If you like hot food, then there is nothing more to say about it: you'll search for peppers near and far, you will eat chilies in the most unusual of combinations (a spicy Thai papaya salad, a Mexican tamarind candy with chili), and you will scoff at other people's fear of spice. When we were living in Beijing in 2005, I was one of these people: a spice-monger. Upon returning to the U.S., however, my taste-buds gradually dulled, and it is now an effort to consume chilies in the same way that I used to. That doesn't mean that I don't try, however, nor that I fail to be excited at the mention of spicy food. Spice continues to drive me like it drove the Portuguese traders who first set foot on Chinese shores, and whatever country I am in, whatever province, I look forward to mouth-tingling tastes and fire in the belly.
When we visited a Taoist temple last week in Yúnnán, I couldn't help but notice the piles of slender chilies that some temple workers were drying in the bright mountain sunshine on the temple's outside patios. The temple itself was dull, at best, and we soon moved on to explore the nearby mountain paths, following a wide trail to the source of a bubbling brook, a Taoist holy site.
It was Christmas -- did I mention that? It was Christmas afternoon, and we had spent the morning walking the grounds of one of China's largest Buddhist temples, where we ate vegetarian food at a small monastery canteen. The Taoist temple in the mountains was a far cry from the sites and sounds of the city below. It was peaceful on the mountain, and every detail stood out in sharp relief: the clanging of the gong in the temple; the whoosh of water in the toilet trough; the smell of pine and incense; and the red flames of peppers lying out to dry.
When we returned from our walk, the sun had gone down and the temple workers had gathered the chilies up for the night. But the image of the peppers drying in the sun lingered in my mind; I remembered how every dish that we had eaten in Yúnnán used a few of these peppers for extra flavor, much as the Cantonese add ginger and garlic to their stir-fries. I wondered if these chilies were the same as the ones that had given so much fire to the Sichuan hotpots that we ate in our 2005 travels, or if they were another variety, more suited to Yúnnán's climate and conditions. Chilies came from the Americas, and must have been brought to China by the Portuguese, as best as I can guess. Yet they have become such a central component of the diet of so many Chinese people, that you would never guess that they have only been in that part of the world for less than half a millennium.
Cantonese food must be the exception among Chinese cuisines, one of the few that does not rely on chili peppers for extra taste and brilliance. When my husband's parents see the amount of chili paste that I add to my plain vegetables, they worry that I might be causing myself gastrointestinal damage. "Is it healthy?" they ask. "Does it have a lot of vitamins?" I reassure them, as I always do, that I believe that pretty much anything that grows in the ground is good for us. Besides, when compared to the Sichuanese, my chili intake is pretty minimal; when people from Sichuan travel to other parts of China, they are notorious for complaining that the food "lacks flavor," and to make up for its dullness, they bring along their own chili oil and chili powders to supplement whatever they're given. This reminds me of a Sri Lankan student that I knew in college, who would sprinkle (Italian-style) chili flakes over everything that she was served in the dining hall. Once you're acclimated to spice, it seems that it is difficult to eat anything plainer.
The Chinese have their own way of dealing with spice. Pungent meals are often washed down with generous cupfuls of nut juices -- including soy, walnut, peanut, and coconut -- and on this trip I often bought a can of coconut juice from streetside vendors in anticipation of a particularly spicy meal at a restaurants (you would think that restaurants would serve the drinks, but often times they don't, and they don't mind if you BYOB). Usually, sneaking in my can of coconut juice was the extent to which I planned for spicy meals; but this time, after seeing chilies grown and marketed all over Yúnnán, my curiosity got the better of me, and I headed home with a bag of fresh, sun-dried chili peppers.
In a future post I'll let you know what I have made with these peppers, snuck back through customs like forbidden fruit. I can't wait to tell you about it! -- but there is only so much that I can write about peppers in a single day, and I hope to leave you with just enough to keep you coming back for more.
After all, isn't that what spice is supposed to do? Keep you coming back for more...