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Red-Hot Chilli Peppers

Red-Hot Chilli Peppers

Quintessentially Asian?

Red-hot chilli peppers, or ‘Phrik Khii Noo' are as common to Southeast Asian cuisines as traffic jams to Bangkok or Jakarta. They have found their way into just about every national dish; grown men have even been known to prove their masculinity by how many they can consume, and yet they are nothing more than an import that has managed to carve a place for itself on the pages of our cookbooks and in the hearts of our chefs – so much so that chilli peppers – like a surprising number of other everyday foodstuffs from the New World – have become "quintessentially Asian".

Just like all peppers from the Capsicum family, a surprising number of everyday fruits, flowers and spices which we accept, without thought, as being indigenous to Southeast Asia are, in fact, relative newcomers. The chilli pepper is today so widespread, prolific, and popular that Thai cuisine can scarcely be conceived of without the fiery ingredient. Despite being so difficult to believe – just imagine telling a Texan that Big Macs originally came from Norway – the chilli did, in fact, originate in South America.

Until the late 16th century, spicy heat in regional cooking depended chiefly on fish paste and turmeric. Black pepper was indigenous to the region but not, apparently, widely used. By contrast, on the other side of the globe, capsicum peppers, of many shapes and sizes, had been cultivated in Mexico and Peru for millennia – though the Amerindian inhabitants of the pre-Columbian "New World" had never seen a black pepper vine.

This exclusive "two worlds" system broke down swiftly and irretrievably following the Old World's discovery and rapid exploitation of the New. Christopher Columbus first made landfall in the Americas in 1492. Within six years, in 1498, Vasco Da Gama had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and discovered the sea route to India and Southeast Asia. The link between the two resultant Spanish and Portuguese empires was completed when Spanish voyagers, sailing west across the Pacific, reached the Philippines, and Portuguese voyagers, sailing east across the Bay of Bengal, reached Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. By the mid 16th century a regular traffic between Europe and Southeast Asia had been established – the Spanish via Mexico and Central America, whilst Portuguese shipping often called at the coast of Brazil before turning eastwards to the Indian Ocean.

In this way many strange and exotic products of the New World first came to Southeast Asia, sometimes with an intermediary stop in Europe en route.

Chillies made the journey across the Pacific early on, so that by the late 16th century they were already widespread in Java where, according to contemporary reports, they were used by the Governor of Banten in place of black pepper. A similar process certainly took place in Thailand, so that the indigenous black pepper eventually became known as phrik tai, or Thai pepper, to differentiate it from the brightly coloured and instantly popular South American newcomers.

In this traffic, bougainvillaea – a decorative flower rather than a potentially valuable food product – was a relative latecomer, although it has since become an intrinsic part of the Southeast Asian landscape.

Every year in Chiang Mai the memory of King Chulalongkorn, 5th monarch of the reigning Chakri Dynasty and father of modern Thailand is celebrated with massive displays of bougainvillaea. It seems entirely appropriate that King Chulalongkorn should be remembered in this way – through the brightly-coloured, paper-like flowers of the bougainvillaea, a shrub so familiar that it is as much a part of the Thai landscape as... well, as red-hot chilli pepper is of Thai cooking.

And yet, appearances can be misleading. Though King Chulalongkorn would certainly have recognised many of the varieties of bougainvillaea which flourish throughout Thailand today, Phra Narai, the 17th century ruler of Ayutthaya, would not have. For bougainvillaea – known in Thai as feung fah, or prosperous sky – just like chilli pepper, is a relative newcomer to Southeast Asia, a settler dating from the Age of Commerce when sailing vessels first plied the oceans of the world.

Named after Count Louis-Antoine De Bougainville (1729–1811), a distinguished French explorer and circumnavigator, the genus bougainvillaea, including some 14 species of shrubs, vines and small trees, hails originally from South America. According to botanical studies, the purple-magenta blossoms originate mainly from Brazil, whilst the red-magenta blossoms are Andean, from Colombia and Peru. Yellow, orange and golden shades, too, are Andean, originating mainly in Peru.

First introduced to Europe by De Bougainville during the late 18th century, the glorious shrub was later introduced to South and Southeast Asia by European merchantmen. Ideally suited to the warm, fertile climate, the bougainvillaea prospered and spread throughout the region. Today, in its many forms and varieties, it has become so intrinsically Thai – and indeed so popular with Thai people – that it is considered an ideal medium for celebrating the memory of a Thai monarch. In a word, it has become ‘quintessentially' Thai.

Chilli isn't the only intruder on the Thai culinary scene. Even papaya and pineapple were introductions to Southeast Asia from the New World. During this period other fruits such as custard apple, and guava made the voyage over the seas; this latter fruit is known in Thai as farang, a familiar generic term for Europeans, and is perhaps applied in recognition of the intrepid sailors who first brought the refreshing green fruit from half-way round the world.

There are other New World crops that have enjoyed rapid and widespread success in their fertile new climes. Many vegetables featured as standard in today's Southeast Asian menus can trace their ancestry to Southern and Central America; such everyday favourites as potatoes (known in Thai as man farang), sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, kidney beans and – more recently – avocado pears.

Among the most important of these migrants from the Americas was maize – long the main staple of the Aztec and Inca Indians, in contrast to the Southeast Asian staple of rice. The wonderful thing about maize was that it supplemented the Southeast Asian diet without in any way competing with the indigenous wetland rice crop. Maize – like bougainvillaea – flourishes best in semi-arid soil, and rapidly became the staple food of eastern Indonesia, the dry and relatively inhospitable islands of Sumba, Sumbawa and Timor. This new crop meant a sea change – for the better – for the peoples of the eastern archipelago, though by the 1660s they found themselves derided by the poets of Makassar as “maize-worshippers”!

Maize also flourished in the dryer upland parts of Thailand, and by the late 20th century had been refined and cross-bred to produce new strains of baby corn which are re-exported to stock the supermarket shelves of Europe and America.

Other American ‘invaders' worthy of mention include tobacco. Before the ‘noxious weed' first reached the Philippines from Mexico in about 1570, nearly everybody in Southeast Asia, whether male or female, chewed betel. This mildly narcotic mixture of areca nut, betel vine leaf and lime was employed both as a stimulant and a social grace from Burma to Indonesia and beyond, in much the same way as today people use tea, coffee and of course cigarettes. By 1601 the practice of smoking tobacco had spread from the Philippines to the Court of Mataram in Java, and in 1604 it was reported in Aceh – though apparently at this time it remained an affectation of upper class males. However, by the 17th century, tobacco smoking was widespread throughout Southeast Asia, amongst all classes and both sexes, being popular even with quite young children.

Of course, this fascinating and profitable transplanting of new crops was a two-way process. At about the same time as Asian people were taking their first tentative taste of chilli pepper or bite of pineapple, the Amerindian inhabitants of the New World were discovering the delights of sugarcane, bananas, yams, okra and citrus fruits such as lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit. In exchange for tobacco, the Old World gave the New World grapes, and for important staple crops like potatoes and maize, the Americas received wheat and barley.

Other, less profitable and pleasing exchanges are also thought to have taken place, of course – syphilis for the black plague, to name but one. Thankfully though, in the late 20th century these early pandemics play a far less important role in most people's lives than papayas and sugar cane, chilli peppers and bananas. What is most surprising is the speed with which humanity, whether in Bandar Seri Begawan or Bogota, Chiang Mai or Cuzco, comes to accept the novel as mundane, the recent migrant – at least in historical terms – as characteristically "local" produce!


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media