How the Chile Pepper Took Over the World
Until 500 years ago, the spice as we know it was confined to Central and South America. Matt Gross travels to Jamaica, Hungary, and Thailand to uncover how that heat wave came, saw, and conquered.
Words by Matt Gross
Illustrations by Valero Doval
THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS when you bite into a chile pepper: A full load of the chemical capsaicin — the compound that makes peppers hot — floods your tongue and throat, binding to pain receptors and shooting an insistent S.O.S. message to the brain that, essentially, your mouth is on fire. Then there’s sweating. Panting. Maybe some crying. And then, finally, the glorious endorphin rush, which instantly transforms all that pain into the kind of ecstasy that forges lifelong addicts: chileheads.
At least, that’s how I became one, ever since I chomped a farmers’ market cherry pepper at the age of 10. But chiles aren’t just hot. They’re head-spinningly versatile. They can be sweet, smoky, lemony, cherryish. The heat can be dry or juicy; it can sidle in, strafe, or scorch; it can strike the tip of your tongue, the insides of your cheeks, the back of your throat, or everywhere all at once.
What chiles do, and how they do it, depends on where in the world you’re eating. And you can eat them just about anywhere. Chiles are arguably the hottest fruits in the world — both from a popularity and a heat standpoint. And if Sriracha mania and Hot Ones are any indication, their world domination hasn’t come anywhere close to an apex.
Here’s what’s astounding: Chiles are native only to Central and South America. That means that until Christopher Columbus sailed for the New World in 1492, there were no chiles anywhere else. Not in India. Not in Thailand. Not in China or Korea. Those cuisines we now consider spiciest had many other spices, including black pepper, long pepper, and Sichuan pepper. But the most powerful, pungent, polarizing pepper of all?
For the past few years, I’ve been studying the route(s) chiles took around the globe, with an eye to understanding not just when they arrived in different lands but what happened afterward: How did chiles get so deeply integrated into these cuisines? How did that ferocious shift in food alter their cultures? And what do chiles mean to chile eaters today? This summer, I headed to three countries that were remade by chiles over the past half-millennium — Jamaica, Hungary, and Thailand — to find out.
Where our heat seeker begins his journey, on the isle where the almighty Scotch bonnet reigns supreme.
Photographs by Rose Marie Cromwell
SOLDIER — NÉ NEVILLE ANTHONY SWIRE — was 51, fit, and beaming as he darted across the rocky hilltop in San San, on Jamaica’s northeast coast. Here, he showed me, were young avocado trees, there young soursop. Gargantuan okra pointed skyward from bushes; cacao pods would soon dangle from other branches. A neat gravel pathway arced around Soldier’s farm, passing two broad platform swings where we lazed awhile, watching the Caribbean roll in 250 feet below.
Of all Soldier’s crops, the most important — for him and for me — were the pepper plants. Dozens dotted the farm, some cayenne, others “devil” peppers, but the vast majority were Scotch bonnets, the fruity, fragrant, fiery symbol of Jamaican cuisine — the essential ingredient in everything from rice and peas to escovitch fish to jerk chicken. (Scotchies are a variety of Capsicum chinense, a species that includes habaneros, ghost peppers, Trinidad Scorpions, Carolina Reapers, and many other kinds of the world’s most insanely spicy chiles.)
Soldier plucked a Scotchie from a bush. Deep green, it was shaped like a wrinkly Scottish tam-o’-shanter. He bragged that if he didn’t turn it into pepper sauce, he could get ten Jamaican dollars for it at market.
“And how many ten dollars I got here?” he crowed, waving his arms at his four-acre pot of gold.
All around us in the foothills of the John Crow mountains were the estates of Jamaican multimillionaires — modernist villas, money-launderers’ castles, rickety midcentury follies — but at that moment Soldier seemed like the richest man on the island, and independently wealthy to boot.
That type of independence — hard-won, pepper-powered — has a history that goes back centuries in Jamaica. There were some things I already knew: that peppers were essentially native here, carried throughout the Caribbean long ago, partly by birds (immune to capsaicin, they spread seeds in their droppings) but also by the Taínos (Arawak Indians), who once populated these islands. And I knew that Christopher Columbus, who’d set sail in search of black pepper (genus Piper), had first encountered chile peppers (genus Capsicum) not far away, on the neighboring island of Hispaniola, kick-starting not only the fruits’ world-conquering voyage but also the era of colonialism and slavery.
But that’s history; I could read it. I wanted to taste it.
A few days earlier, at the start of my journey, I’d found myself at an unexceptional industrial park in the middle-class streets of the capital, Kingston, where I’d navigated my little rented Suzuki to meet Winston Stona, a man who’s been eating peppers longer and more thoughtfully than just about anyone. Now 76, a rambling storyteller with a neat white beard, Uncle Winnie — as his family calls him — is a legend: not only a former deputy director of tourism but an actor who was in the movies The Harder They Come and Cool Runnings, and a hot-sauce entrepreneur to boot. His life today is cosmopolitan (cocktails at the club, holidays in France), but he grew up on a farm (albeit his family’s estate) and still considers himself “an agrarian.”
