A Spicy Quest

The Project

A Spicy Quest is a multimedia, travel and research project led by Nithin Coca, a freelance writer and researcher who got this idea one fateful day, while eating roti canai in Malaysia and having his entire worldview shattered when he learned chili peppers are from South America, not Asia. 

source: Creative Commons

The goal: to tell the story of the Chili Pepper, the world’s most used spice, which spread with unprecedented speed around the world, adopted by diverse cultures, back in the 16th century.

There is ample research on chilies genome, its many varieties, the power of capsicums, but little on how it spread and how it was adopted into diverse cuisines.

This project aims to discover and share this story by answering the following questions:

  • When chili peppers arrived in India’s Malabar Coast, or the spice ports of Indonesia, or the Chinese heartland of Sichuan, how and why were they readily accepted and so quickly integrated into local cuisine and culture?
  • Conversely, why wasn’t this the case in Europe, Japan, or Northern China?
  • How did what existed before the chili in these places (for example, pepper) influence usage of the chili?
  • What is the connection between the chili pepper and cultural identity, and how did this identity originate?

This project will also look at how modern forces are influencing the spread of cuisines and chilies today.

Field Research

Tracing the Chilies Path

In order to explore the cultural side of chilies, and the diverse ways they are used in different places. I plan to conduct field research along the chili peppers 15th century global trek.

There are 14 countries which are considered “high piquant cultures,” or, spicy-food lovers. These cuisines, which exist all around the world, are defined by the chili pepper more than others, and by conducting field research in some of these countries I hope to better understand how this came about and see what the connections between chili usage and culture are.

Target research locations include:

South America - The old world origins of Chilies – Bolivia, Peru, or Ecuador are the most likely research locations. I want to see how the chili was transformed by culture from its birth as a wild chili in the jungles of South America to its spread and usage in through the empires and diverse peoples of the Americas. What was the chili pepper to the Aztecs, Mayans, Incas, and the indigenous peoples of Hispaniola up until the ships and genocides of Christopher Columbus arrived and changed the course of history, and of the chili? Did this early use influence future use in the old world?

India - My own families origin. By the 17th century, Europeans, who were partly responsible for bringing the chili pepper to India, had forgotten about its new world origins and now believed that it was native to India. And who could really blame them, India is a hot chili haven, with food so spicy Europeans were warned to be careful trying anything. The story of the chili pepper in India is fascinating, as this was also where Pepper, the milder, former king of spices, originated from. I will also explore how chilies are used in different parts of India, and how Indian and regional identity is so closely tied to spicy food. Its no surprise, then, that the world’s spiciest chili pepper is also found in India.

Korea - For centuries, Korea was one of the most reclusive, isolated kingdoms in the world, resistant to trade or interaction with the outside world. The chili pepper, though, broke through these barriers, and was adopted whole-heartedly. It is now heavily used nearly all the countries famous national dishes. Perhaps no place in the world uses chilies in such unique ways – fermented, with honey, so many varieties of paste. Korea, with its unique culture and history, provides a good case study to see how culture influences chili usage and adoption, allowing us to understand how the chili pepper was able to use its power to transform even the farthest kingdoms of the world.

Indonesia - Once called the Spice Islands, the far eastern islands of Asia that Europeans powers fought over for control of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and more. The chili pepper, though, was an afterthought, but its impacts on Indonesian cuisine far transcended that of any other spice. This chapter looks at how Indonesia, far from the origin of chilies, created its own unique identity around the chilies. I also want to see how in a country so diverse, with over 400 languages, chili usage also finds amazingly unique and interesting roles on different islands. Can level of spice be a metaphor for cultural difference?

Other Potential Sites - China (Sichuan and the Silk Road), Europe (the mediators between old and new worlds), ThailandMexico (the most varieties of chilies)

Outputs

I want to show, through several venues, how, in many ways, chili peppers were the original globalizing force, transforming our cuisine and, in many ways, our identities. Telling this story will show how closely connected the world is through the simple power of a fruit from the jungles of South America.

Because this is the 21st century, and the internet, while not as spicy as the chili pepper, also is a globalizing force, this project will be interactive, tapping into the power of the worldwide network.

Book - Once I am finished conducting all the field research, I want to put everything together into a mainstream book to be published in print and online. This will allow all the great content to be in a single place, and also allow the project to reach places where internet access is not yet available. Are you a publisher?

Articles- I will be regularly posting articles on the chili pepper here and in print publications, along with updates from field sites.

Multimedia - This site will also become a source of photos and videos of chili pepper plants, culture, and usage around the world. I will regularly post media from both my research and field visits here and on social networks including Instagram, Flickr, and Facebook.

All photos and videos are posted free to use, with attribution, under a creative commons license, because I want to empower others to also explore their own ideas about food, the chili pepper, and culture. The chili doesn’t belong to any one country, it belongs to all of us.

Want to Participate?

I am looking for writers, photographers, videographers, translators, and travelers from all around the world to assist in gathering information, posting content, conducting research, and more. I am also actively seeking funding for this project, and also seeking publishers for the final book. If you are interested, contact me.

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