Further illustrating this point, chili peppers feature in regional identities in communist China, and even regional rivalries. A common saying says: “The Sichuanese are not afraid of hot peppers; no degree of heat will frighten the people of Guizhou; but these Hunanese are terrified of food that isn’t hot! The leader of the communist revolution, Mao Zedong, was a Hunan native who ostensibly connected the revolutionary spirit with the ability to wield spices.
Mao is said to have noticed: “Without peppers, there would be no revolution.”
The spiciness is also linked in some places to gender identities. For example, in Japan, as the anthropologist Jon Holtzman investigated, men were traditionally thought to prefer spicy foods (and alcohol) and disdain sweet foods. Attitudes towards food preferences changed alongside changing Japanese societal notions of masculinity in the 20th century, although sweetness is still sometimes more associated with women and children.
Of course it’s okay without saying that tastes change with societies. Indeed, certain food products that may seem unpleasant or even disgusting to some may become very popular with others. Take, for example, food spreads Vegemite part of the Australian national identity, or guinea pigs, traditionally eaten by indigenous communities in the Andes, forming part of Peruvian gastronomy in recent years.
And even within a particular group, individuals have their own preferences. Associating certain ethnicities with food preferences can lead to inaccurate generalizations and harmful stereotypes. An eighth grader named Jacquelin Rojas from the United States summarize this point succinctly on a website inviting people to distil their thoughts on race. “Not all Mexicans like spicy food,” she wrote.
Ultimately, there is no single explanation that can explain why some people crave spicy foods and others do not. Either way, the journeys of chili peppers across continents and over centuries show just how far some humans, myself included, will go to spice up our diets and daily lives.