“My father always sat at the table in the morning, and his Scotch bonnet was right here,” Uncle Winnie said, placing an imaginary pepper before him in his Kingston office. “And he would just have it on a saucer and bite it while he had his food.”
Jamaican proverb: “A little pepper burns a big man’s mouth.”
Meaning: Size can be deceiving.
Again and again I would hear stories like this, from Jamaicans of all stripes — dads and grandpas who carried Scotch bonnets in jacket pockets, pulling them out at meals to nibble or to slice directly, often with a specially designated knife, onto their food. It’s this kind of eating that Uncle Winnie prefers to all else: a poached egg on brown toast, accompanied by spinach-like callaloo and “little slivers” of Scotch bonnet.
“There are few things that warm the heart more,” he told me dreamily.
While some people eat Scotchies straight, I was craving a hit of them in jerk, the slow-grilled meats that are a cornerstone of island culture. Jerk is everywhere, sold at shacks, streetside drums, and cushy restaurants in the touristy parts of Montego Bay. And it has deep connections to resistance and liberation, having been invented, according to legend, by the Maroons, escaped slaves hiding in the Jamaican mountains, who used the flavors available to them — spicy cinnamon, allspice, pimento wood, hot peppers — to transform the game they hunted into flavorful, healthful, long-lasting sustenance. (The West Africans who were taken to the New World as slaves were already familiar with chiles. The Portuguese had introduced them on their 15th-century voyages, and they were such a widespread part of the diet that they were a part of the “slabber sauce” — basically flour, oil, and chiles — poured over beans that slaves were fed during the Middle Passage.)
I whipped my Suzuki up and around mountain passes to the rough, hurricane-battered northeast coast that once attracted luminaries like Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming. When I arrived at the Boston Jerk Center, a famous cluster of jerk joints and bars on the island, smoke was curling from the broad jerk pits, where whole chickens and pig parts lay on pimento-wood poles. (The oil they secrete adds a sweetly aromatic spice, like allspice, with a subtle bitterness that lands at the back of your throat.) Enthusiastic touts from the joint closest to the main road clamored for the tourist trade, but farther in there were no sales pitches, just cooks tending fires and customers gathering to watch the World Cup.
At Goldteeth’s Jerk Centre, I found the pork of my dreams: juicy, smoky, deeply seasoned. The pepper burn was even, slow, never overwhelming. And that’s the point: Peppers are just one element of a complex marinade, yet utterly indispensable.
“In a jerk, that is the most important thing,” said George “Goldteeth” Wilson, who’s been getting up at 4 a.m. running this joint for 20 years. He can remember when pig’s blood was a regular component of the marinade, which balances the pepper heat with scallions, garlic, ginger, allspice, and thyme. These days he uses traditional wild bird peppers, not Scotchies, but they work the same unifying magic. “The peppers bring everything out,” he told me.
But as powerful as peppers are, as both spice and symbol, Jamaica’s pepper industry is in deep trouble. Sure, you might visit Coronation Market, the Caribbean’s largest farmers’ market, and see mountains of green and yellow Scotchies for sale. Sometimes, though, in the winter or if the weather’s been rough, you’ll see molehills.
Taji Alleyne, who oversees the local produce supply network for the $400 million GraceKennedy Group, a huge conglomerate, one wing of which distributes food, told me by phone that Scotch bonnet pepper crops have “traditionally been plagued by virus, pest infestation, and adverse climatic conditions.” As a result, two things happen: supply is inconsistent, and the price erratic.
Trinidadian proverb: “Trouble makes the monkey eat pepper.”
Meaning: Curiosity killed the cat.
To maintain supply, many farmers grow a more resistant pepper known as the West Indian Red, spicy like a Scotchie but flat-tasting, without that addictive sweetness. Hot-sauce makers (whose 2017 exports totaled nearly $20 million) have even had to buy pepper mash from Costa Rica and Peru. Yes, Jamaica, home of the matchless Scotchie, can’t meet its own demand for its beloved native(ish) son. Farms like Soldier’s are not enough.
There are some signs of hope. In Clarendon Parish, west of Kingston, 300 acres of hip-high bushes stretch across a hill-bounded plain, bright orange and yellow Scotch bonnets nestled under their gold-green leaves. They are the work of Gary Coulton, who’s taking Soldier-style self-reliance into the future with techniques he developed during decades of farming in Florida, using a custom irrigation system and imported fertilizer. His Scotch bonnet seeds, meanwhile, are extra hardy. “It’s a good, pure seed,” he said. By the end of the year, he plans to have 120 acres under cultivation, for a potential annual yield of 90 tons. That’s a lot of Scotch bonnets in a world, Coulton believes, that truly needs them.
“Scotch bonnet pepper is a great ambassador,” he said. One day in Florida, he explained, a home inspector came to examine the house he was building and noticed Scotch bonnets growing out back. “He picked a pepper, smelt it, bit it — it burnt him — but he was so impressed that he encouraged me to do it more,” he said proudly. “To be honest, he spent more time talking about the Scotch bonnet pepper than he was inspecting! It just preached that it opened the door for dialogue between me and a total stranger.”
The Heat Scale
The spiciness of peppers is measured by the Scoville Scale’s heat units: The higher the number, the higher the concentration of capsaicin (the chemicals that convey “heat”). Check out Pepperscale.com for more.
