Mouths Ablaze: Chili peppers bring the heat to Chinese cuisine
Chili peppers are such an important part of Chinese cuisine - what would hot pot, Sichuan or Hunan cuisine be without them? Portuguese traders are believed to be responsible for introducing chilies, native to Central and South America, to China in the 17th century. Since then, they have had a tremendous impact on the national cuisine.
To the initiated, food simply does not taste as good without the presence of peppers. They may burn your palate, but they are chock full of nutrition - more vitamin C per gram than citrus fruit and more vitamin A than carrots - and contain compounds that can kill harmful bacteria in the digestive system.
The chemical fix that chili addicts are after, however, is capsaicin, the active ingredient in the natural feeling of spicy heat found only in the pepper family. Blasts of capsaicin in the mouth are believed to release endorphins, the body's biological painkillers, for a heady mix of pleasure and pain. Known physiological effects from eating peppers are metabolic boosts and heavy sweating - the key to why chilies can actually cool the body and therefore are so popular in tropical climes.
Handle chilies with caution. There are as many secrets for quelling potentially burning mouths. Water is an enemy, as it only swirls the burning oils around. Thicker beverages like beer, milk or cola are better, as is rice. But the most effective remedy is a little spoonful of sugar, or a sip of sugary syrup that can do wonders to extinguish a fiery mouth.
The degree of fire prevention needed at a meal depends on the type of pepper. Some peppers are so potent that a smidgeon can literally melt you, while others are mild enough to be munched raw. China is one of the world's biggest producers of chilies, and peppers of many kinds are grown around the country. Navigating your way around the myriad of chilies on offer can prove a delicious, zesty adventure.
Dried peppers appear in countless dishes across China's regional cuisines, but are arguably most associated with Sichuan cuisine, such as laziji, or spicy chicken, small bits of chicken on the bone cooked in a sea of peppers, and shuizhuyu, fish slices cooked in hot oil. A few clever companies in China have taken popular obsession with peppers to the next level, concocting irresistible snacks of dried chili bits cooked with peanuts, sesame seeds and plenty of salt.
Rounder, larger chilies, sometimes called chuanjiao (Sichuan chilies), tend to be more balanced, with a deeper flavor to complement their spice. In general, the plumper a dried chili is, the more flavorful and less fiery it is likely to be.
Widely available in grocery stores and free markets, chili oil is also easy to make at home - with caution: An accidental smear of chili juice across an eye or lip can be absolutely excruciating. Always wash hands thoroughly after chopping or handling chilies.
Start by deseeding and roughly chopping 12 long dried chilies, and then put them into the bottom of a resealable glass jar. Heat 250 milliliters (one cup) of peanut or vegetable oil in a wok or saucepan until it smokes, then turn off the heat and let the oil cool for around four minutes. Pour the oil into the jar - the chili flakes will rise to the surface, then eventually sink back to the bottom. For milder oil, allow the chilies to soak and then pour the oil through a sieve into another sealable container.
Falling somewhere between dried and fresh in the chili spectrum are China's many kinds of pickled peppers. Different parts of the country produce different kinds of paojiao, from little green ones to big plump red ones, like those diced to make the celebrated Hunan condiment duojiao. Whole, salty and pungent peppers are key ingredients in paojiao moyu, a Hunan specialty of little ink fish stir-fried with luscious pickled chilies. Diced duojiao are piled atop a fresh, split fish head and steamed with ginger and garlic in another Hunan classic dish called paojiao yutou.
The largest chilies widely available in China are the common qingjiao or jianjiao, bright green peppers that taper to a point. They tend to be on the mild side, especially if seeded, like in the dish hupi jianjiao, literally just a plate of peppers stir-fried until their skin mottles. People in southwestern Yunnan province have an affinity for more deeply roasted peppers that are often served sliced and mixed with a vinegar-based sauce.
Even tastier than jianjiao are hangjiao, tiny peppers. They tend to be unusually crisp and lend their savoriness to some delicious Hangzhou-style dishes such as hangjiao niurou (peppers with beef) and hangjiao chao qiezi (peppers stir-fried with eggplant).
A bit larger, and certainly far spicier, are narrow, dense chaotianjiao, which come in green and red varieties. Sliced or diced, they make tasty additions to most stir-fried or steamed dishes.
Tai lajiao, also known as Thai bird chilies, are likely to be the hottest chilies in the country and not surprisingly also the smallest. Just one of these miniature tai lajiao is enough to add heat to a whole dish and a few more may render food inedible to all but the asbestos-mouthed. Yet they are more than worth the burn, as their spicy bite belies a lasting, complex flavor capable of turning a humble dish, like stir-fried potato strips, into a savory, sweat-inducing and irresistible feast.