Chili as a Symbol of Culture and National Identity Across Eras

A modern creation of chili hot chocolate from Victoria, BC, Canada’s popular “Blue Fox Café” provided especially for this blog post. Called “Red Chili Mocha”, this recipe involves a double shot of dark espresso, chocolate, an essence of sun-dried Mexican chilis, and fresh whipped cream¹. Chili chocolate drinks were ubiquitously popular throughout Mesoamerica and were referred to as “chilcacahuatl”², as stated in the dictionary of the Nahuatl language composed by Alonso de Molina between 1555 and 1571³.
A modern creation of chili hot chocolate from Victoria, BC, Canada’s popular “Blue Fox Café” provided especially for this blog post. Called “Red Chili Mocha”, this recipe involves a double shot of dark espresso, chocolate, an essence of sun-dried Mexican chilis, and fresh whipped cream¹. Chili chocolate drinks were ubiquitously popular throughout Mesoamerica and were referred to as “chilcacahuatl”², as stated in the dictionary of the Nahuatl language composed by Alonso de Molina between 1555 and 1571³.

Chili (capsicum annum) underwent a great symbolic and culinary evolution as it travelled throughout the Classic Maya period, into Baroque Europe, and through to modern times. Along its journey, it proved to be adaptable, forming distinct relationships with people of different eras and cultures. Initially popularly accompanied by chocolate (theobroma cacao) in Mesoamerica, chili grew to be essential to salsas, stews, and other heritage dishes throughout Mexico and Europe. Chili is favored throughout the world, but prevails more prominently in specific regions. Although certain people’s attraction towards chili may be attributed to scientific and anthropological reasons, it is largely the context of culture and national identity that separates chili lovers from those that prefer cooler foods. Chili allows us to identify and connect perspicuous similarities and differences between nations across time periods through its myths, recipes, and traditions.

Chili has been a popular addition to chocolate since the Classic Maya period and remains a favorite ingredient of  modern day chocolatiers, baristas, and chefs. Not only has chili appeared with chocolate in ancient “drinks, gruels, porridges, powders, and probably solid substances”2, but also in popular delicacies today such as chocolate bars, hot chocolate, and authentic Mexican dishes such as mole poblano. Some of the earliest evidence of chili chocolate’s popularity was discovered by Stephen Houston of Brown University, when he recognized the phrase il-al kakaw, “chili cacao”, written on a royal lintel in the Mayan city of Piedras Negras, Guatemala2. In addition, Maya vase paintings show images of chili among other ingredients detected in chocolate4. Further evidence of chili’s relationship with chocolate surfaced when the archaeobotanist Cameron McNeil and his collaborator Jeffrey Hurst detected remains of the chemical marker for chili (capsaicin) along with cacao and turkey bones in a Maya cooking pot in 20094. This indicated the ancient use of chili in savory chocolate sauces. However, the Maya’s love of chili and chocolate goes beyond its pure palatability and finds its roots in cosmology and ritualistic practices.

The Maya myth of creation attributes the birth of the universe to sexual beings and therefore, many Maya ceremonies involve traditional symbols such as cacao beans and chili peppers5, which have definite sexual significance. While cacao is representative of female reproductive organs, the chili and its spice are often compared to the penis. The penis is similar in shape and also produces a type of heat of sexual excitement during intercourse5. For these reasons, cacao and chili are often present together in important cultural celebrations marking life cycle stages, such as after childbirth, baptism, and during the Day of the Dead5. This is further proof that chili parallels the key distinguishing characteristics of cultures, even so far as deeply personal issues like views on sexuality and the source of life itself.

Betty Faust of the Centro de Investigacion y de Estudios Avanzados del IPN provides us with a sketch of the altar present at a coming of age ceremony in which a pubescent Maya girl is cured of her “ataques”⁵ caused by a lag in the onslaught of menstruation. The altar is laid out on the floor, “delimited by five burning, white candles: one in each corner, with a fifth in the center… forming a quincunx, an ancient Maya symbol for a square world… Next to each candle were two cacao beans (Theobroma cacao) and two dried, red chilis (Capsicum sp).”⁵
Betty Faust of the Centro de Investigacion y de Estudios Avanzados del IPN provides us with a sketch of the altar present at a coming of age ceremony in which a pubescent Maya girl is cured of her “ataques”⁵ caused by a lag in the onslaught of menstruation. The altar is laid out on the floor, “delimited by five burning, white candles: one in each corner, with a fifth in the center… forming a quincunx, an ancient Maya symbol for a square world… Next to each candle were two cacao beans (Theobroma cacao) and two dried, red chilis (Capsicum sp).”⁵

Soon after the conquest, chili became a daily part of Baroque European life. However, away from Maya and Aztec cultures, the relationship between chili and chocolate was somewhat weakened due to ethnocentric taste barriers. In Mesoamerica, the Spanish-born and the Creoles employed the use of spices like anise seed, cinnamon, and black pepper, where chili was formerly present.2 Some sources; however, insist that chili was still used despite the addition of Old World spices. An example of this is Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s (1644) chocolate recipe, which calls for 100 cacao beans and two chilis2. Columbus is said to be responsible for the introduction of chili peppers into Spain6. Through a series of stages, the chili pepper came to be used as a substitute for expensive black pepper and was later manipulated by European farmers into a milder vegetable6. Variations of chili include bell peppers and Hungarian paprika6, which are used in an assortment of European dishes, but not those involving chocolate.

Esther Katz highlights the differences in the culinary uses of the chili pepper in present day Europe and Mexico.⁶
Esther Katz highlights the differences in the culinary uses of the chili pepper in present day Europe and Mexico.⁶

In addition to contemporary culinary differences regarding chili, there are obvious symbolic distinctions among cultures. While still a symbol of regeneration and fertility in Mexico (formerly Mesoamerica), it has grown part of a machismo culture in which it represents vigor and manhood6. The Miztecs of Oaxaca take pride in their chili eating ability saying, “we are strong, since we eat nothing but pepper”6. Amongst Calabrians the chili pepper is also accepted as a marker of national identity based on its associations with the strength required to survive in historically primitive environments 6. Comparatively, Hungarians take pride in the chili pepper due to paprika’s presence in a culturally significant dish: goulash6.

Chili acts as a vessel through which we are able to identify key attributes of cultures. What is it about the chili pepper that allows it to prevail as an effective marker of similarities and differences across eras? Is it its size and shape, its availability, versatility and varying degrees of spiciness, or something else?

Notes

  1. Blue Fox Café, e-mail message to author, February 19, 2015
  2. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. 48-133.
  3. “Alonso De Molina.” Wikipedia. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alonso_de_Molina.
  4. Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. 15.
  5. Faust, Betty. “Cacao Beans and Chili Peppers: Gender Socialization in the Cosmology of a Yucatec Maya Curing Ceremony.” Sex Roles 39, no. 7-8 (1998): 603-42. Accessed February 19, 2015.
  6. Katz, Esther. “Chili Pepper, from Mexico to Europe: Food, Imaginary and Cultural Identity.” Food, Imaginaries and Cultural Frontiers : Essays in Honour of Helen Macbeth, 2009: 213-32. Accessed February 19, 2015. http://148.202.18.157/sitios/publicacionesite/pperiod/esthom/esthompdf/esthom24/art13.pdf.

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