Bell pepper: 0 SHU
Pimento de Padrón: 500–2,500
Hungarian wax pepper: 5,000–10,000
Scotch bonnet: 100,000–350,000
Chocolate habanero: 425,000–577,000
Ghost pepper (a.k.a. Bhut Jolokia): 855,000–1,041,427
7 Pot Brain Strain: 1,000,000–1,350,000
Trinidad Moruga Scorpion: 1,200,000–2,000,000
Carolina Reaper: 1,400,000–2,200,000
Pepper spray: 2,000,000–5,300,000
Pure capsaicin: ~15,000,000
Chiles, Pepper, Or Peppers: What Is This Stuff Anyway?
Pepper — the singular form — tends to refer to the small, sharply flavored peppercorns, usually black, white, or green, that belong to the species Piper nigrum. It can also refer to pink peppercorns (Schinus molle), the berries of an Andean evergreen tree; Sichuan peppercorns, which are the dried fruits of a prickly ash shrub (genus Zanthoxylum); or long pepper (Piper longum), which grows in India and Java, was known to the Greeks and Romans in antiquity, and tastes like an extra-fresh version of black pepper.
Meanwhile, peppers or chiles all belong to the genus Capsicum. There are 31 species in all, but most are wild. Only five have been domesticated by humans for common use: C. annuum, C. chinense, C. baccatum, C. frutescens, and C. pubescens. These five include everything from bell peppers to cayenne to habaneros.
In which our adventurer gives his scorched taste buds a rest in the land of sweet and smoky paprika.
Photographs by Ériver Hijano
IN THE MIDDLE OF OUR DEEPLY TRADITIONAL DINNER at a restaurant just outside Budapest, Ádám Bóday, a researcher described by a mutual friend as a “man of mystery,” did something deeply mysterious. We had been eating hearty classics of Hungarian cuisine at a cozy spot called Nosztalgia Étterem — stuffed peppers, fatty-chewy tripe in a tomato-paprika sauce, ratatouille-esque lecsó — while discussing the gradations of paprika, the sun-dried, finely ground, relatively mild chile pepper that is Hungary’s national spice. The way quality is measured, Bóday was explaining, is by dissolving it in acetone, which extracts the crimson pigment, then shining a 640-nanometer-wavelength beam of light through the liquid.
“The less light that comes through, the higher the ASTA value is,” he said, referring to the American Spice Trade Association’s grading guidelines. A value of 120 and up is the highest quality; below are two lesser grades.
Then Bóday pulled four small bottles of acetone from his bag, and the trim, mustachioed restaurant owner, Jenő Boross, brought four foil packets of paprika from the kitchen, where they’re stored away from the light. “The Hungarian expression is ‘The paprika gets blind,’” Bóday explained about the storage. “Of course, because the pigments are photosensitive.”
Carefully, I spooned one gram of paprika from each packet into the acetone bottles, then sealed and shook them gently. Bóday tapped on his smartphone’s flashlight and shined it through the acetone. Refractions danced on a white piece of paper below, one molten gold, another lava red. Even though we didn’t have a professional spectrophotometer on hand, we could see: One was a deeper red than the others! Clearly, this paprika was best! Satisfied, we returned to our dinner, and our wine.
This may seem like a fabulous effort to go through to grade paprika, but the spice is more than just Hungary’s favorite flavoring. It’s an emblem that adorns everything from market stalls, in the form of dried-chile garlands, to T-shirts (“I Heart Budapest” with red peppers forming the heart). It’s a luxury export, demanded by New York delis and the Kremlin alike. It’s the fire in the forge of Hungarian identity, a taste that for over 300 years helped unify a nation as kingdoms and empires rose and fell and new forms of government took hold and were then displaced.
Vietnamese proverb: “Is any chile not spicy; is any girl not jealous?”
Meaning: Facts are facts.
“We cannot live without paprika,” Eszter Palágyi, the head chef at Costes, the first restaurant in Budapest to win a Michelin star, told me over espresso one afternoon. She estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the cuisine contains the spice in some way. The powder can be sweet or spicy(ish) — the upper bounds of paprika heat are a few times that of a jalapeño, but those are less-common strains — lending an umami-like richness that helps bind dishes like goulash. Chile pastes bear colorful colloquial names: “Strong Stephen is Erős Pista, and Sweet Anna is Édes Anna,” Palágyi said. “So the girl is the sweet one, the man is the hot one.” These, I was told, are also the two sides of the Hungarian character — on the one hand delicate and refined; on the other, hard and headstrong.
Palágyi is young — just 30 — but she’s a serious student of food history, with a collection of 16th- and 17th-century cookbooks that have given her a window onto her cuisine’s evolution. Hungarian gastronomy, she said, always borrowed freely from its neighbors — and its occupiers. The Ottoman Empire was one of the latter, ruling most of Hungary during the 16th and 17th centuries and leaving behind a fondness for thermal baths, a deep and lasting bitterness over the conquest, and, of course, peppers. (The Turks probably acquired peppers from Arab traders, who’d acquired them in India, where they’d been brought by the Portuguese. Around the same time, peppers were also coming in through Western Europe as ornamental plants grown by monks.)
