It all started one day in Malaysia while I was traveling around the world, over a bowl of Roti Canai at a guesthouse breakfast. A fellow traveler, from Britain, who had just come from a India, and I began talking, until he made a statement that seemed so ridiculous, so far-fetched that I refused to believe it could possibly be true.
As many of you know, I eat spicy. Rare is a dish (besides those from my mother’s kitchen) that are too hot for me. That is because, within India, a country famed for its spicy food, my family hails from Andhra Pradesh, in the south-central part of the country where, according to my family, the food is spicier than anywhere else in India. I believed it. Growing up at home, my mom’s cooking was often too much for me. My childhood is filled of memories of burning tongues and teary eyes.
Indian cuisine is closely tied to the red chili pepper, prevalent in every dish, part of our identity. Chili powder is to Indian culture just as chili paste is to Thailand, or Sambal is to Indonesians. It is part of who we are. India without chilies seems, well, impossible. Unnatural.
So, the words came out of his mouth, and my worldview was shattered.
“It’s amazing Indian food is so spicy considering Chili Peppers are from South America.”
I couldn’t respond.
It was true. Chilies has only been part of Indian, and Asian cuisine, since the 1500. In the years since that fateful meal, I’ve thought and debated about the power of the Chili Pepper, how it defined me and my own south Indian culture, despite its foreign origins. How did it do the same for so many other cultures – Indonesia, Korea Mexico? I wanted to see how this happened, and finding little literature on the cultural story, realized that the only way to find out would be to discover it myself.
Thus, I’ve launched a new site for Chilies: A Spicy Quest, a multimedia travel and research project which will look at how how the chili spread around the world and became adopted in such incredibly diverse ways. The final output – a book, telling the chili peppers fascinating story. The website will become a repository for articles (link), data, and pictures of chilies from around the world. I’ve already begun reading the vast research on chilies origins, genome, species, and uses.
What I want to write a book about is how a small, pungent fruit from the Amazon transformed cultures around the globe and grew to define identity like no other food product. The story I seek to tell is mostly unrecorded, a process that took place in people’s kitchens, and grew into a culinary revolution.
In order to explore chilies influence on culture and the diverse ways they are used globally, I plan to conduct field research along the chili peppers 15th century global trek. Tentatively, I plan to travel to Bolivia, India, Indonesia, and Korea, four places which I believe tell distinct parts of the chili narrative. The goal, besides telling the chilies story, is to inspire others to tell their own stories, and to connect humanity and global culture through the food we love to eat.
As a writer, these are the types of stories I want to tell. I know it will not be easy, discovering how the chili pepper spread around the world and became adopted in such incredibly diverse ways. In what I’ve found so far, it is a fascinating story about humanity.
I need your help to in many ways, and am specifically looking for assistance in researching documents in foreign languages. I also want to spread the word about this project to chili pepper lovers everywhere – spread the word.
I’ll be launching a Kickstarter fundraising campaign in the coming weeks. Follow the project on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Subscribe for updates, as I will be regularly posting new articles and research in the coming months as the project develops. For now, check out the interactive map and timeline, both of which will expand with time.
The story of the chili pepper is a story about humanity and culture in its most basic form – the food we put in our mouth and how that food defines who we are.
Who would have thought that an innocuous comment at a breakfast in Malaysia would turn into a project about humanity, one that has the power to define my life. But then again, it is the chili pepper, the fruit which has, for centuries, defined my South Indian culture. I have this feeling that what I’ll find will show that the chili is even more powerful than we could possibly imagine.