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Chilli Peppers And Globalization Around The World History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The world has been coming to terms with globalisation over the last few decades but in Southeast Asia, globalisation has been a way of life for centuries. Situated at the centre of the East-West trade route, its ports have been exposed to a myriad of contrasting influences from different parts of the world. The Southeast Asian experience is one of seeing and adapting those various influences and this has given rise to unique cultures within the region. Nowhere is this clearer than the role of chilli peppers in the region.

Today, chilli peppers have become intertwined with the idea of Southeast Asian cuisine. Within or outside the region, Southeast Asian cuisine is well-known for its copious use of chillies in food preparation and one might be forgiven for thinking that chillies are indigenous to Southeast Asia. However, chilli peppers are actually a product of globalisation, introduced into Southeast Asia less than 500 years, and have been adapted into the regional cuisine. In these few short centuries, the chilli pepper has even come to define the regional identity and personal identities of Southeast Asians. This essay will look at the role of chillies in Southeast Asia today and examine how the globalisation of cuisines has come to shape Southeast Asian identity. Also, we will see that the process of globalisation is not a linear process and its effects across the region have not been even.

Globalisation and Chilli in SEA

The colonial powers and the prevalence of trade in the Southeast Asian region were the key factors in introducing chilli peppers to the cuisines of Southeast Asia. Chilli peppers were the indigenous plants of the Americas from 7000 BC [1] . In the 1500s, the Portuguese introduced them to Thailand, where they quickly spread to the rest of the region. Southeast Asian cuisine before the introduction of chilli indicates a prior preference for spicy food. In Thailand, people were seasoning their food with ginger and peppercorns [2] . This preference for spicy food might be an indication of local conditions that made the region more susceptible or accommodating of spicy food.

Economically, the chilli pepper export industry contributes very little to the region. In Southeast Asia, the largest producers of chilli peppers are Indonesia and Thailand. Together with India and China, these 2 countries exported 22.4 tonnes of chilli peppers in 2003, accounting for 67.8% of global chilli exports valued at US$9.5 billion. However, the figures indicate that only a small amount of chilli was actually exported because most of it is consumed locally within the region itself [3] . Therefore, the high domestic consumption of chilli in the region despite the economic contribution of chilli exports is an indication of the importance of chilli to the Southeast Asian region.

In many Southeast Asian countries today, chilli is distributed in its fresh form, dried form or powder form. In Singapore, fresh chillies are often located in supermarkets and wet markets whereas dried chillies and chilli powder can be found in small proprietary shops like the ones in Little India. Before the introduction of modern technology into the region, chilli was dried or ground up in order to keep it from spoiling. As a result, the most common forms of chillies used in local recipes call for dried chillies and chilli powder. Today, the continued demand for dried and powdered chillies despite the availability of fresh chillies indicates the extent to which these forms of chilli have become entrenched in Southeast Asian cuisine.

The way Southeast Asians prepare food today is a testament to the legacy of the past. Without modern refrigeration technology, the hot and humid weather in the region causes food to spoil quickly. However, the addition of a spice like chillies acts as a preservative to the food and prevents it from going bad as fast [4] . Furthermore, the use of chillies in food preparation can mask the taste of mud in certain ingredients like kang kong or river fish, thus making them taste more palatable. Southeast Asians were already using ginger and peppercorns as well as different types of spices in food preparation before the 1500s so they were able to adapt to the introduction of chillies fairly easily. Modern Southeast Asians retain the traditional method of preparing food with chilli despite technological improvements.

The popularity of chillies in Southeast Asian cuisine can be attributed to the prevalence of rice in the region and the biological effects of chilli consumption. The consumption of chillies can help to make starch-based foods more appetising and rice is the most commonly consumed staple food in Southeast Asia [5] . Therefore, Southeast Asians probably started introducing chillies into meat and vegetables because it made the rice they were eating taste better. Furthermore, the consumption of chillies has several biological effects on the human body. When ingesting chillies, the capsaicin induces perspiration by increasing body temperatures. This leads to a “cooling effect” in the body, which is desirable in a hot tropical region like Southeast Asia. There are also claims that chillies can cure common ailments like colds and diarrhoeas [6] . The capsaicin in chilli peppers has also been found to promote endorphin release in the human brain in order to deal with the “burn” of spicy food, thus making a torturously spicy meal paradoxically pleasurable [7] . In Britain, researchers were looking into the popularity of curry in the United Kingdom and they concluded that the reason curry had grown so popular was because the spice in the curry caused increased heart rates after consumption, essentially functioning as an aphrodisiac [8] . Thus, the prevalence of rice in addition to the biological effects of consuming chilli can help explain its popularity in Southeast Asian cuisine.