To get from Turkish peppers to the Hungarian paprika we know today is, however, a journey of another 200 years — or, as it turns out, a 100-mile drive south from Budapest to Szeged, Hungary’s third-largest city and the historic heart of paprika production. The center of Szeged is grand and lovely, dominated by a university, full of intricate Art Nouveau buildings, and cradled by the Tisza River — a wealthy city, much of it built on paprika.
“This was a holy crop here,” Albert Molnár told me through his translator, marketing director Anko Reijnders, as we sipped coffee in the offices of PaprikaMolnár, the growing and processing company he’d founded in Szeged in 1992. “Every second family was working in paprika, either on one side or the other side of the continuum,” he added, “from growing to processing.” At the industry’s height, in the early 20th century, 10,000 people farmed paprika around Szeged, and hundreds more processed the spice.
We got up and walked through the factory, past the red-dusted machinery and workers in head-to-toe red, with Molnár — close-cropped white hair, checked shirt, sun-lined face — leading the way to his beloved paprika museum. Black-and-white photos lined the walls, showing families stringing peppers into garlands to dry in the sun, or hauling them to market. Until about a century ago, Molnar said, Hungarian paprika was actually quite spicy and could only be toned down by carefully plucking out the seeds and membrane, which contained most of the capsaicin. Although Hungarians liked their food spicier than anyone else in Europe, they still didn’t like it that spicy. (Intensive cross-breeding after World War I resulted in even sweeter strains, which helped create a massive export market in countries that really couldn’t take the heat.) Then, after sun-drying the peppers for weeks, they’d pound them to powder in foot-driven wooden mortars called kulu, a couple of which were on display.
Even today, “we do everything with hands,” said Agota Hodi, another paprika maker, whose spice is used at Costes (and sold at Zingerman’s here in the U.S.). At her suburban Szeged house, where the paprika scent spilled wonderfully into the street, Hodi, 40 and lively, served me slices of bread smeared with lard and dusted with paprika (“You can taste paprika the best in fat or in oil,” she told me) and explained the process: Yes, a machine dries the peppers, but first they need a couple weeks in the sun. Yes, machines grind them, but Hodi must add water to maintain the ideal 8 percent moisture. “If not enough water,” she said, “then the color is not so red.”
Mexican proverb: “Don’t be afraid of the chile, even though it’s red.”
Meaning: Looks can be deceiving.
Harvesting peppers requires human beings — machines clip too many unpalatable leaves — so each September 50 to 60 laborers come, many from Romania, and get paid $30 for a thousand hours of work to clear the 20-acre farm. Most laborers, she said, won’t do that kind of work for that kind of money.
And that’s one of the reasons Hungarian paprika is dying. Yes, dying. Already, only 10 percent of the paprika consumed in Hungary is produced in the country, said Hodi, who worked at the Ministry of Agriculture before turning full-time to paprika. (Albert Molnár estimated it at 50 percent, but still, that’s a lot of non-Hungarian paprika.) The rest comes from abroad, mostly China. Even at PaprikaMolnár, many of the peppers processed are grown abroad, in Serbia. Farming peppers, which get a single annual growing cycle, is expensive and risky, and many Hungarians seem willing to put up with substandard paprika as long as it’s inexpensive. While Jamaica is striving to modernize pepper farming in the face of climate change, Hungary, challenged by economic shifts, is letting its fire go out.
The standard economic solution to this would be to import cheap labor instead of cheap paprika. But immigration in Hungary has become one of the hottest-button issues in the country — and Szeged, in fact, was a flashpoint for the migration crisis back in 2015, when hundreds were crossing the Serbia-Hungary border daily, not far from Molnár’s and Hodi’s operations. The government reacted harshly, erecting a double-layered, razor-wire-topped, electrified fence along the border. It’s an imposing creation, a harbinger of isolationism and a throwback to the days of Hungarian-Soviet communism.
The chance of Hungary accepting migrants to prop up the paprika industry is zero. The government currently allows a mere two asylum seekers per day into its temporary “transit zones,” and, as is the case throughout much of Europe these days, xenophobia is in the air. At a cathedral in Szeged, where I’d gone to see a bell adorned with pepper imagery, I met a man who spoke of the need to safeguard “white, Christian Europe.” (This Jew was unmoved.)
That Hungary’s signature flavor was brought to this country by Turkish Muslims only deepens the already long-running and sad ironies.
Brazilian proverb: “Pepper in someone else’s eyes is refreshing.”
SO IT WAS HEARTENING to meet Márk Bogár, a 24-year-old who lives in Tetétlen, a village of 1,500 in eastern Hungary, and who represents another path of pepper possibility. Alongside his parents, Bogár is growing tons of the world’s spiciest chiles — ghost peppers, Trinidad Scorpions, Carolina Reapers — and turning them into sauces, sold under the name Sárréti Chilifarm, that are getting attention from local fans and Hungarian TV, and winning awards.
