The Fascinating History of Pepper in Chinese Cuisine

Wondrous spices from the tropics

With its distinctive flavor, pepper was discovered and utilized by humans in ancient times, boasting a cultivation heritage spanning over 4,000 years. Pepper originates from the exotic southwest coast of India and has graced the tables of local inhabitants since as early as 2000 BC. Subsequently, pepper traversed the overland and maritime Silk Roads, finding its way to Egypt. Remarkable archaeological excavations reveal that the ancient Egyptians incorporated pepper into their mummification rituals.

Once the Roman Empire triumphed over Egypt, they were bewitched by the tantalizing aroma of pepper, forever captivated by its allure. The Roman Empire invested considerable human and material resources, dispatching over 100 ships annually at its zenith to import this coveted spice from India.

To the Romans, pepper was an irreplaceable culinary gem. Evidence from the cookbook “Apicius,” crafted during the Roman Empire, illustrates that over 80% of the dishes during that era necessitated the inclusion of pepper. British historian Edward Gibbon, renowned for his magnum opus “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” even noted that pepper stood as the costliest seasoning within the Roman Empire. Following the Empire’s decline, pepper became the object of desire for foreign adversaries. In the 5th century AD, the Visigoths demanded a staggering 3,000 pounds of pepper from the Romans as part of their terms for withdrawal after seizing the city of Rome.

During the waning years of the Roman Empire, while China thrived in the Wei, Jin, Southern, and Northern Dynasties, historical records frequently mention pepper. Sima Biao, an esteemed figure of the Western Jin Dynasty, documented in “The Continuation of the Book of Han”: “The land of Tianzhu produces stone honey, pepper, and black salt.” Zhang Hua, in his “Natural History” during the Western Jin Dynasty, referenced a recipe for “pepper-infused wine”: “To create pepper-infused wine, procure five liters of finest wine, one tael of dried ginger, seventy crushed peppercorns, and five choice pomegranates. Delicately balance their proportions, harmonizing the essence and suppressing the energy.” Esteemed medical scientist Ge Hong, hailing from the Eastern Jin Dynasty, penned in his work “Elbow Preparation for Emergency Prescriptions” that pepper possessed curative properties, particularly in treating cholera. The most noteworthy account emerges from “Essentials of Qi Min,” penned by Jia Sixie, an esteemed agronomist of the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Not only does it discuss pepper-infused wine, but it also unveils the epicurean delight known as “Hupao Mutton,” seasoned with the tantalizing touch of pepper. These records affirm that pepper had already established its place within the Chinese culinary domain during this period.

Throughout the Sui and Tang Dynasties, with the flourishing maritime trade, the importation of pepper into China witnessed a significant surge. Nonetheless, it remained an exclusive commodity attainable only by a select few. Startlingly, after the fall of Tang Dynasty’s prime minister, Yuan Zai, government officials uncovered 800 stones of embezzled pepper (approximately 64 tons) concealed within his abode, causing a sensation within the entire court. The confiscated pepper was subsequently distributed among other officials as a form of reward, underscoring its immense value.

Nevertheless, when it comes to culinary usage, historical records concerning pepper are scarce, primarily relegating it to medicinal prescriptions. Sun Simiao, a respected medical scientist of the Tang Dynasty, chronicled in his renowned tome “Qian Jin Yifang”: “Pepper possesses a pungent, warm nature devoid of toxicity. Its primary function resides in tempering excess heat and eliminating phlegm.” At times, pepper also served as a means to alleviate financial crises within the court, being sold off to finance military expenses.

Only during the Yuan Dynasty did pepper acquire a prominent role in gastronomy. Hu Sihui, the imperial physician of the Yuan Dynasty, listed 36 delectable dishes featuring pepper in his work “Yinshan Zhengyao,” predominantly comprising beef and mutton creations. This transition can be attributed to the evolving culinary culture. The rulers of the Yuan Dynasty, hailing from the grasslands, held a strong penchant for meat and the art of seasoning it, thereby endowing pepper with favor.

The culinary customs of the Yuan Dynasty endured into the Ming Dynasty, elevating the status of pepper even further. Consequently, pepper evolved into a sought-after commodity, enticing both Eastern and Western powers, ultimately exerting considerable influence over the course of human history.

Finally, gracing the abodes of ordinary individuals

During the nascent years of the Ming Dynasty, a maritime embargo policy was implemented, permitting only limited tribute trade and significantly curtailing pepper imports. However, when Zhu Di, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, ascended to power, he ardently supported ZhengHe’s voyages, which aimed to expand China’s influence and trade networks. These expeditions, led by the eunuch admiral Zheng He, voyaged to Southeast Asia, India, and the east coast of Africa, among other regions. It was during these voyages that pepper, along with other valuable spices, made its way back to China in larger quantities.

The increased availability of pepper led to its widespread use among the general population during the Ming Dynasty. It became a popular seasoning in both everyday cooking and elaborate feasts. Historical texts from this period, such as “The Suiyuan Shidan” written by Hu Sihui, provide detailed recipes that feature pepper as an essential ingredient.

Pepper’s popularity continued into the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China. In the Qing Dynasty, pepper remained a staple in Chinese cuisine, particularly in regions like Sichuan, where spicy and flavorful dishes are highly valued. Sichuan cuisine, known for its bold use of spices and peppers, showcases the enduring love for pepper in Chinese culinary traditions.

In modern times, pepper remains a vital ingredient in Chinese cuisine. It is used in various forms, including whole peppercorns, ground pepper, and chili pepper. Sichuan peppercorns, in particular, are widely used in Sichuan cuisine, bringing their distinctive numbing and spicy flavor to dishes.

Beyond China, pepper has also found its way into cuisines around the world. It is a key ingredient in many global dishes, adding depth and complexity to recipes. From Indian curries to Italian pasta sauces, pepper’s versatility and distinct taste continue to be appreciated worldwide.

In conclusion, pepper has a long and fascinating history in Chinese cuisine. From its ancient origins in India to its journey along the Silk Road and maritime routes, pepper’s allure captivated the Romans and eventually became a cherished spice in China. Its rise to culinary prominence during the Ming and Qing Dynasties solidified its place in Chinese cooking traditions, where it remains a beloved and essential seasoning to this day.

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