The Effects of Globalisation on SEA Identity

My earliest memories of chillies are of helping my mother prepare rempah for mutton curry as a boy. Pounding chilli padis with a stone mortar and pestle brought tears to my eyes and I could not understand why people would want to eat spicy food. As I grew up, chillies slowly began part of my diet and one of my favourite burgers was the McSpicy from McDonald’s. Among my group of friends, the ability to consume large amounts of chillies became a point of pride. I am sure my experience parallels that of many Singaporeans and even that of people living in neighbouring countries. This is because has now become synonymous with the regional identity of Southeast Asia.

Within Southeast Asia, the idea of chilli being an integral part of native cuisine has taken root in the form of specialty chillies invented by the various ethnic groups. In a Singaporean hawker centre, dishes come with chilli accompaniments ranging from Hainanese Chicken Rice chilli to Malay sambal goreng to the freshly cut chilli peppers soaked in soya sauce. Even the Peranakans have their own unique durian belacan. Although I did not know it at that time, the rempah I helped my mother prepare is actually a Malay recipe unique to Singapore and Malaysia [9] . Ethnic cultures in Southeast Asia can now define themselves by the way they eat their chillies because most of them have formulated unique ways of preparing it.

The role of chillies has become so entrenched in the Southeast Asian mindset through its pervasiveness in cuisine that it has entered the regional lexicon. In Southeast Asia, the most famous variety of chilli is the bird’s eye chilli, which is better known as chilli padi to Singaporeans and Malaysians. Thai chilies can also be referred to as cabe rawit in Indonesia, phrik khi nu in Thailand and siling labuyo in the Philippines [10] . With people in different countries creating their own names for the same kind of chilli, the introduction of chilli into the Southeast Asian lexicon reflects the extent to which it has become a part of Southeast Asian life. In fact, Southeast Asians use the term chilli padi in a non culinary context as slang for a female who is small in stature but feisty in nature, stemming from the commonly held belief that the smallest chilli peppers are the hottest chilli peppers.

With the increasing influx of Southeast Asian immigrants to Western countries, Westerners are exposed to Southeast Asian cuisine. As Southeast Asians use more spices and chillies as opposed to salt and pepper, Westerners have come to view chillies as a defining aspect of Southeast Asian cuisine. Westerners often use the spiciness of food and the excessive use of chillies to determine whether the food they are eating is authentic Southeast Asian cuisine. A Filippino restaurant in the Amsterdam had to “introduce large amounts of chilli to cater to the preconceived notions of Dutch customers” [11] .

This Western notion of chilli being an integral part of Southeast Asian cuisine is being fed back into Southeast Asia through the process of culinary globalisation. The McSpicy from McDonald’s which actually created for the Singapore market in order to cater to the perceived Southeast Asian preference for all things spicy. I could not find this burger in any of the McDonald’s outlets I visited in the UK or Europe. In regional promotions, Canadian Pizza combines a typically Italian dish like pizza with spicy local food like curry chicken to create a unique hybrid in the form of Chicken Curry Pizza. The idea of chilli in Southeast Asian cuisine has become so intertwined with Southeast Asian identity that multinational local tastes.

The role of chilli has also gained importance in the context of defining the personal identity of Southeast Asians. In many Southeast Asian communities, the ability to tolerate chilli-based food or even relish the taste of chilli peppers is the ultimate, albeit informal, rite of passage to adulthood. My experience with spicy food is not unique. Southeast Asian children are used to tomato sauce as a condiment because they cannot tolerate the capsaicin in chillies but as they grow up, they will be steadily exposed to chilli-based foods. The act of eating spicy food in Southeast Asia thus takes on a ritual symbolism in shaping personal identity since the ability to consume spicy food becomes an indication of adulthood.