When I stopped in to visit, Bogár and his friends and family were in the backyard, enjoying home-grown jalapeño poppers and grilled chicken wings with a dozen Sárréti sauces, from kiwi-habanero to apple-horseradish to one called Csak Norris, after the Walker, Texas Ranger star. (Csak means “only,” the implication being that only Chuck Norris could handle the heat.) Kids of varying ages were running around, grown-ups were pouring pálinka, and soon my mouth was aflame in a way I’d never expected here in Hungary.
As Bogár talked about his love for seriously spicy peppers — no ish necessary — it gave me hope. Hungarian cuisine took centuries to get where it is now; maybe another hundred years will see paprika morph again, reinvigorated by Sárréti’s strains, and make today’s Strong Stephen look like Sweet Anna by comparison. Maybe traditional paprika didn’t need to survive. Maybe, I suggested to Bogár, Hungary had erred in breeding out the heat a century ago?
“This was a mistake!” he laughed.
I began to feel my head spin — not from chile-fed endorphins or pálinka but from the delicious sense of history repeating itself. Now, though, the chiles were hotter, the influences American, and yet all was still very Hungarian. As Goldteeth had said, “The peppers bring everything out.” Everything, yes — and everywhere, too.
16.8 million years ago: The oldest chile-pepper ancestor emerges in the Andean wilds of South America.
9,000–7,000 years ago: Chiles likely first domesticated in what is now Mexico’s Tehuacán Valley.
A.D. 1100–1521: Aztecs use chiles not only as a food flavor but as medicine and, when burned, as a smoky weapon.
1497: Vasco da Gama, likely with chiles on board, sets off to round Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.
1526: The Ottoman Empire invades much of the Kingdom of Hungary, bringing chile peppers along.
1868: The McIlhenny Company, maker of Tabasco Pepper Sauce, is founded on Avery Island, Louisiana.
Mid-19th century: Spain exports canned peppers to the U.S., where they are later turned into pimento cheese.
1896: The first commercial chile powder — with dried chiles, cumin, oregano, and garlic — is born.
1937: Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi wins the Nobel Prize for isolating vitamin C from paprika.
1980: In Los Angeles, Vietnamese refugee David Tran founds Huy Fong Foods, whose flagship hot sauce — Sriracha — will come to conquer America.
2013: The Carolina Reaper is named by Guinness World Records as the world’s hottest pepper.
Chinese proverb: “If you don’t eat chiles, you won’t feel hot.”
Meaning: You won’t feel guilty if you do nothing wrong.
The final chapter of our journey, in which our hero’s mouth, and mind, are set aflame with the possibilities of a globalized, chilefied world.
Photographs by Benjamin Schmuck
FINALLY, MY FACE WAS ON FIRE. My lips burned. My tongue burned. My throat burned. Sweat beaded on my cheekbones, under my eyes. This wasn’t just heat — this was electric. My mouth pulsed with incalculable voltage. Pain and pleasure blurred, the distinction irrelevant. I breathed deeply. I smiled like a 12th-century Buddhist god-king carved in sandstone. I picked up my spoon and my fork, and prepared to take another bite.
For weeks, I had been looking forward to Thailand, the most thoroughly chilefied country in the world, where peppers are everywhere (everywhere!), in everything (almost!), pounded into curry pastes and papaya salads, sliced into stir-fries, soaked in vinegar or fish sauce, and placed upon seemingly every dining table. And now I was at Err, a cool, comfy restaurant near Bangkok’s Grand Palace that specializes in “urban rustic” drinking food, which tends to be spicier than non-drinking food, which, let’s be clear, is decently spicy already. Before me were tart ribbons of shaved green mango dusted with ground chiles, a flash-fried egg buried in chiles, shallots, and mint, and a sour and fiery pork-rib curry, plus the house cocktail, made with rum, fresh passion fruit, and — of course! — skinny red chiles.
Together, they lit me up — but they didn’t push me over the edge. My palate didn’t collapse. I could taste the lush, semiliquid egg yolk and the pork’s savory roughness — could taste them even more acutely, I imagined, than if the heat had been dialed down. The chiles were inextricable.
Except, of course, that technically, historically, they are entirely extricable. Because if you went back in time about 500 years, you’d find no chiles in Siam, as Thailand was then known. You’d find ginger and galangal, and black, green, and white pepper, and makhwaen, a cousin to Szechuan peppercorn. You’d find cinnamon and cloves and other dried spices, and a panoply of pungent herbs. You’d find coconuts and citrus. You’d find rice and fermented fish and shrimp. You’d find mango and durian. In short, you’d find nearly everything you’d need to make recognizably Thai food today — except that without the chiles, it would be unrecognizable. (To be sure, there’s plenty of non-spicy food in Thailand, much of it influenced by the ethnic Chinese minority, but even so, chiles remain present and available nearly everywhere you might possibly consume a meal.)
As with the story of peppers elsewhere in the world, I knew the shorthand version of how they got to Thailand: the Portuguese. Arriving in Siam in 1511 after capturing Malacca, up the Gulf of Thailand, the Portuguese likely brought chiles, along with guns, cannons, and other items for trade. (The Spanish likely brought chiles, too, though not before 1565, when their Manila Galleon shipping lines started carrying New World goods — primarily silver — to Asia.) But what happened next remains mysterious. How did chiles so thoroughly take over?
