As one of four major food styles in China, Chuan Cuisine (think Kung Pao chicken), which originated in Sichuan Province, southwest China is known in its modern form for its spicy taste and is hugely popular all over the country. The ascendency of spicy dishes, especially those of Chuan Cuisine, is the result of both the addictiveness of spicy food and changes within Chinese society.In his book Motivation and Emotion published in 1980, American psychologist Paul Rozin argued that people are drawn to spicy food for the same reason they take a roller-coaster ride or shower in scalding water – a particular predilection for extreme stimuli. But why the connection between spicy food and risky behavior?Research led by David Julius, a physiology professor at University of California San Francisco, showed in 1997 that capsaicin, the main pungent ingredient in “hot” chili peppers, activates an excitatory ion channel (called TRPV1) on sensory nerve endings. Remarkably, TRPV1 is also activated by heat (> 43°C) to warn people to avoid high-temperature objects, such as withdrawing your hand from a glass of boiling water. Simply put, spicy is not only a gustatory but also a tactile sensation that is closely involved with danger.The scientific explanation above shed light on the widespread appeal of spicy cuisine. In the case of China, local factors are also in play.
When chilies, the dominant seasoning in Chuan Cuisine, were first introduced into China from South America during the Ming dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644), they were used as a medicine to drive out the disease-causing dampness inside one’s body. In damp regions such as Sichuan, Hunan and Guizhou Provinces, people later adopted chilies as a seasoning, and the popularity of spicy dishes having never since dwindled, partly thanks to Sichuan natives who can’t leave their chilies behind.
Migrant workers leaving Sichuan and other chili-loving provinces for more developed cities since the early 1990s spread their dietary preferences to those places. In 2004, for example, 149 million migrant workers (more than 30 percent of the provincial workforce) left Sichuan, looking for work in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, which are not traditionally fond of hot recipes.
It was during this time that Sichuan eateries mushroomed across Beijing. More greasy spoons than fancy restaurants, these establishments were an instant hit among migrant workers from both chili-crazy and chili-neutral regions, as well as college students looking for a cheap meal that didn’t skimp on taste. Before long, the general public converted to the instantly stimulating and inexpensive spicy dishes, so much so that almost one in every two restaurants in Beijing served mainly Sichuan Cuisine in 2006. Fast forward nine years and “spicy” is still the most popular taste as found in a nationwide poll conducted by a well-known food website in China.
The most famous Chinese lover of chilies must be Chairman Mao, who was born in Hunan Province and viewed chilies as more than just an appetizing seasoning. During a dinner with American journalist Edgar Snow, he said that a man’s stomach for chilies is a reflection of his revolutionary spirit and that all revolutionaries like chilies.
Bombarding your taste buds and nerve center with a burning sensation, spicy dishes are a time-saving means to feel immensely energized. On top of satisfying your hunger, the sweaty fulfillment of scoffing a steamy bowl of Dan Dan noodles, a fiery Sichuan dish, will make you feel like a proud warrior who has repelled a most ferocious enemy. Don’t believe me? Try for yourself.