Anthropologists think that the consumption of overly-hot foods may also be “an expression of ancient mating behaviour where the male seeks to impress a prospective mate with feats of physical endurance” [12] . In this light, the consumption of chilli-based cuisine in Southeast Asia goes further into the shaping of male identity because it allows men to display their machismo through non-violent social means. Over time, as chillies have integrated into SEA cuisine, they have steadily evolved and come to define the very notion of what it means to be Southeast Asian.

Uneven and Non-Linear Globalisation in SEA

Globalisation and trade brought the chilli pepper into Southeast Asian and continued globalisation is spreading the notion of spicy Southeast Asian cuisine to Western countries. However, the effects of culinary globalisation in terms of chilli pepper usage have not been even across the region. Also, the influx of technology and modernity to Southeast Asia is also changing the role of chillies in Southeast Asian cuisine dramatically.

Northern Vietnam and the Philippines stand out as culinary anomalies in SEA should we choose to define Southeast Asian cuisine by chilli consumption. Tourists to these regions are often surprised to realise that the food is much less spicy that that of other Southeast Asian regions. This can be explained by their relative proximity from trading areas. Northern Vietnam is located away from the most active Southeast Asian ports and thus, most of its culinary heritage can be traced to the less spicy cuisine of Southern China. Philippines is located far from its Southeast Asian neighbours and this separation created a different culinary heritage. Despite the introduction of chilli peppers in the country by the Spaniards [13] , the local populace never really took a liking to the ingredient and its proximity from other Southeast Asian countries limited cross-cultural exchange of culinary influences. Therefore, the effects of culinary globalisation are actually uneven across the region if we determine them by chilli pepper usage.

Biologically, there is reason to believe that Southeast Asians might be biologically less inclined to consume chilli. Recent studies have indicated that Asians 25% more likely than people of other races to be supertasters [14] . Supertasters are more sensitive to certain tastes and Asians would therefore be more prone to experiencing the “burn” of capsaicin through chilli consumption. When Southeast Asians are given a choice between spicy food and non-spicy food, Southeast Asians today might be more inclined to choose non-spicy food out of preference despite the so-called Asian preference for chilli-based cuisine. Therefore, the role of chilli of shaping identity in Southeast Asia today will be reduced since not all Southeast Asians will define themselves by how much chilli they can eat in one sitting or how spicy the food they cook is.

The presence of non-SEA cuisines in many Southeast Asian countries today gives the locals a wider variety of food to choose from. The influx of fast food chains like McDonald’s and Canadian Pizza into Southeast Asian countries exposes locals to western food like hamburgers, pizzas and pastas. While these fast food chains might occasionally introduce chilli-infused dishes “to cater to the Southeast Asian palate”, they mostly serve typical western fare that is much less spicy. With the availability of a wider variety of food, Southeast Asians are not restricted to their normal spicy cuisine and some people might choose to abstain from spicy food and eat less spicy western fare instead. The reduction in the amount of chilli consumed by locals reduces the importance of chillies to the local diet and identity.

With improved technology, the problem of food spoilage in hot and humid Southeast Asia becomes a non-issue. With technological advances like refrigerators and freezers, globalisation has changed the way we store our food. Today, Southeast Asian cooks are able to obtain the freshest ingredients from different parts of the world and store them for extended periods of time. They no longer have to use chilli peppers to extend the lifespan of food to keep it from rotting in the tropical heat. In places like hawker centres and restaurants, chilli is often served separately from food so that people can choose the amount they want to eat whereas in the past, it would have been used in the cooking of the food to prevent it from spoiling. Therefore, globalisation has made the use of chilli in Southeast Asian cuisine today purely a matter of preference and no longer one of necessity to prevent food spoilage.


By observing how the role of chilli peppers in the Southeast Asian region has come to shape regional and personal identity, we see the effects of globalisation and trade in the region. At the same time, the effects of globalisation are uneven because Northern Vietnam and Filipino cuisine do not share the same characteristics. Its effects are also non-linear in that the role of chilli peppers is now being reduced today because of the influx of Western influences and technology. Therefore, it may be inaccurate to view the heritage of Southeast Asia in terms of the chilli pepper because the effects of the chilli pepper in the region have waxed and waned over the last few centuries. Instead, we should view the heritage of Southeast Asia through the lens of globalisation because it is an on-going process that has continually affected the region throughout the years and it will continue to shape and change the region, redefining both the personal and regional identity of Southeast Asians.

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