“Thai cuisine, you know, it’s supposed to hurt a little,” Pim Techamuanvivit, the chef at San Francisco’s Kin Khao and Bangkok’s Nahm, had told me. “But there’s definitely a balance between using chile and allowing the other flavors and the true nature of the ingredients to show themselves.” I would have to be careful not to let my quest for fire get in the way of my quest for enlightenment. Any dumb farang — i.e., foreigner — could burn his face off; I wanted something more nuanced, to burn with understanding.
One Sunday morning, a quick ferry ride across the Chao Phraya River from Err, the Church of Santa Cruz was alive with activity. A pale blue sky hung over the century-old Italianate church — peachy yellow with pink accents and a red-domed steeple — while inside dozens of worshipers sang hymns in Thai and listened to a priest’s sermon from the gold-adorned chancel. They were young and old, some dressed up, most casual, all members of the 200 or so families that make up the surrounding community — a community that is not only Catholic, with crosses and images of the Holy Family adorning their homes, but Portuguese.
Historically, anyway. This neighborhood was Kudichin, and it was about as close as I was going to get to envisioning the first contacts between Thailand and the Portuguese. The neighborhood was created in 1769, when King Taksin granted land to three groups that had aided Siam in war with Burma. It was a war that Siam basically lost: The Burmese looted and burned the royal capital, Ayutthaya, 50 miles north, where the Portuguese and other foreigners had encampments. Siam’s leaders retreated to Bangkok, and the Portuguese, along with the Chinese and a group of Muslims, now had land to call their own, here on these flood-prone mud flats.
Two and a half centuries later, the community has managed to preserve some Portuguese culinary traditions. At the airy café of the Baan Kudichin Museum, I snacked on sappayak, a light and yummy baked Portuguese bun stuffed with sweet minced pork, potatoes, curry powder, and red flecks of mild chiles. And after Sunday mass, a street stall behind the church sold a very Portuguese beef stew with potatoes and tomatoes (both New World crops!), as well as sweet, Chinese-influenced pork, braised with soy sauce, tofu, and hard-cooked eggs, and a fiery Thai curry of ground pork and pea-size eggplants that popped with tart astringency. Eating all three together felt like communion with history, as if the groups that had created modern Thai cuisine were right there at this folding metal table at the edge of the street.
The exact moment chiles arrived in Siam may have been lost to history. Foreign visitors’ accounts offer tantalizing threads. Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires visited Siam around 1514 and wrote of rice and pepper, and a 1688 account by the French Jesuit Nicolas Gervaise mentions pepper but not peppers. (He also berates Siam’s “stupid cooks” and their shrimp paste, “which has such a pungent smell that it nauseates anyone not accustomed to it.”)
But what is certain is that over the past 500 years, Thailand’s chiles have flourished in dizzying variety. Today, there are prik kee noo suan, or mouse-shit chiles, skinny and hot and known in America simply as “Thai chiles.” (English spellings of Thai pepper names may differ depending on source.) Prik chee fah, or sky-pointing chiles, are longer and milder, growing up from bushes instead of dangling. Prik som are orange and meaty. Prik kaleang, the chiles named for the Karen hill tribe, may be the hottest of all, but they were not included in a 2008 Kasetsart University study that measured the pungency of Thai chiles and rated most between 45,000 and 80,000 Scoville units, at least 10 times hotter than jalapeños. Of course, that’s just the beginning. Trying to track down every variant, when flavors and names proliferate and overlap, is a fool’s errand.
Which is how this fool came to be in Phatthalung, about 500 miles south of Bangkok, closer to Melaka than to the Thai capital. On the west the district was bordered by greenish limestone mountains that erupted from the rice-paddied plains; to the east was Thailand’s biggest lake, and beyond the lake the sea. Whichever direction I looked was pure Thai picturesqueness.
Loveliest of all was right before me: two long fields of prik khao chi, a relatively rare variety of chile known as “white nuns” because they don’t redden when ripe. On the bush, they were a very pale yellow, skinny and wrinkly and crooked, and when I nibbled one it gave off a ton of heat and a fresh, bright aroma that was, I’d been told, essential to southern cuisine, which is known not just for its intense fire but for its sourness and fermented fishiness. The night before, at the quiet lakeside restaurant Kieng Talay, I’d dived headlong into those flavors — a tart and crunchy lotus-shoot salad, soupy-shrimpy curries with crabmeat or whisker sheatfish — until a pleasant funk lodged in my nostrils and my throat burned and lips puckered. The heat had taken its time building, a signature southern style derived from local chiles.
These white nuns had been grown by Vichit Janphaleuk, who was 64, with wavy hair just going gray and a loose checked shirt, and who’d specifically chosen to farm chiles 30 years ago. It was a decision born of practicality.
“This area is going to be flooded every year,” he said through a translator, “so if I grow something else, it’s going to be flooded before I even sell it.” With chiles, he can harvest about 100 kilos a week of the fast-growing crop from May until the floods hit in November.
Thai proverb: “Bring all the chiles from the plantation.”
Meaning: You’re looking super-sexy.
But growing chiles, he’d also come to realize, is more than a business — he sees it as a responsibility. “Because everyone eats chiles in daily life,” he told me, “I need to make high-quality chiles, clean chiles, to feed everybody — maybe around the world!”
