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The Chile Pepper in China

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by Brian R. Dott
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Brian R. Dott, associate professor of history at Whitman College, explores how the non-native chile went from obscurity to ubiquity in China, influencing not just cuisine but also medicine, language, and cultural identity.

Chinese cuisine without chile peppers seems unimaginable. 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 arrived as part of the spread of ingredients from the Americas.

Dott explores how the chile’s 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.

Hardcover. B-&-W photos; color insert.

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