How spicy is China
As a Chinese living in Japan, there is a question that Japanese always ask me: is the real Chinese food spicy?
As far as I know, some part of China love spicy food, like Sichuan. But I don’t eat much of spicy food.
So I can not answer the question from either my experience or my knowledge of Chinese food.
As I was asked again, it make me thing I should investigate about Spicy food of China, so I could share it with those are interested in this topic.
In a general point of view, China is pretty spicy in the world. Here is some data.
First, in China, area which planting chili pepper is almost as large as area planting cabbage, which is 1/3 (one third) of the world’s chili pepper planting area.
Second, China’s Chili pepper production output is half of the world production output. And most of them are eaten by Chinese people.
Third, In China, 40% of population are eating spicy food.
As the data is too general. Let’s see the question in the aspect of history and geography.
Before chili pepper came into China, Chinese used to eat spicy food made by Ginger, Sichuan pepper and cornel.
Chili pepper came into China about 300–400 years ago. Then, Chili pepper soon became popular in China and started a seasoning revolution. As a result, the traditional seasoning like ginger, Sichuan pepper and cornel were not the main spicy sources. And cornel even disappeared from Chinese cooking system.
Although spicy food has been spreading all over China, there are still obvious difference in the level of spicy acceptance .
Professor in West South University analyzed the taste of spicy food in China, then made a map about the regional level of spicy acceptance.
Generally, China can be divided into 3 part based on spicy level.
Heavy area, mild area and light area.
Heavy area including Sichuan，Hunan，Hubei，Guizhou. (These are all in the south western China)
mild area including Beijing, Shandong, Shanxi, Shanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang. (North China)
light area including provinces southern to Shandong (including Shandong), which are Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong and so on.
In the heavy area almost everyone eat chili pepper everyday in every meal.
In the light area people seldom eat spicy food, they love sweet taste more.
As a person from Xi’an which is in the mild area, I find that the spicy level of local food depends on family tradition. For me, my family don’t eat spicy food at all. Some of my friends family eat spicy food but not everyday.
Why this map looks like this?
Some researchers compare this map with the annual sunlight energy distribution map. Then found that the heavy area is just the area where sunlight energy is the lowest. So, this may lead to a conclusion that Lack Of Sunlight caused the habit of eating spicy food. Actually, the traditional Chinese medicine also support this assumption since they believe spicy food can make body warm and get ride of the excessive water in your body.
But now everything is changing in China. Including the spicy taste.
And since Year 2000, Spicy food were taking over China, which start to breaking this map.
Why is that happening?
The reason underneath is not the change of the food culture, but actually is the increasing stresses and changing habits of modern life. People like everything to be fast, and they like quick stimulation.
So, let’s look into spice itself. Chili pepper is spicy because there is a chemical compound called capsaicin in it. The function of capsaicin is stimulating your cell, then your nerve send the stimulation to your brain as the feeling of pain. Your brain then want to compensate you so it release a matter called endorphin, which can give you a pleasant feeling. This pleasant feeling is much quicker than what Umami can bring to you.
When every bite is in a hurry, who cares the slow but rich feeling that bitter, salty, sweet, sour and Umami bring to us.
So let’s get back to the first question, is real Chinese food spicy?
My responsible and precise answer is : currently, if you eat Chinese food in China, generally the chance to eat spicy food is pretty high. But it still depends on where you go. And believe me, the essence of Chinese food is in those are not spicy.