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Sichuan cuisine and the red hot secret about globalisation

You have probably tried Sichuan cuisine if Chinese food is of any interest to you. Its liberal use of chilli peppers, Chinese corianders and other spices creates a distinctively sharp and intense flavour. Just by mentioning Sichuan food, images of hot, red chillies immediately spring to mind.

In fact, chillies came to Sichuan (四川) relatively late. It was probably the last major Chinese province where people used the ingredient in daily cooking. The first mention of it in Sichuan is to be found in the government annals of Dayi County from 1749. It took decades to become popular.

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By then, chilli peppers – which come from native American shrubs unknown to the rest of the world until Christopher Columbus fumbled across the ocean – had been in use in China for a century or two. They were brought by Portuguese traders to China in the 15th century and first recorded in Zhejiang (浙江) province, where people are known for their aversion to spicy food.

Chilli peppers were first kept as garden plants for their colours and exotic shapes – and not eaten. It took another three decades for them to spread to Hunan (湖南) and Hubei (湖北), where they became a hit in the kitchen. Cooks in Guizhou (貴州), perennially short of salt, also began to use chilli for seasoning. In the northeast, eating chillies caught on thanks to Korea’s influence.

Sichuan, with a culinary history renowned for millennia, was late to the party. The province was known for its fine Chinese corianders, star anise, and other spices. Until the Qing dynasty, it was China’s prime sugar-producing province. Brine wells in Zigong (自貢) are legendary. The Sichuanese have always had plenty of choice when it comes to seasoning. Then the devastating civil war in the late Ming dynasty broke out. The bandit army under Zhang Xianzhong – aka the Yellow Tiger – systematically sacked towns and cities in Sichuan, massacring their populations. The war almost totally depopulated the province. Sugar cane plantation disappeared.

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The Qing government began moving people from Hunan, Hubei and Guangxi ( 廣西 ) to rebuild Sichuan. These migrants brought chillies and a “fusion” cuisine was born.

Many cuisines we think of as “traditional” are actually modern inventions. Toro sushi, a delicacy consumed by millions around the world, is another case in point. Toro – the choicest cuts from bluefin tuna – is often the most prized piece on a sushi platter. But before the invention of the refrigerator – first designed to store butter – tuna was avoided by discerning diners. By the time fishing boats returned from days-long voyages, their red-fleshed tuna were starting to go off. Japanese at the time preferred delicate white-flesh snappers and breams for their sweetness and freshness.

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Japanese did not start to consume tuna in large quantities until the 19th century. Even then, it was marinated and served as “nigiri sushi” – with vinegar-laced rice. The big fatty bluefin was classified as “gezakana” – the inferior fish. They had to be fermented before serving.

All this changed after the second world war. When the dust settled after the war, Japanese fishermen rushed out to hunt big fish as a cheaper alternative to meat. Deep-freeze technology came to maturity in the 1970s, making fresh tuna more accessible. At the same time, bluefin hunting became a trendy water-sport in the United States. More were caught by trawlers as by-catch. The Americans did not eat bluefin, instead using it as animal feed. Smart Japanese executives soon flew planes stuffed with white goods to the US, and on their way home filled the empty holds with bluefin – bought for a song from local fishermen. Within years, Japanese began to prize bluefin above all other tuna and the fever eventually boomeranged back to the West.

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The story is cause for déjà vu. Today, shrimp is the most-consumed seafood in the US. Each American eats around five pounds of shrimp a year. But this is a modern phenomenon.

The market for shrimp in America was tiny until the California Gold Rush in 1848 brought Chinese from the Pearl River Delta to the San Francisco Bay Area. These immigrants had a long culture of catching shrimps. They started to catch millions of shrimp, drying and shipping most of it back to Canton or Hong Kong for sale. By 1875 there were thirty shrimp villages near San Pablo Bay, home to hundreds of Cantonese-speaking fishermen. Between 1889 and 1892, the annual shrimp catch in the bay reached 5.4 million pounds. Thus began the US shrimp industry.

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We are what we eat, so goes the saying. People tend to think of globalisation as something that happened in our lifetime. The truth is we have been living in a globalised world for the past 500 years. Take away tomato, potato, maize, chilli, coffee and all things “foreign” from your menu; you probably would struggle to find an “authentic” local dish in your neighbourhood. From Beijing to Berlin, there is a backlash against globalisation. Revering tradition is in vogue. This is understandable but take it with a pinch of salt. Look around, everything you hold dear – the food you love, the music you enjoy or the book you read – bears the mark of globalisation. We need a better form of globalisation. But nobody can put the genie back.

Chow Chung-yan is executive editor of the South China Morning Post, overseeing daily print and digital operations