That’s not to say it’s an easy business. Currently, Vichit sells his prik khao chi for around 45 baht per kilogram, or about $1.50. That seems decent, but a few years back, he said, the price was 200 baht per kilo. Meanwhile, he had a half-field of prik kee noo he wasn’t even bothering to harvest — the price was simply too low.
Because out in the countryside, everyone had chiles already. They’d been planted around the house I rented nearby, and they grew wild, too. A bird poops in your yard, and — boom! — you’re growing prik kee noo, wild bird-poop chiles. Maybe you’d farm prik khao chi for restaurants or city-dwellers, but for many Thais, it doesn’t make sense to spend hard-earned money on what’s freely available out back. Spice is spice is spice.
Well, sort of. Slightly more than 24 hours later, at the opposite end of Thailand, I was facing down a fundamental challenge to that idea, put together by the young, round-faced chef Weerawat “Num” Triyasenawat in the narrow kitchen of his ambitious restaurant, Samuay & Sons, in Udon Thani. On the counter before us lay five bowls of som tam, the mortar-pounded salad of shredded green papaya, chiles, and fermented fish paste that is an icon of Isaan, this inland region along the northeast border with Laos. Som tam is also iconically incendiary: You sometimes order it with a number indicating how many chiles to include.
That night, however, we were not just testing our (okay, my) chile tolerance but trying to figure out which variety of chile worked best. Each bowl had been prepared identically, but with different peppers — prik kee noo suan, prik leung, prik jinda dang, and smoked prik kaleang; the final bowl contained all of the above. Along with Num and me, the judges included three of his female cooks, who giggled as I reached out with my bare hand, pinched a bundle of papaya from the first som tam, and popped it gamely in my mouth. Unlike in the south, with its slow-to-build fire, Isaan-style heat hits you right up front, repeatedly, like a Thai kickboxer out for a quick win. Behind each beautiful capsaicin burst lay subtleties — the invigorating freshness of the prik leung, the meaty-smokiness of the prik kaleang. By the end, I was dripping sweat.
Heat had been a factor in Isaan cooking for ages, Num told me: “Before the chile came to our region, people in ancient times used pepperwood to spice up the dish,” along with makhwaen, Krachai, and long pepper. (Southern spices like cinnamon and cloves were too expensive for isolated Isaan.) But heat was never just for heat’s sake. It worked in concert with the vast orchestra of ingredients found only in this region, many of which I’d never seen before: herbs that were peppery, astringent, lemony, obscure, addictive; foraged mushrooms as dainty as daisies or as massive as porcini; hairy tomatoes.
In fact, this was the whole point of Samuay & Sons, whose tasting menu I leapt into as soon as I’d finished with the som tam. Each of chef Num’s seven courses highlighted Isaan-specific ingredients and flavors, alongside the world-class technique he’d honed at San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Commonwealth. Meaty, thin-shaved prawns were tiled next to a pool of smoked pineapple curry; a morsel of chicken, mango, and yellow curry punched way above its weight. I adored a dense block of “soured fish confit” — fermenty and rich — and its miraculously cooling accompaniment, rice in a watermelon consommé.
Chiles were in there, too, but harder to pinpoint. At first I worried that the som tam taste test had blown out my palate. But no — that spice bath had only sharpened my senses. Chef Num had achieved the type of balance that Pim had described to me before I’d set off, deploying chiles that “hurt a little” but then stood humbly aside to let the true stars shine.
Malaysian proverb: “He who eats chiles gets burned.”
Meaning: Actions have consequences.
WHEN I RETURNED TO BANGKOK, I felt like I was finally getting a handle on the chilefication of this country. Peppers likely came to Siam in the 16th century, brought by the Portuguese and, later, the Spanish. They took off because people were primed to like spice and because chiles grew easily, even wild, so everyone could afford them. Now they were ubiquitous, essential components of every strain of regional Thai cuisine, and getting more popular by the day. (Sugar may have something to do with this. Since the 1930s, its price has dropped. Sugar tends to tame chile heat, so the sweeter the dish, the more chiles you can add. This theory dovetailed with Pim Techamuanvivit’s complaint that the food in Bangkok has gotten too sugary since her childhood.) A film director, I’d heard, was planning a movie about chileheads, and a candy company was selling “Hell Spicy Jelly,” jelly beans that contained Carolina Reapers, one of the world’s spiciest peppers.
The future began to look even more fiery one Friday, when I traveled about 100 miles west from Bangkok to the edge of Kaeng Krachan National Park. Just as a soft rain began to fall, I arrived at the farm of Prew Pirom, the 41-year-old owner of Pla Dib, a Bangkok restaurant that happens to be my all-time favorite. Prew wore a broad hat and a round-cheeked, persistent smile as he showed me around: his small, chic home adapted from shipping containers; a pond for raising catfish. Citrus and other fruit trees surrounded half a dozen airy greenhouses, inside which grew eggplants, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuces, and chiles. Scotch bonnets, to be precise. I did a double take. Jamaica’s pride, here in Thailand?
