be sure to find one on the menu!


[1] http://www.china.org.cn/english/MATERIAL/26142.htm.

[2] In, S., Lambre, C., Camel, V., & Ouldelhkim, M. (2015). “Regional and Seasonal Variations of Food Consumption in Cambodia.” Malaysian Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 21, pp. 167–178.

“Very good are the words of the wise”: Plagues and Remedies of the Colonial Maya

By R.A. Kashanipour

Early Spanish settlers, administrators, and chroniclers frequently lamented how Old World diseases ravaged native communities in the New World. The famed Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas described the ferocity of the first epidemics: “Then came a terrible plague, and almost everyone died, and very few remained.”[1] We know much about the devastation, but less about the everyday responses of the victims of disease, especially in the Americas where death and destruction accompanied conquest and colonialism.

In colonial Mexico, native scribes and healers recorded local remedies and cures as they treated populations ravaged by endemic and epidemic sicknesses. During the eighteenth century, a series of anonymous Maya curanderos (folk healers) recorded local ideas of science and medicine in a manuscript titled Tratado de las siete planetas y otro de medicinarium (Treatise on the Seven Planets and another on Medicine). Commonly known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua, this work circulated beliefs and practices about the natural world as it passed among healers. The work synthesized European accounts of astrology with Maya understandings of the ritual calendar.

Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]
Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]

Healers recorded remedies for common afflictions and ailments that reflected the intertwined relationships of the colonizers and colonized. An early passage of the work admonished readers to hold the knowledge with respect and care. “Very good are the words of the wise. [These are] recipes in the Maya language for those Indians that want to understand this medicine. Arte, it is called for those who are sick, also for those that are strong and well. Very good are the words of the wise.” [2]

The healers of the Chilam Balam de Kaua recorded remedies in indigenous terms that often reflected European categories of disease. Cures addressed common illnesses, such as cough (en), cold (sis), fever (chakuil), and periodic epidemic diseases like smallpox (nohoch kak), yellow fever (vómito de sangre), or measles (sarampión). There were remedies for everyday afflictions: headache (chibal pol) and earache (chibal xicin). Others were punctuated with magical intervention, including sorcery (pulbil yaah) and evil flowers (mal floral). Treatments attempted to reduce the aches that welcomed life–childbearing (alancil) and painful swollen breast (ya umil chup)–and the pains that greeted death–bleeding (kik) and cancer (caanzeel). There were remedies to treat the difficulties of manual labor: wounds (cinpahal), swellings (chuchup), and broken bones (sayal bac). In total, the Chilam Balam de Kaua contains over three hundred and thirty remedies.

One of the numerous cures for fevers captures the interaction between Mayan and Spanish knowledge systems.

A remedy for fever (tzacal chacuil) by the ancient people, here is the consumption tree (nech bac che), its other name is fever tree. This is boiled in water to wash people who have a fever. [The affliction] is called weakness (nach bahal) in their language and this is ético in the language of the Spaniards. Then leaves of the plant should be taken with the leaves of the night herb (akab xiu), whose leaves are pleasant smelling. The same amount of leaves are mixed together and boiled until soft. They may be taken [this way]. When the water is half finished, the affirmed may be bathed with the hot water, as hot as can be allowed. Four or five times, this is done… When covered and cool, they may arise to chocolate (cacau) leaves and the night herb… The consumption tree is to be twisted with the chocolate plant.[3]

Fevers were undoubtedly common in colonial Yucatán. As with most Yucatec remedies, the application appeared straightforward and matched symptoms with treatment. The heat of the fever was to be broken with a simmering herbal bath, followed by a concoction of herbs with chocolate.

The record keeper, however, also noted that remedy’s pre-Hispanic origins, establishing a connection to the past. In diagnosing the affliction, however, ancient Maya knowledge linked with contemporary Spanish perspectives. These fevers were called nach bahal or ético and, as such, the remedy could apply to Mayas and Spaniards alike.

The materials for the remedy were exclusively comprised of wild herbs, tying the uncontrolled disease with the unconquered frontier. While most healers may have sourced domesticated plants from herb vendors (yerbateros), this remedy required plants of the forest. The cure required knowledge of Mayan biological landscapes; to produce this remedy, the healer needed access to the untamed frontiers of the province.

This remedy, like so many of colonial Yucatán, showed that “the words of the wise” involved the convergence of distinct traditions in the everyday practices of curing. The Chilam Balam de Kaua and other medicinal manuscripts from colonial Latin America illustrate the localized processes in the production and circulation of medical knowledge in the early modern world.

[1] Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia de las Indias (México: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1951) 3: 270.

[2] Chilam Balam de Kaua (photostat reproductions), f. 7, Container 25,Ac. 4056, Indian Languages Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[3] Chilam Balam de Kaua, f. 175.