The seeds, Prew explained, were gifts from two foreign friends who’d picked them up in Jamaica. He grew them, offered the chiles to customers on pizza, integrated them into Thai dishes like braised pork leg, and fermented them into a sparkly, fiery sauce — finally, he had a chile that was hot enough for his taste. His capsaicin tolerance, he said, was above average. (Every other Thai I asked said the exact same thing.)
Chiles by the Numbers
Annual per-capita consumption of chiles and green peppers in Mexico: 15.49 kilograms
In China: 11.58 kilograms
In the United States: 2.79 kilograms
In Turkey: 26.79 kilograms
Estimated size of U.S. hot sauce industry in 2018: $1.5 billion
Projected size in 2023: $2 billion
Heaviest chile pepper: 0.77 lbs
Longest chile pepper: 17.72 in
Scotch bonnets, I figured, should have great potential in Thailand, but could they take off? Whoever tried one, Prew posited, would like it. Perhaps he could let birds feast on his Scotch bonnets and have them spread the seeds far and wide. It worked in the 16th century; why not now?
Before that future arrives, though, he’s got to stabilize his crops. Some of the pepper plants he showed me were small, their leaves a mottled white and yellow, victims of a disease he said had afflicted all peppers in the area. Just like the farmers in Jamaica, Prew was facing the double-edged sword of a warm, moist climate. But then, I thought, maybe a Thai problem needs a Jamaican solution! Right away, I fired off a WhatsApp message to Gary Coulton — could his high-quality seeds help? Could I put him in touch with Prew?
“As we say in Jamaica,” Gary wrote back, “‘NO PROBLEM, MAN.’”
Finally, it felt like I was no longer chasing history but right in the middle of it. Chiles may have begun their planet-spanning voyage half a millennium ago, but they were nowhere near finished — there were always new lands to conquer, new palates to convert, new routes to crisscross and double back on, new mashups of heat profiles to set afire even the smallest acre of bland land. The world is burning, my friends, and it’s our delicious privilege — in my case, a duty! — to add fuel to that fire.
With the way chile peppers have found a role in cuisines all over the world, it’s no surprise that people have also found ways to put them to use outside the kitchen. Rest assured: Even if you’re the mild-sauce type, you can still reap their myriad benefits.
Pest control and plant protection
Pain relief (surgical and during childbirth as an anesthetic)
House-training your pets
Crying on command
Where to eat chiles like Matt:
Sweetwood Jerk Joint, 78 Knutsford Boulevard, Kingston, +1 876–906–4854
Chateau 7 Gourmet Jerk Centre, Red Gal Ring, Long Lane, Kingston, +1 876–648–4327
Cellar 8, Upper Manor Park Plaza, Kingston, +1–876–613–5934
Oak Wine Bar & Cocktail Lounge, 8 Hillcrest Avenue, Kingston, +1 876–622–9856
Coronation Market, Pechon Street, Kingston. (Best to visit between Thursday and Sunday, when the most vendors are around.)
Boston Jerk Center, Fairy Hill, Portland Parish
Bushbar at Geejam Hotel, San San, Portland Parish; +1–876–993–7000
Costes, Raday út 4, Budapest, +36 1 219 0696
Tasting Table Budapest, Brody Sandor út 9, Budapest, +36–30–690–4913
Rosenstein Vendeglo, Mosonyi út 3, Budapest, +36–1–33 33 492
Lehel Market, Vaci út 9–15, Budapest, +36 1 288 6895
Nosztalgia Etterem, Szabadság út 46, Kistarcsa, +36 28 473 423
Ikon Etterem, Piac út 23, Debrecen, +36 30 555 7766
Err Bangkok, 394/35 Maha Rat Road, Khwaeng Phra Borom Maha
Ratchawang, Khet Phra Nakhon, Bangkok, +66 2 622 2291
Nahm, Como Metropolitan Hotel, 27 Sathon Tai Road, Khwaeng Thung Maha Mek, Khet Sathon, Bangkok, +66 2 625 3333
Klangsuan, 143 Sainumthip 2, Sukhumvit soi 22, Khwaeng Khlong Toei, Khet Khlong Toei, Bangkok, +66 61 615 6576
Ubon Chaew Horn, 51 Satsana Alley, Khwaeng Samsen Nai, Khet Phaya Thai, Bangkok, +66 2 278 3295
Pla Dib, 1/1 Areesampan Soi 7 Thanon Rama VI, Khwaeng Phaya Thai Phaya Thai, Bangkok, +66 2 279 8185
Samuay & Sons, 133/25 Phon Phisai, Mak Khaeng, Mueang Udon Thani District, Udon Thani, +66 99 473 6464
KiengTalay, Lam Pam, Phatthalung, +66 88 752 9532
Huen Muan Jai, 24 Ratchaphruek Road, Changpuek, Chiang Mai, +66 89 701 2894
Swahili proverb: “Why should you be irritated by the chiles in the field?”
Meaning: Mind your own business.
About the writer: Hungry and restless, Matt Gross has written about travel and food for everyone from the New York Times (where he was the “Frugal Traveler”) to Bon Appétit to Bloomberg Businessweek. His travel memoir, The Turk Who Loved Apples, was published in 2013. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their daughters.